The Clinton Years in Historical Perspective

(This essay is a work in progress.  Comments are welcome at

Now that the 8 years of the Clinton administration are over, it is appropriate to look back and see what has been accomplished and what has been left undone.  The Clinton years were marked by 8 key characteristics or trends:



Economic Boom

Reassertion of American Hegemony

Intensified Globalization

Personal Corruption and Scandal Mongering in the Media

Decline of the Democratic Party

Ideological Centrism of the Clinton Administration

Ideological Polarization of the Political System in the first term

Shrinking of the Political Space

Some of these eight trends have been more widely noted than others.  The Economic Boom, the Reassertion of American Hegemony, the Intensification of Globalization, the Personal Corruption and Scandal Mongering in the Media, and the Ideological Centrism of the Clinton Administration are widely recognized not only by scholars but by the media, pundits, and politicians.  The Decline of the Democratic Party, the Ideological Polarization of the political system from 1993-96, and the Shrinking of Political Space have been noticed by some astute observers, but generally have been less commented upon and less well documented.

Economic Boom

There is little disagreement on some of the most significant trends of the Clinton years.  Everybody knows that longest boom in American economic history has brought the American economy back to global pre-eminence and put an end to the permanent fiscal crisis in Washington characteristic of the 80s and early 90s.  The Democratic Party Website points to the Clinton-Gore administration's economic record with pride.

The President and Vice President's strategy of fiscal discipline combined with opening foreign markets and investing in the American people has led to unprecedented economic progress. The United States is enjoying the longest economic expansion in history; the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years; the most new jobs ever created under a single administration; the highest homeownership rate in history; the lowest poverty rate in twenty years and the largest five-year drop in child poverty since the 1960s.
In my book on the presidency published in 1992 I had the following table on the performance of the American economy from 1965-1991.

The table below shows the same basic economic performance numbers from the last year of the Bush administration through 1999 based on data from the January 2001 Economic Report of the President.

Economic Growth
Deficit or Surplus 
($ billion)
Deficit or Surplus
(% of GNP)
Presidents receive more credit than they deserve when times are good and more blame than they deserve when times are bad.  The economic cycle is largely beyond the control of policymakers in Washington.  But there is little doubt that the choice the Clinton administration made when they first entered office to attack the budget deficit vigorously even though it meant abandoning their campaign promise to "invest in people" through greater government spending on human capital programs laid the groundwork for the expansion of the private economy in the 90s.

Reassertion of American Hegemony and Intensified Globalization

Economic strength has been matched by global political power.  In the early post-Cold War years there was much talk about the decline of American hegemony and the rise of a new multipolar world order.  Such talk has given way to an undeniable reassertion of American global hegemony, militarily, economically, and ideologically.

American military might reigns unchallenged around the globe, as demonstrated by the ease with which the American-led forces triumphed virtually without casualties in Kosovo.  NATO has spread across most of Europe, with even the Russians hoping to establish a special relationship with the West.  The U.S. gave up its bases in the Philippines, but has expanded the level of military coordination with Japan, the number two military power in the Asia-Pacific, as well as with South Korea.

Economically, the dollar has remained the standard currency of international transactions and substantially appreciated in value during the sustained boom of the 90s.  NAFTA has brought most economic activity in the North American continent under U.S. control.  The integration of Europe and the creation of the Euro has not led to a European challenge to American economic primacy, particularly since the Euro has steadily slid in value versus the dollar.  Instead the North American and European economies have become ever more closely tied, as transnational corporations increasinly do business and make acquisitions on both sides of the Atlantic.  While there is no equivalent to the EU in the Asia-Pacific, the emergence of APEC, the expansion of intra-Asia trade, and the growing integration of East Asian economies into the global system have all fostered economic liberalization in East Asia.  The creation of the WTO and the form it has taken since its inception signal that most nations around the world aspire to join the liberal trading system designed by the West.  The depth of dependency of East Asian nations on the U.S. and the international system was revealed in the Asian financial crisis, particularly by the near total acquiescence of formerly dynamic East Asian economies in the extensive demands of the IMF for liberalization in exchange for financial assistance from the West.

