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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: The Clinton legacy

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- President Bill Clinton came to Washington promising to change the public's view of government. As he prepares to leave, Americans are more upbeat about the economy, optimistic about the future, and receptive to the idea that the government can do good as well as evil.

But while the man from Hope has altered the public's short-term sentiment, most Americans also remain deeply cynical about politics and distrustful of politicians. The president has not fundamentally changed most Americans' view of government.

Politically, Clinton came to the White House promising to bring his party back to the political center. He has done that most effectively, but he also presided over -- even caused -- one of the party's worst political shellackings in history: the 1994 elections.

So is Clinton to be lauded for igniting an unprecedented economic boom, or criticized for wasting his obvious political talents? Will he be remembered for the balanced budget, or his 1993 health care proposal? Will he been seen as the man who rejuvenated his party by throwing off the liberal label, or who allowed the GOP to re-take the House of Representatives after 40 years in the minority?

The answer, of course, is that he'll be remembered for everything, but certainly nothing more than his behavior with Monica Lewinsky and the ensuing controversy that gripped the nation for a little more than a year.

Put together a list of the president's legislative accomplishments, and the results are not insignificant. The list isn't all that long -- balanced budgets, welfare reform, annual budget surpluses, NAFTA, and portability of health insurance, are particularly noteworthy -- but together they constitute a remarkable turnaround of the nation's financial health.

Eight years ago, nobody seriously entertained the idea that the country would have huge surpluses by the turn of the century, or that politicians from both parties could promise both more domestic spending and tax cuts.

But the president doesn't deserve full credit for that economic growth. On the political side, many others -- from President George Bush to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin -- had a role. Much of the credit, however, also belongs to the nation's high tech entrepreneurs, who have helped transform both the economy and American society. Also deserving some credit is the changed international setting, where free markets replaced command economies, and free trade replaced iron curtains.

Even the Republican Congress should get some credit. The president's first two years, after all, was not exactly a wild success. Problems in staffing his Cabinet, a failed "stimulus" plan, an inauspicious attempt to revise the military's policies on gays in the military, and a disastrous health care proposal left many Americans wondering whether they made the right choice in the 1992 elections. It was only after the Republicans took over the House and Senate that the president started to see a series of unprecedented successes.

Maybe more important than his accomplishments are the problems that remain unsolved. Clinton was unable to reform the nation's campaign finance system, to expand health care nearly as much as he wished, to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, to bridge the nation's racial divide, or to solve the Middle East's conundrum. But it is difficult to blame the president primarily for these missed opportunities.

Clinton has succeeded, at least temporarily, in remaking his party. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis downplayed ideology in favor of "competence" during his 1988 presidential bid, but voters never really bought his argument. It wasn't until Bill Clinton that voters started to see the Democrats as fiscally responsible and tough on crime.

But that political success for Clinton is tempered by the results of the 1994 elections, from which the Democrats have not entirely recovered. When Clinton won the White House in 1992, 57 Democrats were also elected to the Senate, and 258 Democrats were elected to the House of Representatives. The party seemed to have a lock on both houses of Congress. Now, there are just 46 Democratic senators, and only 211 Democrats in the House, and the president's party is finishing its fifth year in the minority in Congress.

Ironically, Bill Clinton's real legacy may well depend on whether he can help elect Vice President Al Gore to the nation's top job, and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to the U.S. Senate. That will be especially true if Mrs. Clinton ultimately runs for and wins the presidency.

In some respects, the president is treating their elections as if it were his own, and he clearly believes that their victories would constitute a statement by the public about his presidency.

So where does that leave Bill Clinton?

Unable to pass a landmark piece of legislation or to win a major war, this president is likely to have a strange place in the history books, remembered more for a scandal and for his finger-waving lie -- "I did not have sexual relations with that woman ... Ms. Lewinsky" -- than anything else.

But Clinton will also be remembered as a brilliant political communicator who had plenty of ups and downs, and who retired from office with a clear majority of Americans approving of his agenda and his job performance.

For most Americans, it's now time to move on, and to close the book on Bill Clinton.



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Monday, August 14, 2000


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