Writing on the eve of the 1952 presidential election, the Cambridge political scientist D.W. Brogan described a peculiar trait in the American psyche, which he called “the illusion of American omnipotence.” This, he elaborated, “is the illusion that any situa-tion which distresses or endangers the United States can only exist because some Americans have been fools or knaves.”1
Brogan was writing in the context of the debate over “Who lost China?,” which was premised on the assumption that the convulsive Chinese Communist revolution, a forty-year struggle involving hundreds of millions of desperate people, could have been thwarted, or at least turned in a positive direction, by adroit diplomacy in Washington. The inanity of the China debate was instantly apparent (just as soon as Brogan put it into words), yet the illusion thrives. Even today, there are perfectly serious people who believe President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a knave for failing to stop the Nazi Holocaust or a fool for allowing the Red Army to occupy Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.
Brogan did not make the point, but the most obvious candidate for accusations of knavery is the president, especially now that whoever is in the White House is chief executive of the world’s last superpower. In Dead Center, a survey of Bill Clinton’s presidency, we see a modern extension of what Brogan described, the illusion of presidential omnipotence. In the current version, all that has gone wrong in America or the world at large—the slaughter in Kosovo, continuing inequality of wealth, the lack of national health insurance, even leaky roofs in our schools—can be blamed on Clinton. He is guilty, in the eyes of James MacGregor Burns and Georgia J. Sorenson, not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.
Burns and Sorenson, colleagues at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, describe Clinton as a “transactional” president—one who makes deals—rather than a “transformational” one, who confronts political foes head-on and galvanizes the nation into taking fresh paths and shattering old habits. This is a fair assessment. Clinton has no large vision. As president, he has tried to reach across party lines. He has used opinion polls to assess and then act in accordance with the prevailing public sentiment, which will usually be more or less in the center. He has famously adopted a policy of “triangulation,” trying to place himself at the apex of a triangle whose base angles are the preternaturally hostile congressional Republicans and Democrats. Though he is an eloquent speaker, he seldom directs his oratory against his enemies. Rather he lets them snarl themselves into incoherence.
The result is that Clinton has survived and prevailed over them. The Monica Lewinsky scandal guarantees that his presidency will be forever deemed a disappointment, not least to himself and his family. But by many measures his centrist strategy has worked. As Clinton enters his last year in the White House, the nation is not only at peace but it has no plausible foreign threats to its survival. Unemployment has remained low, and inflation has been held in check. Personal incomes are rising. Clinton’s job approval rating hovers around 60 percent, even though his personal approval is about half that. Annual budget deficits, once projected to extend into infinity, have been eliminated. The national problem most debated at the moment appears to be nothing more immediate than shoring up the Social Security system so that it can pay its projected bills thirty years from now. Clinton has not only survived impeachment but outlasted his chief political opponents, former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Despite all the political shrieking against him that can be heard on radio and television, the country, under President Clinton, tootles along.
Burns and Sorenson, however, measure Clinton against a far stricter standard than mere peace and prosperity. They complain that he has failed to solve urgent national problems, and they attribute this failure to his centrism, which they regard as an inherently flawed ideology because it is incapable of effecting great, transformational change. Centrism would not have freed the slaves, or led America out of the Depression, or integrated the armed forces. Thus, in their eyes, Clinton is a failure. But the standard to which they hold him suffers from being based on the illusion of presidential omnipotence, and this illusion undermines their argument.
An example of the authors’ complaint: Clinton prides himself on being the “Education President.” And yet they write,
A New York Times article reported “leaky school roofs, buckling auditorium floors, antiquated coal furnaces, and dangerously rotted window frames.” This was not a depression town in the 1930s but booming New York City in November 1998. Teachers and parents could report thousands and thousands of such situations across the country. Education was still in crisis.
In their eyes, the Education President had failed to transform local public education. Yes, we may agree; but what they do not say is that the federal government has only a small role in public education, and Clinton’s Republican opponents have been trying to reduce even that, by abolishing the Education Department. To fault a sitting president, even indirectly, for the rotting window frames in a New York City school verges on the bizarre.
