Thursday, March 12, 2009

So Bob Tyrrell Wants To Have A Beer With Clinton

Bob Tyrrell's tongue is only partly in cheek when he writes:

For years, it has been [Bill Clinton's] boast that he balanced the federal budget and maintained vigorous economic growth. He expanded free trade and, working bipartisanly with Republicans, reformed welfare. People left the welfare rolls and took remunerative employment. Usually, federal spending hovers at about 20 percent of gross domestic product. In the Clinton administration, it dropped to 18.4 percent -- the lowest level since 1966. Bill said, "The era of big government is over," and he meant it.

Today his party has passed him by. Bill, can we now be friends? I apologize for all my past rudeness, even the jokes.
Tyrrell was an aggressive and indeed a rude Clinton critic when he was in office. The Clintons seemed to epitomize everything conservatives of a certain generation had detested about the sixties. His leftward tack in 1993-94 seemed to validate their fears; they considered his move to the center after the GOP triumph in the 1994 midterm elections (enabling the accomplishments Tyrrell lists) to be purely opportunistic.

Perhaps it was. And so even as Clinton reformed welfare and balanced the budget, conservatives continued to attack him mercilessly. At times he seemed as hated on the far right as President Nixon had been on the far left. Looking back, his impeachment and trial may have been the high water mark of the post-sixties cultural backlash. It seemed Clinton was being targeted not for what he did in his public or private life but because of who he was, a hated emblem of a generation's excess and exceeding self-regard.

I opposed his impeachment, because it seemed to amount to an effort to overturn the results of the 1996 election and therefore a political as opposed to a legal exercise, not unlike impeachment proceedings against another centrist, Richard Nixon. The irony is that Clinton was harassed by the right even as he accomplished what Ronald Reagan had failed to do: Balance the budget and restrain the growth of the federal government. Nixon was harassed by the left even as he did what it proclaimed it wanted the government to do: Give global peace a chance. During the Reagan era, some liberals looked back nostalgically at Nixon's domestic and foreign policies. During the Obama era, Bob Tyrrell is offering to buy Bill Clinton a beer.

Being a centrist, moderate, or pragmatist is like being the bumbling, slightly off-key relative at Thanksgiving who smiles genially at everybody else's confident orations about national or family politics and then cocks his head and says, "Well, sure, but have you considered...?" You remember him: Never really took a stand on anything and never as interesting to listen to as the assembled blowhards. In politics and journalism, pragmatism is rarely a campaign platform, seldom a draw for a network or cable booker looking for a sizzling debate on the economy or embryonic stem cells. Our culture seems to depend on the clash of extremes. As for pragmatists, to quote one of the Clintons' favorite songwriters, Joni Mitchell, I guess you don't know what you got till it's gone.

No comments: