Mark Shields: Clinton record unmasked
About the time the Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles, my savvy precinct captain drilled into all her workers this rule: A week is a lifetime in politics, and a month is an eternity. This should be a warning for all wise people handicapping the 2016 presidential race who have already conceded the Democratic nomination to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the dominant front-runner in the polls.
How dominant? In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, an overwhelming 86 percent of Democrats said they could see themselves supporting Clinton for their party’s nomination, whereas just 13 percent of Democrats could not. By contrast, some 49 percent of Republican voters can see themselves supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the GOP nomination, but 42 percent of Republicans are now unable to visualize their supporting Bush.
Already the old one-liners from Clinton’s 2008 campaign are being recycled, seeking to recall past presidential transgressions. An example: “If Hillary Clinton does win, do you know what that will mean? Answer: Bill Clinton in the White House all day with nothing to do!”
But in today’s almost rancid political atmosphere, when voters were asked to rate their positive or negative “feelings” toward major public figures and both George W. and Jeb Bush collected fewer positive than negative scores, Bill Clinton, the most popular president of the past quarter-century, received a 52 percent positive rating to only 26 percent negative.
American elections are always about the future. But the Clinton presidential record is real and deserves remembering. Elected when the federal budget deficit was at a historical high and when the U.S. economic growth rate under his Republican predecessor had fallen to the lowest level in more than a half-century, President Clinton pushed a controversial economic program that raised income taxes on the wealthiest 1.4 percent of Americans. Every Republican in the House and the Senate voted against the Clinton plan. Then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich predicted: “This is the Democrat machine’s recession, and each one of them will be held personally accountable.”
Gingrich was, to put it gently, absolutely wrong. What followed was the creation, during Clinton’s eight White House years, of 22,891,000 jobs — 93 percent of them in the private sector. By comparison, during the combined 20 years of Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, there were 19,985,000 jobs created. Under Clinton, the U.S. attained its lowest unemployment rate in 30 years. The unemployment rate among women was at its lowest in 40 years, while the unemployment rates among African-Americans and Hispanics were the lowest in history. The U.S. went from having the biggest budget deficits ever to having a balanced budget and the biggest budget surpluses ever. If the 22nd Amendment, limiting a president to two terms, had not been on the books, it’s a good bet that Bill Clinton — scandals, scar tissue and all — would have been re-elected to a third term in 2000.
What we now need to remind ourselves and every presidential candidate of is the timeless insight of the late CBS commentator Eric Sevareid: “The difference between the men (update that to the grown-ups) and the boys (the adolescents) in politics is … that the boys want to be something, while the men want to do something.”
It’s past time to demand that every would-be Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt name what three specific laws — just three, no 10-point programs, thank you — that he or she would enact, change or repeal. Then we could actually have a national debate in which candidates campaign on what they stand for instead of whom they’re running against.