As a second Clinton “failure,” the authors cite “the grotesque income gap between the rich and the poor in America. Here again Clinton offered a host of proposals, some of which alleviated the direct symptoms of poverty.” Yet income inequality remains. Why? “Clinton failed to exhibit the moral outrage that could have put inequality at the top of the nation’s agenda.” It is hard to believe that serious commentators would expect a moderate Democratic president, captive of the current campaign finance system, to agitate for class warfare against his own financial backers. But suppose he had: Would this or any other Congress have reenacted the steep progressive tax rates on income that were so triumphantly eliminated during the Reagan administration? Would the small business lobby have lessened its hostility to increases in the minimum wage? If Clinton had addressed income inequality in any meaningful way, he would have (a) failed to do much to change current income distribution and (b) been a one-term president.
On race, Clinton, in his open relations with African-Americans and his recruitment of them for his administration, has set an example that will be hard for successors to match. But even here he falls short of the Burns-Sorenson standard. “Historians of the future may see Clinton as a neolib-eral, neo-civil-rights radical, taking up Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished work toward an economic justice that transcends race,” Burns and Sorenson concede.
But while strong presidential leadership could potentially have created conditions and bridges across the racial divide, no such coalition—not even [Jesse] Jackson’s Rainbow—had ever been sustained in the past. Such a coalition would take an act of transforming leadership on the order of the New Deal. It would take political capital, moral standing and the political will of Lincoln. Did Clinton have the will? The answer appeared to be no.
Clinton is not Lincoln.
Burns and Sorenson do not allow Clinton the excuse that he was presented with no opportunity to perform grand, Lincolnesque acts on race relations.
Clinton had…misjudged Americans’ relationship to their elected leaders. Again, as the sixties made plain, Americans would tolerate change—radical change—if leaders articulated values and visions consistently and succeeded in conveying a sense of urgency. Clinton did neither. His pursuit of racial justice was itself centrist.
In the end, Clinton was content to tinker, when he had a genuine opportunity to transform.
In the face of such ungenerous and unrealistic criticism, it is tempting to defend the Clinton presidency in spite of all its bungles, money-grubbing for contributions, foreign policy missteps, false starts, and changed directions. But we should not ignore some basic facts. Clinton, a moderate Democratic governor of Arkansas, was elected president in 1992 with 43 percent of the popular vote, hardly a mandate for sweeping personal leadership. As a governor of a small state, where politics were based more on personal relations than party divisions, he made appointments and dealt with the legislature without much concern for party affiliation. When he took office in Washington, he was supported by the smallest congressional majority of any president elected in this century (although some, most notably Richard Nixon, took office with one or both houses of Congress in the hands of the opposition). By nature and by circumstance, he was a centrist—a position that for him made political sense because, in his eyes, the Republican Party had moved so far to the right. There was a great political middle to be grabbed, and Clinton grabbed it.
To the Republicans, however, Clinton was no centrist. He was a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, anti-Vietnam War liberal with a socialist wife who wanted to strip away your right to see your family doctor. It was Clinton’s great, and as yet unexplored, misfortune that he was the first Democratic president to take office since the astonishing rise of the demagogic radio talk-show hosts and their counterparts on cable television. A caricatured view of Clinton as a dangerous, even subversive liberal was broadcast for three hours a day, every day, from coast to coast by Rush Limbaugh and echoed by his imitators across the country. They questioned his patriotism and his right to be commander in chief. They complained when Hillary Rodham Clinton replaced the White House chef, as if she had no right to fire Barbara Bush’s cook. They made a major scandal of an incident in which Clinton supposedly delayed air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport while he got a haircut aboard Air Force One. He did get the haircut, but no other aircraft was delayed. Nevertheless, the LAX incident survives in memory as a Clinton scandal.
