The Corner

Clinton’s Legacy

I just read Richard Cohen’s odd column on John Harris’ book on Clinton.

All in all, I think Cohen’s largely right. But ]this paragraph really stands out:

Then, too, maybe a dollop of greatness will be granted Clinton for the way he restrained the Vandals of the GOP from sacking Washington. When you consider that Clinton survived and Newt Gingrich did not, you can appreciate that a certain genius was at work. Harris reports that Gingrich told Clinton to his face, “Mr. President, we’re going to run you out of town.” But it was Gingrich who flamed out and Clinton who survived and left office with an approval rating way over 60 percent — a figure George Bush can see only in the rearview mirror.

A couple things stand out. First there’s how completely meaningless popularity in the polls is when it comes to historical verdicts. Many great presidents were very popular when they left office, and many were not. Many terrible presidents were unpopular. Personally, I think Wilson was the worst consequential president in American history. But his standing as a “great” president certainly has nothing to do with his popularity at the time he left office. Few Presidents were more thoroughly reviled by the American people than Wilson when they left office. Often, popularity and greatness are at odds. This was always why Clinton was destined to be a third tier president at best. He valued popularity more than accomplishment.

Another point is that history will simply never remember Clinton for “standing up” to Newt Gingrich. I know Bill Clinton insists that this was his great accomplishment. But this wasn’t a “great” accomplishment by any historical standard of greatness. Even now, who can really remember the details of what the Gingrich Congress wanted to do? I’m sure Jonathan Chait and Ramesh can, but the rest of us have to noodle it for a while to reconstruct it all. A generation from now, the details of the government shut down will be Double Jeopardy trivia at best.

If, as I believe it to be the case, the Gingrich Congress represented the launch of an enduring shift toward the right in American politics begun by Ronald Reagan (or Barry Goldwater), than Clinton was merely a speed bump. Indeed, as many have suggested, he was the Eisenhower to Reagan’s New Deal, trimming a bit and consolidating for the most part. Gingrich may not have run Clinton out of town, but the movement Gingrich represented meant that it didn’t matter much if Clinton stayed in town anyway.

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