Teaching the Clinton Presidency

I admit it–I’m a C-SPAN junkie. The purpose of the open phones topic this morning was to air people’s opinions on how the Clinton presidency should be taught in middle and high school history classes. As is usually the case with these shows, the callers didn’t so much answer the question posed as bash George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. The calls I found the strangest were the ones that blamed Clinton for the current Bush years and for how divided the country currently is. Those opinions aside, my own is this: teach Clinton’s successes and his failures–all of them.

I voted for Clinton both times. Despite that, I don’t consider him the best president ever, or even a great president–merely a good one. In the success column: NAFTA, welfare reform, the economy. Perot said plenty on the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the U.S., and that’s true. But that has as much to do with companies not doing what was necessary to modernize as it does with lowering tariffs. I remember being disappointed that Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, but in retrospect, it did get a lot of people off the welfare rolls. Clinton should get credit for mostly staying out of the way as the economy recovered from downturn under the first Bush. He should also get credit for increasing taxes on the highest earners in this country. That contributed a lot to the government going from deficit to surplus. I would count Clinton’s actions on Bosnia as a success too, if only because he helped get NATO involved in stopping the slaughter of Muslims there.

In the failure column: healthcare reform, Rwanda, impeachment. The failure of healthcare reform is perhaps the one with the most consequences for the present day. The voices who said there was no healthcare crisis when Clinton was trying to get this passed are probably the same ones who passed the narrow, expensive and poorly-planned prescription drug benefit. While Clinton isn’t the only one to blame for the genocide in Rwanda (the whole world stood by on that one), as the leader of the greatest military power in the world, his government’s inaction was very disappointing. Impeachment ranks as the worst of his failures from an opportunity cost perspective, not just the moral one. A lot of time was wasted that could have been spent doing far more useful things (like chasing al-Qaeda for example). It allowed people to question his motives for trying to do what was ultimately the right thing.