As the new millenium begins, in most parts of the world American liberal ideology and Western cultural hegemony also reign supreme.  While the broad global wave of new democracies created in the 1980s has slowed in the 1990s and problems of consolidating and deepening democracy in the new converts remain serious, few ve reverted to dictatorships.  The Asian values movement that had presented a clear alternative to American political and economic superiority and Western cultural hegemony has been substantially sidetracked by the weakness of the East Asian economies and their continued dependence on Western markets and capital.  The growth of the Internet and other forms of instantaneous global communication have not only fired imaginations around the world, but also spread liberal political and economic values and Western cultural perspectives more broadly and deeply than ever before.

Yet while the U.S. and the West ride high today, few scholars believe this overwhleming preponderance of political, economic, and ideological power can be maintained indefinitely.  Historically, all hegemons have eventually generated challengers who seek the benefits the current hegemon enjoys.  Equally important, all hegemons have eventually stumbled, blinded by their hubris.  The very successes of American military power in two world wars and the anti-communist counter-insurgency campaigns of the 1950s led America to the disaster of Vietnam.  On the ideological level, the more the U.S. escalates its demands that economies and polities around the world be reconstructed in the American image, the more it creates resistance to American leadership and an "us" vs. "them" mentality.

(still under construction)

Personal Corruption and Scandal Mongering in the Media

Every presidential administration has its share of scandals and corruption.  Nixon was forced to resign the presidency because of his links to a whole series of illegal actitivies in the White House, including obstruction of justice, abuse of power, the illegal bombing of Cambodia, burglary of offices and other "dirty tricks" played on political opponents, misuse of tax audits of political enemies, and even the paying of hush money to the crimials who carried out these conspiracies.  The Reagan administration had the Iran-contra affair, where weapons were illegally sold to the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran and some of the profits were used to illegally fund right wing guerillas in Nicaragua.  The Carter administration had Bert Lance, Carter's first choice for budget director who was never confirmed because of allegations of influence peddling.  The Johnson admistration regularly lied about the prospects of victory in the Vietnam War and about the incidents that were used to justify escalations of American involvement in that war.  Even squeaky clean, anti-political general Eisenhower had his top aide, Sherman Adams, resign due to allegations of influence peddling.

But the Clinton presidency was dogged throughout with allegations of personal corruption of a magnitude only equalled by the later Nixon years.  Clinton stands as only the second president in American history to be charged with articles of impeachment by the House of Representatives.  A special prosecutor was appointed early in the first Clinton term to investigate allegations that the Clintons illegally profited from the Whitewater land development project while Bill was governor of Arkansas.  A steady stream of new allegations kept the special prosecutor's office busy throughout the rest of the Clinton years.  Although there were few actual convictions of Clinton administration officials, the Clinton administration was dogged by scandal to a degree matched only by the Nixon White House.  Even after Clinton's term ended, the scandals followed him, as questions about last minute pardons of political contributors and even looting of White House furniture continued to be raised.

The Clintons and their backers tried to argue that a "vast rightwing consipracy" fueled by partisan politics and personal animosity was driving these charges.  Media scandal mongering was also blamed by the Clinton administration for its problems.  It is true that from the beginning Bill Clinton, a draft dodging, pot smoking, womanizer, was a poster boy for ideological conservatives, who saw him as a symbol of the decline of personal morality in America.  It is even more true that the American media, increasingly driven by economic and technological competition, have virtually adandoned reporting on the substance of public policy for the fluff of infotainment.  But even so, the wounds of the Clinton administration were largely self-inflicted.

(still under construction)

The Decline of the Democratic Party

Other trends are not so commonly remarked upon although they can be clearly seen if examined closely.  Although masked by the success of Democrats in two presidential races, the decline of the Democratic party in the Clinton years has been substantial.  Nevertheless, the decline of the Democrats has not yet brought about the rise of a governing Republican majority, much less a full scale ideological majority.  The election of 2000 not only produced a race so close that it hung on several court decisions about which ballots to count and what ballots not to count.  It also left a Senate deadlocked at 50-50, and a House more closely divided than it has been in half a century.  While technically the Republicans have a unified party government because of the role of Republican Vice-President Cheney as the tie-breaker in the Senate, the 107th Congress is the most evenly split Congress in American history.