Clinton’s heavy-handed replacement of seven employees of the White House travel office, career government officials who enjoyed no civil service protection in that particular job, was also transformed into a scandal out of all proportion to its seriousness. He was dogged by questions about his Whitewater real estate investments, which proved to be more or less innocent, and hounded by investigations in the press, in the Congress, and by freelance inquisitors backed in large part by the reclusive Michigan multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Clinton certainly made mistakes. One of his earliest actions was an attempt to order the military to accept homosexuals. The policy was well-intentioned, but homosexuals have protested that its application has led to more harassment, not less. Clinton failed to understand how deeply the military establishment and its supporters throughout the country would resent any change, and it added to the caricature image of him as a traditional liberal pandering to the most outspoken left-wing special interests. Some of his early appointments were badly bungled, particularly that of Lani Guinier, a longtime friend whom he nominated to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division without anticipating the predictably harsh reaction against her support for race-based proportional representation.
To Burns and Sorenson, Clinton’s biggest mistake was his health care plan, which tried to make use of existing insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, and health maintenance organizations rather than ignore these well-funded interest groups and start afresh. It was a relatively modest, well-intentioned initiative that was undermined by its complexity and the unnecessary secrecy with which it was drafted. The Health Insurance Association of America, which represents smaller insurance companies, ran TV commercials against it in which actors named “Harry” and “Louise” tried to frighten the public into believing that the government was about to take over and dictate their health care. Even The New Republic, which might have been expected to support a moderate Democratic president, ran a long, specious attack on the Clinton health plan’s alleged failings.
Moderate though the plan was, it was too radical for the American political system. Clinton could be faulted for not trying, even after its defeat, to put forward a simpler and more modest plan so that at least some progress might have been made toward providing health care for the millions of people, mainly poor, who have no insurance whatever.
Yet Burns and Sorenson, who chide Clinton for the defeat and subsequent abandonment of his centrist proposal, argue that he should have pushed instead for a far more radical health reform, a Canadian-style “single-payer” system that would have taken all insurance companies out of the health care business and substituted for them a system of direct government payments to doctors. A single-payer plan has its virtues, but it would put an additional one seventh of the Gross National Product into the hands of government, and it would have gone down to defeat far faster and more decisively than the plan Clinton put forward. Nevertheless, Burns and Sorenson argue that only in this way can progress be made, by Hegelian clashes between extreme positions that might produce a new synthesis. It is an interesting theory, but it shows no awareness of political reality.
In his first two years in office, Clinton also pushed for a tax increase—promptly mischaracterized by his Republican opponents and a few Democrats as the biggest tax increase in history, even though it spared the middle class. One by one Republicans trooped to the House floor to warn the public that Clinton’s 4.3-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax would cripple the economy and lead to widespread unemployment. They were wrong, but their charges that Clinton had raised everyone’s taxes stuck in the public mind, nevertheless.
Clinton then antagonized congressional Democrats by pushing for approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, promising that lowering the barriers to trade with Mexico would create hundreds of thousands of good new jobs. The labor unions and their congressional supporters were properly skeptical. NAFTA was approved, thousands of Americans lost their jobs as factories moved south across the border, and the hundreds of thousands of new jobs never materialized. NAFTA was not the disaster that labor feared—although it hit some workers so hard that their incomes have never recovered—but it was also not the panacea Clinton and his allies promised.
Third, he fought for approval of the Brady Bill, which put new restrictions on handgun sales and outlawed some types of semiautomatic rifles. This guaranteed him the hostility of one of the most powerful grass-roots lobbies in the country, the National Rifle Association, as well as enmity in even Democratic rural areas. Partly because of these three painful victories—the tax increase, NAFTA, and gun control—Clinton lost Democratic control of both House and Senate in the 1994 off-year congressional elections.
From that point on, his presidency was under constant siege, a fact ignored by Burns and Sorenson, just as they ignore the relentless denunciations of Clinton and his wife by TV and radio commentators. This is an inexplicable omission. While trying to conduct the nation’s business, the Clintons were investigated by two special prosecutors, Robert Fiske and Kenneth Starr, and a host of congressional committees. The Clintons were required to produce, under subpoena, documents going back decades. One inquisitor, Senator Alfonse D’Amato, subpoenaed the records of every telephone call from the White House to the 501 area code, i.e., Arkansas. Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, reenacted in his backyard the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vince Foster. A self-appointed gadfly, Larry Klayman of the group Judicial Watch, instituted a civil suit against the White House on behalf of Republicans whose FBI files had been stored there, and subjected White House officials to endless, rambling depositions. Utterly guiltless young men and women who had joined the Clinton administration in hopes of serving the country found themselves going into debt to pay lawyers’ fees. So intense was the scrutiny that White House officials stopped taking notes in meetings or keeping records of their phone calls lest they be subpoenaed.
