“Democratic fundraisers are urging Hillary Clinton to make Bill Clinton a bigger part of her presidential campaign,” The Hill reported this week. With Hillary struggling in the polls- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is 16 points ahead in New Hampshire–the Clintons’ allies are worried. They want Bill to save the day, as he has done before.
He might try–but it is time for America to retire him, as well as his wife. Because Bill Clinton is bad for American politics.
It was not always so. Clinton is viewed as a successful today because he balanced the federal budget and presided over rapid economic growth. He left a few festering problems unresolved–such as the threat of terrorism, the dot-com recession, and the mess that would become the sub-prime mortgage crisis–but is remembered fondly, largely because he listened to the electorate after 1994 and shifted right, angering liberals while delighting voters.
But Bill Clinton is partly responsible for the mess that is American politics today. He made a fateful choice in 1998 that set the country on a steep decline from broad political consensus to deep partisan division.
Specifically, he chose not to resign when faced with the prospect of impeachment over charges that he lied under oath. Cynically, he cast his decision to stay in office as an effort “to overcome the pain and division” that had beset the country.
The mere prospect of impeachment had been enough to push Richard M. Nixon to resign. But Clinton counted the votes in the Senate and realized he could beat the charges. He relied on partisan loyalties to carry him through, rather than sacrificing his own career for the basic principles of the rule of law, and that no one is above the law. He also reasoned that as long as the economy was strong, the country would not be in a rush to see him leave office.
But his decision damaged Vice President Al Gore’s prospects in 2000. And with Gore’s loss, there was no successor to carry on the “New Democrat” legacy that Clinton had crafted over nearly two decades, which rejected the statist policies of the past in favor of free markets and economic growth, and sought to preserve the social safety net by reforming it.
The leadership vacuum was filled by the party’s radical wing, which paved the way for Barack Obama.
Bill Clinton could have stopped Obama twice, but chose to cut deals instead–perhaps with his flourishing foundation in mind.
The first time was during the 2008 election. Technically, Hillary Clinton won more votes in the Democratic primary. But the Clintons accepted a formula that gave Obama credit for votes he had never won (so much for “count every vote”).
Obama learned then that the rules do not apply to him–and that he can claim mandates from non-voters for elections he loses.
The next time Bill Clinton could have stopped Obama was in 2012, where he seemed to be wavering. But with 2016 in mind, he gave a stirring address at the Democratic National Convention that made a better case for Obama than Obama made for himself.
In the process, Clinton rejected his own great domestic legacy, welfare reform, by defending changes Obama had made that essentially gutted state work requirements.
In 1998, Republicans were perhaps rash to pursue impeachment over charges that began in a sex scandal. Because Clinton won that political fight, Congress dare not threaten impeachment today for offenses by Obama that are far more serious. Instead, Congress crawls to the courts for relief against Obama’s abuses of power.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton angles for his return, counting on nostalgia for a better past–one he has done more than anyone else to undermine.