What is often lost in the commentary on the close results of the 2000 election is that at the beginning of the 1990s the Democratic party was still considerably stronger than the Republican party.  Although the Republicans had won three consecutive presidential races, the Democrats were still the majority party at the grass roots.  The Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress, most governornships, and most state legislatures.  A key measure of Democratic strength at the grassroots at the end of the 80s was that they held over 70% of all seats in state legislatures, and they had so for several decades.

sources and the National Conference on State Legislatures

In 1992 the election of Clinton brought great hopes to the Democratic party giving them their first presidency in twelve years and control both Houses of Congress.   Losses at the state level seemed relatively unimportant as the Democrats still held the majority of governorships and state legislatures.  But 1992 proved to be the last hurrah for Democratic dominance of the American political scene.  The election of 1994 was a disaster for the Democrats.  Republicans took control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the first time they had controlled both Houses of Congress in 40 years.  But that was not all.  1994 also dealt a body blow to the Democrats at the state level.  Republicans took a majority of governorships and cut deeply into Democratic control of state legislatures.  The total number of Democratic state legislators fell from 71% to 62%.  The number of state legislatures controlled by the Democrats fell to 18, down from 29 in 1991.

Large swings in congressional and gubenatorial elections are not the norm in the U.S., but they have occurred from time to time.  The typical pattern is for the party that suffers a large defeat in one year to recover somewhat in the next 2-4 years.  What was even more significant than the Democratic losses in 1994 was that throughout the rest of the decade they regained little of what they had lost.  Even as Clinton held on to his presidency in 1996, the Democrats made only small gains in congressional and gubenatorial elections, leaving the Republicans with majorities in both houses of Congress and in governorships that endured throughout the decade.  Furthermore, the Democrats continued to lose ground in state legislatures throughout the 1990s.

Ideological Centrism and Ideological Polarization in the Clinton Years

On the domestic front, the long-term tendency of the American political system toward ideological centrism has reasserted itself.  From the beginning of his candidacy in 1992 Clinton ran both his campaigns as a centrist "New Democrat."  In office he generally governed as a centrist president.  The one major exception to this pattern, Clinton's proposal for massive reform of the health care system, ended up a massive failure, reinforcing the Clinton administration's tendency to stick to the political middle ground.  But focusing solely on this generalization about the basic centrism of the American political system masks some key political and ideological trends in the first Clinton term.  Before, and particularly after the Republican gains in the 1994 election, there was considerable ideological polarization as the Republicans tried to establish a new ideological majority through the Contract with America.  The 1995 confrontations between President Clinton and House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich in 1995 over the budget that more than once nearly led to shutdowns of the entire government bureaucracy marked the most intense ideological struggle in the American political system since the early Reagan years.  Again, however, political failure of more polarizing policy positions led to return to more centrist behavior.  Just as in 1994 the Clinton administration was burned by the failure of its health care plan, the House Republicans were singed when they ended up taking most of the blame for the partisan polarization in Washington and the gridlock over the budget.  The Republicans were further chastened when, after their sweeping victories in the 1994 congressional elections, they were unable to regain the White House in 1996.  Beginning with welfare reform in 1996 and continuing in the second Clinton term, ideological centrism has once again become perceived as the only way to legislative success.  "Big ideas" are seen as politically dangerous or at least too difficult to be realized in the existing political environment.  Ideological centrism led to some bipartisan legislative successes such as welfare reform and the budget compromise of 1997.  But the second Clinton term brought few major policy initiatives.  The confrontational gridlock of the first Clinton term was followed by centrist immobilism in the second term as scandal and impeachment politics replaced policy deliberations and the very idea of what was politically possible shrank to a mere shadow of what seemed feasible only a few years ago.

The ideological dynamics of the Clinton adminstration can be broken down into three periods:

      1. centrism in the first year
2. ideological polarization from 1994-96
3. renewed centrism in the final term

Centrism in the First Year

Clinton campaigned as a centrist, "New Democrat."  However, he also promised middle class tax cuts and new "investments in people."  Once in office he had to choose between reassuring markets concerned about the massive budget deficits rung up by the Reagan and Bush administrations and Clinton's more populist tax cut and new spending proposals.  Clinton's first budget emphasized reducing the deficit as Clinton postponed the middle class tax cut and his investment spending promises until it could be brought under control.  In his first year Clinton also joined with a majority of Republicans to support the NAFTA agreement negotiated by the Bush administration.  Though a majority of Democrats opposed NAFTA, a significant number of Democrats followed Clinton and the Republicans to ratify the agreement.

