Few in today’s polarized world equally stigmatize two Democratic and two Republican administrations, but the dishonors are about equal. Here are my tributes.
The Clinton regime was one of a series produced by the demise of national conventions of state officeholders and the ascendancy of primaries. The nominees of the new dispensation possessed ambitions for themselves, not for programs, and lacked deep experience and vetting by close colleagues. Reagan was a partial exception; he possessed convictions and two terms as governor of our largest state. But there were a series of untested nominees who would not have succeeded in a parliamentary system: Kennedy, Carter, Clinton, the junior Bush, Obama, and Trump. All had in common the post-election “what the hell do I do now?”’ syndrome flowing from lack of a serious agenda and a mandate for it. Trump was a partial exception; as a protest candidate he had both a program and a mandate, but a negative and not reformist one. All made frivolous domestic cabinet appointments; there were no persons of stature like Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Frances Perkins, Robert Jackson, George Romney, or George Shultz forthcoming from our heroes.
Clinton threw away the opportunities presented by the end of the Cold War. Not for him was De Gaulle’s vision of a Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals” or that of FDR of a world order resting on the five “policemen”: the permanent members of the Security Council. Instead, against the advice of Ambassadors George Kennan and Jack Matlock, we had NATO enlargement and revived Russian militarism. Madeleine Albright gave us interference with nascent peace agreements in Yugoslavia and two wars generating millions of refugees. At home we had financial deregulation, the dot-com bubble, encouragement of shareholder buy-backs, carried equity for fund managers, careless trade agreements, intensification of the drug war, and federal interference in local policing. Nepotism failed to produce healthcare reform.
The principal achievements were fostered by Republicans: a twice-vetoed welfare reform which reduced by two-thirds births to teenage mothers and a compromise tax bill. Expansion of the earned income tax credit built on a Nixon initiative.
Clinton exemplified the coming to power of the post-1968 generation. Previously, as the late historian John Lukacs observed, presidents like Arthur and Harding at least had to masquerade as Christian gentlemen; the coming to power of a known draft-dodger and philanderer was something new. He sympathized with black people, but did little for them; a discerning friend of mine said he was popular among them because they “see in him the chaos of their own lives.” Another friend, an Englishman, told me that the sex scandals were foolish, but if he lied to a grand jury he would of course have to resign. His failure to do so left what Pat Moynihan called “Defining Deviancy Down” as his chief legacy.
The junior Bush likewise displayed a lack of seriousness on the domestic side. A centralizing “education reform” was later repealed, to general derision. An attempt at partially privatizing social security failed from defective messaging: a failure to emphasize the benefits of inheritable accounts to families lacking property.
The nadir was the fictitious “axis of evil” supported by neoconservatives who aspired to the U.S. overthrow of a whole series of Middle Eastern governments. That Iraq and Iran despised one another and that North Korea valued them only as arms customers made no difference; the U.N. Charter was ignored in a regime-change war generating millions of refugees. This was accompanied by detention without trial of American citizens, and the torture and abuse of prisoners in violation of both domestic and international law. There was also an attempt to amend the Insurrection Act to foster military rule in emergencies, foiled only after a protest by all fifty state governors. And there was the creation of three superfluous but potentially dangerous new bureaucracies: the Department of Homeland Security, the Directorate of National Intelligence, and the military’s Northern Command, whose potential for dictatorship in emergencies is celebrated in the memoirs of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
Bush’s redeeming achievement was an interest in pandemics and public health not shared by his two successors; for his HIV-AIDS program, he deserves monuments in most African capitals.
Obama’s administration began with no program save that devised by the House leadership: a bailout of the un-progressive auto industry and a front-loaded Obamacare program that, at great cost, relieved some people’s financial anxieties while doing nothing about public health properly so-called, such as: potential pandemics; diet, diabetes and obesity; lead paint abatement; and venereal disease contact tracing.
Unlike our three other villains, he displayed personal dignity and self-control. His moral defects were political, not personal. He was brought to power by his realization that a black bloc vote could provide half the vote necessary to a majority in Democratic primaries, and in many states a plurality by itself. His exploitation of race is well documented in David Garrow’s massive and too-neglected biography of his early years. It continued with the Henry Louis Gates affair, inaccurate allegations of an epidemic of black church-burnings, and exploitation of police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri, in a tour of large cities by his former attorney general on the eve of the 2016 elections. As with race, so with religion: By baiting the Catholic Church, he generated an artificial controversy over trivial amounts of funds for contraceptives in order to mobilize the votes of unmarried women in an election year.
His foreign policies in Syria and Libya were both lawless and reckless, generating more refugees than the other three administrations combined, and de-stabilizing most of Western Europe.
President Trump, also a skilled exploiter of identity politics, had a coherent if negative agenda. His trade and immigration policies were executed in a needlessly clumsy and inflammatory fashion. He curbed juristocracy, and whether by accident or design avoided any serious foreign policy blunders. His energetic policy toward Palestine was partially foredoomed; as the British Peel Commission Report recognized in 1937, any solution is dependent on the sovereignty and equal dignity of the contending parties, not just on economic benefits.
His orthodox Republican tax and deregulatory policies fostered growth, while doing nothing about imbedded inequalities or the nation’s education and training deficits.
He left office in deserved disgrace, believing neither in the rule of law nor in constitutional government. The 2020 election was not stolen from him. Mail-in balloting was necessitated by the pandemic. The increase of 4 million in the Democratic plurality between 2016 and 2020 was not accounted for by stolen votes or suburban soccer moms, but by the abandonment of the Libertarian ticket by more than 3 million of the 4.3 million voters who supported Johnson and Weld in 2016.
Libertarian voters appear to have been unwilling to cast neutral protest votes in an election in which Biden was less flawed and frightening than Mrs. Clinton and in which Trump’s call for armed militias to “stand by” threatened civil peace and the constitutional order. There was a decrease of 55,000 in the Libertarian vote in Arizona, where Biden secured an 11,000 vote plurality. In Georgia the Libertarian decrease was 62,000 against a Biden plurality of 28,000; in Wisconsin the Libertarian decrease was 68,000 against a Biden plurality of 20,000. The Libertarian decrease was roughly equal to two-thirds of the Biden pluralities in Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.
Is this sad chronicle of 28 years of flawed leadership to continue? The signs are not encouraging. Already the Biden administration has doubled-down on identity politics in its appointments, producing another unpromising domestic cabinet. Instead of abandoning ‘culture war’ issues to the States, where they used to be fought out as General De Gaulle pointed out in the last volume of his memoirs, it has instead doubled down on them, not a recipe for national unity.
It is within the power of the political parties, unaided by legislation, to return to a convention nominating system resting on local and state as well as federal officeholders. Absent that, we are stuck with the prophecy of George Kennan at the end of his long life: “Something resembling [representative government] may long be maintained in the European governments with their responsible parliamentary majorities and ministerial governments. But in the United States, I fear, the trends are in the other direction.”
George Liebmann is the author of numerous other works on law and history in addition to Vox Clamantis In Deserto, most recently America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation (Bloomsbury 2019).