Remember When Everybody Hated Bill Clinton?
When Bill Clinton takes the stage tonight at the Democratic National Convention, he’ll do so as seemingly the most beloved ex-president of modern times not named “Reagan.” Liberals literally swoon in his presence—something I’ve personally seen. Conservatives seem to have a strange new respect for him. And Americans overall these days seem to remember the late 1990s as a kind of halcyon period in the country’s recent history: There was more money and fewer wars.
In 2000, though, he was the reason I voted for Ralph Nader.
Stop throwing things: Yes, I was young. Yes, I was stupid. But I also lived in Kansas at the time, and that state’s electoral votes will go to the Republican candidate in every election until hell finally freezes over—a Green Party vote or two cast in the Sunflower State wasn’t going to tip the balance of power in that election. Florida, however, was a different matter.
While there are plenty of reasons George W. Bush grabbed the presidency that year—and it’s still difficult to say he “won” it, fair and square—liberal disaffection with Bill Clinton was pretty high on the list.
Weirdly, that’s probably also the reason he’s so beloved today. But we’ll get to that.
Why were liberals so fed up with Bill Clinton in 2000? There were a few good reasons:
He wasn’t all that liberal. Yes, conservatives spent the 1990s depicting Clinton as an abortion-loving socialist bogeyman, but the truth was that he’d helped form the Democratic Leadership Council, which tried to drag the Democratic Party away from away from its post-Vietnam liberalism and back into the hands of conservative and moderate Democrats. He proved his manhood by inventing—probably cynically—the “Sister Souljah” moment. And as governor of Arkansas, he presided over the execution of a retarded man, seemingly also for political reasons.
“Triangulation.” Yes, he presided over a huge—but failed—attempt to pass universal health coverage. After that failure, and the Republican Revolution of 1994, he seemed to give up on such liberal priorities in favor of co-opting GOP themes. He employed Dick Morris. “The era of Big Government is over,” he proclaimed. He signed a welfare reform act that seemed mean-spirited at the time, though it seems to have worked out better than many liberals expected. And he seemed overly solicitous of big corporations: Remember, the Glass-Stegall Act was repealed on his watch, laying the foundation for the “too big to fail” banking practices that nearly destroyed the economy in 2008.
Wag The Dog. Remember that movie? No? Well let me sum it up for you: A U.S. president starts a fake war in order to distract the nation from his own peccadilloes. Suffice it to say, when Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes against Osama bin Laden’s facilities in the Sudan in 1998, it was easy for some folks to suggest he was trying to distract the nation from his own problems involving Monica Lewinsky. That was probably unfair, especially in retrospect, but: Clinton made his own trouble and invited the suspicion by giving into his libido in the Oval Office.
Nobody seems to remember this stuff anymore.
That’s not to say Clinton didn’t have some genuine achievements in office. He did expand health care access, even if he didn’t make it universal. He left the country with a budget surplus. But he also left office in 2000 having alienated a fair number of liberals. Nearly 100,000 of them in Florida voted for Ralph Nader—if even 1,000 of them had voted for Al Gore instead, the Bush Presidency never would have happened.
Of course, that also planted the seeds for Clinton’s redemption. Liberals who thought Clinton and Gore were too conservative found out how badly things can go when a real conservative takes over: Big tax cuts for the rich. An eagerness for war. Widespread disregard for environmental protections. Seen in the light of the Bush Administration, the Clinton Era seems gauzy and wonderful indeed.
And maybe that’s why Bill Clinton is giving the keynote speech tonight: Not just for the beautiful words he’ll say, but also as a reminder to a nation that’s lost some faith in President Obama. Yeah, things aren’t nearly as awesome as we’d hoped they’d be by now. But those other guys are probably going to be a lot worse. Clinton is beloved today because we’re older, wiser, sadder, and have much-diminished expectations. That, in turn, may be Barack Obama’s best chance—and best case—for re-election.