In addition to this, the Supreme Court ruled that a serving president could be subjected to a civil lawsuit while in office, which opened the way to the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit. This, in turn, led to the Lewinsky scandal. Four years after a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate him, Clinton finally committed a legal offense, falsely denying to Jones’s lawyers that he had had sex with Lewinsky. By so doing he made himself fatally vulnerable to his enemies. The ensuing investigation and impeachment occupied the entire year of 1998 and the first month of 1999. So great was the congressional hostility to Clinton that at one point in 1997, when I asked then Speaker Gingrich seven times, in a semipublic forum, whether Clinton was the legitimately elected president of the United States, Gingrich, second in line to the presidency, seven times refused to say yes.
Dick Morris, Clinton’s former pollster, records in Vote.com the burdens under which the Clinton White House labored:
The sheer magnitude of the Clinton scandals is dizzying—Gennifer Flowers; the draft; pot smoking; the nanny tax; gays in the military; the $200 haircut; the travel-office firings; the Foster suicide; the Espy, Brown, Cisneros, and Babbitt investigations; Whitewater; the FBI files; the Rose Law Firm billing records; Chinese campaign contributions; advertising spending; Paula Jones; the China satellite waivers; the Web Hubbell job search; Chinese spies at Los Alamos.
It might be noted that in none of these controversies and scandals were the Clintons proved to have committed a crime, though at least one of them, the China-based fund-raising, stinks to high heaven.
Under such unrelenting attack, it is remarkable that the Clinton White House was able to function at all. Robert Reich, who served as Clinton’s first-term labor secretary, believes Clinton could and should have done more with his presidency. But in a critique written last year for The Nation, Reich noted that even Clinton’s modest achievements have been overshadowed. “I fear,” he writes, that “none will be remembered nearly as much as the viciousness of these years: the virulent spins and counterspins, the war rooms, the deadly battle over health care, the government shutdown and the stream of allegations over the White House travel office, Vince Foster’s suicide, Whitewater, illegal fundraising and Gennifer, Paula, Kathy and Monica.” Reich summed up Clinton’s first-term plight this way: “A baby-boomer President who could charm snakes has tried to charm America and only infuriated the snakes.” Clinton enraged the right with gun control, enraged organized labor with NAFTA, enraged liberals with welfare reform, and enraged Republicans by co-opting many of their issues.
And yet he wins consistently high job approval ratings. Morris explains part of this mystery in his book. Clinton, he says, was shrewdly—and with the help of Morris’s polls—appealing to a younger generation, young families with children, whose concerns don’t fit conventional political categories. Clinton’s much-derided “small agenda” in fact meant a good deal to young parents. “He helped them get time off from work to bond with their newborn babies by passing the Family Leave Law,” Morris writes.
He made childhood immuniza-tion universal, inoculating children against disease and effectively inoculating their parents against Republican attacks on his administration.
As their children came of preschool age, Clinton doubled the Head Start program so that it could accommodate all the children whose parents wanted it….
As their children grew older, X Generation parents worried more about issues like values, crime and violence. Clinton faced down the TV networks and made them implement a ratings system. Meanwhile, he got Congress to pass legislation requiring the installation of a V-chip in each new television set…. To cut crime, Clinton got funds for 100,000 extra police and more money for drug counselors in schools.
When Clinton ensnared himself in a lurid scandal that had even grade schoolers asking about oral sex, many of the young parents blamed Republicans more for spreading their revelations into every household than they faulted Clinton for providing the ammunition. Clinton won their support, Morris says, by addressing, with careful political calculation, problems they actually faced at home. “He focused on topics like violence on television, teen smoking, national educational standards, school construction, and other areas that had never been part of the traditional congressional agenda.”