Ideological Polarization, 1994-1996

1993 had been a near sweep for the centrist forces in the Clinton administration.  However, presidents must also navigate the ideological crosscurrent of their parties.  In 1994 the liberals in the Democratic party were pleased with Clinton's new domestic priority--reform of the American health care system, particularly the promise of universal health insurance for all Americans.  To highlight this initiative the president's wife Hilary had been put in charge of a task force charged with developing a plan early in the first year of the Clinton presidency.  In 1994 the plan was presented to Congress.  However, it met with stiff opposition from the health insurance industry and other interest groups, ideological conservatives.  Not only Republicans but a surprising number of Democrats in Congress were leery of being tagged with the label of "big spender."  As 1994 wore on, the debate over the Clinton health care plan became increasingly acrimonious.  The plan became so unpopular that it was never put to a vote in either house of Congress.

The health care debate heated up as the 1994 congressional election campaign began.  In an unusal strategy the Republican minority in Congress sought to "nationalize" the 1994 election, via the "Contract with America," which was a promise by House Republicans to put 10 targeted issues dear to conservatives to a vote early in 1995.  The Clinton administration, which had stumbled early in its relations with Congress and the media and then failed even to get its health care plan to a vote, was perceived as weak and vulnerable.  The 1994 midterm elections were a disaster for the Democrats and a triumph for conservative Republicans.  Republicans took a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954 and regained a majority in the Senate which they had held for onloy six of the past 40 years.

Emboldened by their surprising success, conservative Republicans fought to gain control of the national political agenda.  The new Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich was their leader.  As they had promised, House Republicans put all 10 items in the Contract with America to a vote early in 1995 and most passed, many on strict party line votes.  On a few less controversial provisions of the Contract Democrats joined with Republicans and these passed easily.  However, many bogged down in the Senate where party affiliation is weaker and the rules allowed the minority Democrats to delay votes on issues indefinitely.  However few controversial items of the Contract passed the Senate as well, only to be vetoed by President Clinton.  Most of the provisions of the Contract did not become law in 1995 although some did pass in later Congresses.

However, the biggest fights between the conservative Republicans in Congress and President Clinton were over the budget.  Conservative Republicans wanted a new round of major tax and spending cuts similar to the ones passed in the first year of the Reagan administration.  President Clinton was determined to stick to his deficit reduction goals and defend many of the programs Republican conservatives had targetted.  The Constitutions divides budget making power between the Congress, which must pass tax and spending legislation, and the president who can veto such legislation.  In late 1995 and early 1996, gridlock ruled Washington as conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, were determined to dramatically alter Clinton budget priorities, while Senate Democrats and the president were just as determined to resist major changes.  More than once most offices of the national government were forced shut down because budget legislation was tied up in Congress and thus they had no authority spend any money.  Republicans blamed the president, and the president blamed congressional Republicans.  In the end the congressional Republicans were forced to back down as the media and public opinion increasingly blamed them for the deadlock.

These showdowns with the conservative congressional Republicans actually played into President Clinton's hands as the 1996 election approached.  For the first time in his administration, he was perceived as a strong president sticking to his principles, even under political hardship.  The 1996 election was a split decision on the conflict between the president and Congress.  Republicans held onto their majorities in both houses of Congress, but Clinton was also reelected president.

Renewed Centrism in the Final Term

The ideological polarization of 1994-96 gave way to renewed centrism in the second Clinton term.  In the midst of all the partisan wrangling over the budget, a welfare reform package had passed with bipartisan support in 1996.  This bipartisanship became a model for the budget making process in the second Clinton term.  Neither President Clinton nor the Republican Congress wanted a repeat of the 95-96 budget showdowns.  In 1997, a broad scale budget compromise was reached which set the tone for the next several years.  However, the new centrism was a mixed blessing.  Reform of the Social Security and Medicare systems were widely talked about in the later Clinton years.  Yet no bipartisan consensus emerged.  Conservative Republicans wanted Social Security recipients to be able to invest a portion of their savings in the private market, while Democrats resisted any privatization of the popular public program.  On medical issues, Repbublicans favored HMOs and other private health care providers, while Democrats sought to protect patient rights and expand access to health insurance.  So despite all the talk, neither Social Security nor Medicare were signficantly reformed.  The final Clinton years were marked by a new immobilism and a return to deadlock on domestic policymaking.

