Those Were the Days

The New York Times

July 1, 2004 Thursday
Late Edition – Final

SECTION: Section A; Column 2; Editorial Desk; Pg. 21

Those Were the Days

by Bruce Bartlett.


The death of Ronald Reagan led many of his liberal opponents to reassess his presidency, with some concluding that it was better than they thought at the time. The publication of Bill Clinton's memoir, meanwhile, has led many conservatives to reassess his presidency — and most have concluded that it was as awful as they remembered.

If they were honest with themselves, however, conservatives would view the Clinton presidency the same way many liberals now view the Reagan years. Just as Ronald Reagan was not as bad as many liberals thought, neither was Bill Clinton as bad as many conservatives think.

Like most conservatives, I thought Bill Clinton was a terrible president when he was in office. Especially after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, we all dreamed of the paradise that would be ours if we could just get a Republican in the White House. We could fix the budget and the tax system, rein in the bureaucracy, neuter the trade unions and trial lawyers, and do all those other things that could never be done because Democrats were always blocking the way.

It was foolish to think like this, of course, just as it is foolish for Democrats to think that every mistake President George W. Bush has made would have been avoided if Al Gore had won in 2000. Circumstances beyond any president's control determine much of what he does in office. If Mr. Gore had won, there would have still been a recession in 2001 that would have caused much of the surplus to disappear, even if there had been no tax cuts. And in all likelihood, the attacks on the World Trade Center would have happened, too.

Yet presidents are not impotent. Sometimes their impact comes from what they don't do, rather than what they do. Sometimes the most important thing a president can do is resist the demand or temptation to act when the right course is to do nothing. And sometimes a president is forced to do things against his will. In the end, however, a president can be judged only by what actually happens on his watch; not by what he thought or intended or by what he might have done but wasn't able to.

On this basis, conservatives should rethink the Clinton presidency. At least on economic policy, there is much to praise and little to criticize in terms of what was actually done (or not done) on his watch.

Bringing the federal budget into surplus is obviously an achievement. After inheriting a deficit of 4.7 percent of gross domestic product in 1992, Mr. Clinton turned this into a surplus of 2.4 percent of G.D.P. in 2000 — a remarkable turnaround that can be appreciated by realizing that this year's deficit, as large as it is, will reach only 4.2 percent of G.D.P., according to the Congressional Budget Office.

More important, from a conservative point of view, Mr. Clinton achieved his surplus in large part by curtailing spending. Federal spending fell to 18.4 percent of G.D.P. in 2000 from 22.2 percent in 1992. Although he raised taxes in 1993, he cut them in 1997. He even reduced the capital gains tax — something his predecessor, George H. W. Bush, tried but failed to accomplish.

Although much of the budgetary savings came from lower defense spending and reduced interest on the debt, entitlement spending also fell to 10.6 percent of G.D.P. in 2000 from 11.5 percent in 1992. Mr. Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, the only time in American history when an entitlement program was abolished. By virtually all accounts, welfare reform has been a success.

Mr. Clinton was also steadfast in his support for free trade. It is doubtful that anyone else could have persuaded Congress to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement. On monetary policy, he reappointed Alan Greenspan, a Republican, as chairman of the Federal Reserve, thereby helping to bring inflation down to its lowest sustained level in a generation.

By contrast, Mr. Clinton's Republican successor has caused the surplus to evaporate, raised total federal spending by 1.6 percent of G.D.P., established a new entitlement program for prescription drugs and adopted the most protectionist trade policy since Herbert Hoover. While President Bush has done other things that conservatives view more favorably, like cutting taxes, there is no getting around the reality that Mr. Clinton was better in many respects.

The fact that Mr. Clinton accomplished conservative objectives against his will in some cases, and in others only because a Republican Congress prevented him from enacting more liberal reforms, is beside the point. What matters is what actually was accomplished while Mr. Clinton was in office. On that score, he did much that conservatives should approve of.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
The New York Times