Clinton’s accomplishments may not seem like much in comparison to the Emancipation Proclamation or Dwight Eisenhower’s support for the interstate highway system, the standards Burns and Sorenson use, but they improved the lives of a good many people in small but telling ways. Is that much of a legacy? We will not know for years to come.
In the eyes of Burns and Sorenson, Clinton fares no better on foreign policy. While Clinton vacillated on Bosnia, they write, 150,000 people were killed. They fault him for refusing to go it alone on Kosovo and for using air attacks rather than ground troops to repel Serbian forces. “The whole Kosovo episode once again illustrated the perils of moderation in foreign affairs, as in domestic,” they write. Just how Clinton would have been able to use ground troops effectively in the face of vehement Pentagon and congressional opposition to taking losses Burns and Sorenson do not say.
William Hyland, a career national-security and intelligence expert who later served as editor of Foreign Affairs, is one of Clinton’s more levelheaded foreign-policy critics, and his survey of Clinton-era diplomacy, while stinging at times, is both more informed and more restrained than that of Burns and Sorenson. He faults the President chiefly for his inattention to foreign affairs until it is too late, creating a vacuum in which his subordinates “hijacked his foreign policy in the name of neo-Wilsonian internationalism, and for more than two years…engineered a series of failures and disasters.”
In Hyland’s view, Anthony Lake, Clinton’s first National Security adviser, erred by putting too much stress on moral judgments as a driving force for American foreign policy, for example in Bosnia and China, while being unwilling, or unable, to devise policies to implement these judgments. He also accuses Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of being too willing to use force without an adequate sense of its dangers. Albright,who has seemed obsessed by the Munich agreement that sold out her native Czechoslovakia, has indeed been unusually bellicose. In a speech at Georgetown University in 1997, for example, she announced that America would never lift its economic sanctions against Iraq so long as Saddam Hussein was in power. It was a tough speech, but it gave Saddam no incentive to cooperate with United Nations arms inspections; Albright made it clear that even if he did, sanctions would continue. Similarly, Albright declared that Slobodan Milosevic understood no language other than force, which may have encouraged the Kosovo Liberation Army in the belief that America would support its stepped-up guerrilla war against Belgrade.
Hyland believes Clinton could have been more forceful in urging allies in 1993 to support the partition of Bosnia, according to the intricate plan worked out by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and former British Foreign Secretary David Owen. In addition, Clinton could have pressed harder for a policy of lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia’s Muslims and carrying out air strikes against Bosnia’s Serbs. The Bosnian Serbs, however, who controlled 70 percent of Bosnia, rejected the Vance-Owen plan, so it could only have been imposed—in all its complexity—at gunpoint. And the European allies, their peacekeeping troops on the ground outnumbered by the Serbs, wanted no US air strikes that might place their own troops at risk.
There is a whiff of the illusion of American omnipotence not only in Hyland’s comments on the Balkans but also in the belief that more robust US diplomacy could have prevented the India-Pakistan nuclear arms race or averted the Asian economic collapse. But Hyland clearly recognizes the limits of US power when he dismisses the now current notion that more energetic American involvement could have created a free market and a functioning democracy in Russia.
The demoralization of Russia may be the most serious long-term development of the Clinton era, but here the administration’s sins are more of style and tone than of substance. Certainly there was no need for US officials to act as cheerleaders and loan guarantors while so-called Russian reformers looted their country’s wealth in the guise of privatization. Clinton’s policymakers badly underestimated the depth of the corruption and criminality that pervades Russian society. But in dealing with Russia, Clinton had to work with the forces at hand. That meant backing Boris Yeltsin, with all his flaws, in preference to the resurgent Communist Party or the wacky fascism of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As for another controversial part of Clinton’s policy toward Russia, the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, Hyland seems dubious. While calling NATO expansion a significant achievement for the President, he also asserts that “building European security without, or against, Russia has not worked for four centuries.”