Shrinking of the Political Space

Another less often seen but crucial development in the Clinton years is what can be called the shrinking of the political space, a dramatic reduction in what the general public and political elites expect of the political system.  Gone is the idealism of a John Kennedy who challenged Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."  In its place is a cynicism about the political system, reflected in Ronald Reagan's slogan, "Government is the problem, not the solution."

The shrinking of the political space has occurred on at least three levels.  On the surface, it is a product of the recent political situation.  Neither party really enjoys much support among the people and thus neither can muster a governing majority.  From 1981-2000, 18 out of 20 years the control of the national government was divided, i.e., the party that controlled the presidency did not control both houses of Congress.  In the 2000 election the Republicans technically gained a majority, but their one vote advantage in the Senate and their tiny majority in the House will probably prove too small to be much of an advantage to President Bush.  Certainly in the 1990s neither liberals nor conservatives were able to seize the national agenda.  President Clinton's most dramatic domestic policy initiative, his health care reform plan, failed even to come to a vote.  The House Republicans promises to put their "Contract with America" to a vote were kept, but few of the provisions passed intact.  Personalization and pettiness of partisan politics only grew more troublesome as the stand-off between the Clinton White House and the Republicans in Congress dragged on for six years.  While mid 90s produced some centrist compromises, the late 90s saw ever greater deadlock and immobilism in public policy.

But the shrinking of the political space goes deeper than just the recent partisan bickering in Washington.   A broad public cynicism towards politics and government has corroded people's faith in the ability of government to solve problems.  In the 1950s when pollsters asked if people generally trusted the government to do the right thing, roughly 2 out of 3 responded positively.  By the late 1970s that number had dropped to roughly 1 in 3 and has never rebounded.  Certainly Washington's wallowing in the sex life and disingenuousness of Bill Clinton only further undermined people's expectations about politics.

The media has been both messenger and catalyst to this debasement of politics.  The media's quest for profitable infotainment has tended to subvert its ability to educate the people on serious issues of public policy.  The internet and cable TV have brought a seven day a week, 24 hours a day voracious appetite for a new story or a new angle on the current story, to the detriment of news coverage with depth and background.  More and more politicians are treated as just another kind of celebrity, newsworthy mainly when the do something outrageous.  James Fallows has compared the difficulty of sustaining public debate on serious issues of public policy in the current media environment to an attempt to do long-term medical research in a hospital emergency room.

At the deepest level, the shrinking of the political space can be traced to the changing attitudes of corporate elites toward the state.  Throughout most of the 20th century, elites needed a strong state with broad popular support to achieve their corporate objectives.  They needed popular loyalty to the warfare state to ensure there would be draftees who would willingly acquiese to being sent to fight and die overseas.  They needed an economically interventionist state to drag them out of the Depression and to control the threat the trade union movement posed to profitability.

But as the 20th century drew to a close, many of these needs of the corporate elite had disappeared.  The Cold War was over and there were no credible threats to American military supremacy.  Furthermore, in the technological war of the times can apparently be fought better with a professional armed forces rather than recalcitrant draftees.  Post-industrial production patterns have devastated the unions, who no longer pose much of a threat to corporate profitability.  Susatined boom times have led to the conclusion the government only needs to manage the economy at the margins.  Globalization (or more accurately transnationalization) has loosened the largest corporations from attachment to any single nation or government.

The upshot of all this is that corporate elites, who once needed a relatively strong national government and a populace that would follow that government into war, no longer feel they need such a government.  Underlying the growth in public cynicism about government are corporate and political elites who no longer feel they benefit from a powerful national government.

The above essay is still a work in progress.  In the meantime, check out these links on the Clinton years.

the PBS Frontline and ABC Nightline collaboration on the Clinton Years.

the Democratic Party's summary of the Clinton-Gore administration's accomplishments

Click here for Cartoons of Bill Clinton