Clinton has to his credit genuine achievements in mediating the Northern Ireland dispute and pushing the Israelis and Palestinians farther along toward a permanent peace settlement. None of Clinton’s supposed foreign policy fiascoes has been as boneheaded as, say, the Reagan administration’s disastrous deployment of Marines in Lebanon in 1983 or its attempt to court supposed moderates in Iran by selling them antiaircraft missiles. In the 1996 election, Republicans chose not to make much of an issue of Clinton’s foreign policy except for an effort to revive Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, an expensive and probably unworkable scheme that has many doubters among Republicans as well as Democrats. It is also the case that although the administration’s policy has been marked by false steps, misjudgments, and shifts in direction, no one has put forward a clear, generally accepted alternative to it. Hyland freely admits that, on the major issues—whether in China, the Balkans, or Russia—he has none himself. Burns and Sorenson fault Clinton for lacking a grand strategy in foreign affairs, but they also note that no one else has one either.2
Hillary Clinton defended the administration’s overall record to Burns and Sorenson by making the rather modest claim that Clinton has proven that government can be made to work for ordinary people and that it is not, as Ronald Reagan portrayed it, an enemy:
So whether it’s [the] Family and Medical Leave [Act] or the Brady Bill or taking assault weapons off the streets or even, as he has done, trumpeting small measures like curfews or school uniforms—that can give people a sense that all is not lost, that they’re not living in this sort of libertarian wilderness where it’s every person for himself.
Mrs. Clinton did not mention here the administration’s major experiments such as welfare reform and the repeal of restrictions on banking. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned in the course of the welfare debate that in ten years’ time we will be seeing children sleeping on grates. As Michael Massing recently observed in these pages, welfare reform has so far been a mixed success; but beginning in the year 2000, “the program’s time limits will begin to take hold, and when they do, the levels of homelessness and hunger could sharply rise.”3 This program, moreover, has not yet been confronted with an economic downturn.
As Republicans compete to succeed Clinton, their chief stated goal is not to repeal the legislative accomplishments of his administration but to “restore dignity to the office”—dignity they themselves did much to besmirch. No one proposes rolling back the 4.3-cent gasoline tax or legalizing assault weapons. With a few minor exceptions, Governor George W. Bush’s foreign policy speech at the Reagan Library in California in November could have come out of Clinton’s speechwriting shop. Senator John McCain of Arizona, Bush’s leading rival for the Republican presidential nomination, is concentrating on campaign finance reform, deriding Clinton’s money-raising techniques even while he, McCain, freely acknowledges that under the current system he raises large sums from the corporations he oversees as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Clinton is not a candidate for Mount Rushmore. Blighted by its scandals, both real and fabricated, his administration has been at best a tepid success. He repaired the damage of the crippling deficits produced by Rea-ganomics. He may have altered the image of the Democratic Party as a collection of tax-and-spend liberals who are soft on crime. He advanced the cause of racial justice largely through personal example. His vow to staff an administration that “looks like America” seemed hokey when announced, but he has made it stick.
He has also set an example, in this vituperative age, of showing no malice. It is hard to remember a single harsh word that Clinton has uttered against his many enemies. He will have, as Burns and Sorenson emphasize, no grand achievements like freeing the slaves, conquering the Depression, rolling back communism, or any of the other major transformations that they ascribe, somewhat simplistically, to previous presidents. Ordinary people, if not historians, are likely to remember him as they see him now, a sadly flawed human being but a reasonably good President whose administration was, for Americans, a time of peace and plenty.
—December 16, 1999
January 20, 2000
“The Illusion of American Omnipotence,” Harper’s, December 1952, p. 21. ↩
For anyone who thinks that in the post-cold war era a single grand strategy is possible, I recommend a book, World Conflicts, from Scarecrow Press. It lists, in encyclopedic form, virtually every one of the world’s continuing ethnic, religious, tribal, and cross-border conflicts. It is an essential guide to the real world of the twenty-first century and, as it summons up the regional hatreds on all continents, a devastating antidote to any lingering illusion about American omnipotence. Its author, Patrick Brogan, is the son of D.W. Brogan. ↩