CHICAGO -- When President Clinton and his fellow Democrats address their convention this week, their case for four more years of a Clinton presidency will be built on a list of accomplishments ranging from 10 million new American jobs to the calming presence of U.S. troops the president dispatched to Bosnia.
Americans watching will recall setbacks as well. Even the most loyal White House staffer concedes that the past 3 1/2 years have been a roller-coaster ride for the president.
Bill Clinton is an activist president. He has sought a grand federal role in national problems as intractable as fighting crime, improving education and trying to ensure that every American has health insurance. At the same time, he has declared that "the era of big government is over."
He is also a scandal-ridden president whose administration is being investigated by special prosecutors, one of whom is closely looking at the activities of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The president has testified in two criminal trials, been sued for sexual harassment and seen one close friend who served in his administration go to prison.
And he is a talkative president. Clinton uses his uncommon gift for gab and the platform of the Oval Office to be the conductor for a great, diffuse and sometimes discordant national dialogue on everything from the effects of racism on the black community to the role of television.
In San Diego, Republican speakers insisted that Clinton has diminished the presidency. To his staff and to those loyal to him he seems larger than life. Clinton himself has said that he realizes he is a polarizing figure -- that people seem to love him or hate him.
Republican nominee Bob Dole vowed in his San Diego acceptance address that he is someone who can be trusted. Ross Perot stressed that he and his Reform Party are incorruptible.
But a presidential election is, first of all, a referendum on the incumbent. And for all the "talking points" and attack ads and debates, history suggests that the most significant events in the campaign have already happened. They constitute Clinton's record as president.
Clinton began with a flurry of activity.
On Veterans Day 1992, President-elect Clinton announced he would lift the ban against gays in the military. He had publicly made the promise to gay audiences in California during the campaign, but it was news to most Americans.
In January 1993, on his third day in office, Clinton signed five executive orders wiping out most of the restrictions on abortion and family planning imposed by previous Republican presidents. These included the "gag rule" forbidding workers at federally funded clinics to discuss abortion with pregnant women, a ban on fetal tissue research, and prohibitions against military personnel and their dependents receiving abortions at overseas military hospitals.
In the first week of February, Clinton signed his first law, a provision requiring family leave for the birth of a child, an adoption or care for a sick parent or child.
They are different issues, but together they left a disquieting impression with many voters. Clinton had campaigned for president as a moderate who promised to be a "new kind of Democrat." But his first actions in office made him appear to be a traditional liberal.
But scholars who study legislative achievements cite the domestic policy initiatives that became law: the crime bill, a welfare reform bill, the North American Free Trade agreement, and they don't see a liberal stamp.
"If you look, not at his agenda, but at his accomplishments, you see that they are in the areas of crime control, deficit reduction, free trade, welfare reform and some deregulation," said Yale political scientist David R. Mayhew. "That's not a Democratic program, largely."
Mayhew is the author of "Divided Government," a study of the record of presidents going back to Harry S. Truman. He acknowledges that many of Clinton's impulses were stymied by Congress -- but says this is a frequent occurrence.
Fred Greenstein, a Princeton professor whose specialty is presidential leadership, believes that "the Clinton record looks pretty standard." Most presidents are able to achieve only "incremental expansions on existing policies," he says, and points out that Clinton followed two Republicans.
Swing voters who decide national elections, however, will look less at Clinton's evolving legacy and more at the issues that traditionally determine how a sitting president is viewed.
Those include the performance of the economy, his conduct of foreign policy, whether he is perceived as a leader and how he uses the Oval Office to communicate with the American public.
In Chicago, Democrats will tick off a litany of economic statistics that make the president sound like a forceful presence for domestic prosperity. Clinton's aides don't claim that he did this all by himself, but they suggest that the president is held accountable.
To ensure that Clinton gets due credit, Democrats will cite these economic numbers:
Ten million new jobs since the president took office.
An unemployment rate that has dropped on his watch from 7.3 percent to 5.3 percent.
Lower federal budget deficits in each of the past three years.
Rising median family income.
All these claims are factual, but Republicans cite figures to back up their assertion that the economy is under-performing.
From 1983 to 1989, the gross domestic product grew 3.9 percent annually. Today, it is only growing at 2.3 percent a year.
The private savings rate amounted to 14.6 percent during the Clinton years, down from 17.2 percent from 1983 to 1989.
After-tax family income is rising about 2 percent a year under Clinton. It rose 3.5 percent a year for the same 1983-1989 period.
Wages rose 7 percent a year during that same period; they have been stagnant under Clinton.
In other words, say conservatives, the economy is growing more slowly, Americans are being paid less and they are saving less under Clinton.
So which side is right? Clinton likes to compare his record to that compiled during the Bush administration. The conservatives are using numbers from the Reagan years -- and selective ones at that. The 1983-1989 comparison has recessions on either side of it.
"Clinton does have a better record than Bush, no question about it," says Republican Stephen Moore, an economist with the conservative Cato Institute. "That's a problem for Republicans. But the eight Reagan years were better -- much better -- than the eight years of Bush-Clinton. That's the way we need to talk about this."
Democrats have other ideas. In Chicago, they will use a formulation made famous by Ronald Reagan: They will ask voters: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Clinton says the major successes of his first two years were NAFTA and his budget bill. He was forced to pare down in size several of his most ambitious plans, including AmeriCorps, a volunteer program that was originally proposed to be open to every college-age person in the country.
The president did not address the problem of the under-funding of Medicare and Social Security in future years. His plan to revamp the entire health care system received no support in Congress, and his version of welfare reform took 17 months to arrive on Capitol Hill, where it was dismissed as being too little, too late.
All of that was with a Democratic Congress.
Incongruously, under a Republican Congress, legislative action became possible. First came a $30 billion crime bill. Republican leaders criticized it, even as it was passing, for including "liberal pork" such as inner-city midnight basketball leagues, but most of the money was for prison construction and law enforcement. The bill carried tough penalties for violent offenders, and it expanded the federal death penalty statutes.
"The public supports every crime control measure, liberal or conservative," says Ed Kilgore, from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "They like 'prevention' programs, gun control, more cops, longer sentences, the death penalty, tougher law enforcement, community policing -- and it's all in the crime bill."
After a stalemate on the budget last winter, congressional leaders concluded they had overplayed their mandate. The two sides began hammering out legislation that raised the minimum wage, passed an incremental health insurance bill and overhauled the welfare system. All three were signed into law last week.
Clinton inherited a post-Cold War world in which the superiority of the United States militarily and diplomatically was unchallenged. But he seemed reluctant to use this power. At a time of unparalleled power, the administration's mantra was "multinationalism."
Early on, this seemed to be a prescription for doing nothing. After personally assuring Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel on April 22, 1993, that he would end the ethnic slaughter in the Balkans, Clinton waited more than a year to act.
"We have conducted ourselves abroad with an unsteady hand," Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy said. "In Bosnia, blustery rhetoric faded into reluctant diplomacy."
Today, the Dayton accord that brought a troubled peace -- and U.S. peacekeepers -- to Bosnia is cited as an achievement. But as one administration foreign policy official remarked privately, multinationalism didn't bring the Serbs to the negotiating table, American airstrikes did.
"A fair analysis would say they started out raggedly and in the first two years had difficulty settling down," said Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "In the last year, the president put his prestige on the line and his administration on the line on Bosnia and the Mexico bailout. The president deserves credit for taking a risk, and it looks as though he served the national interest."
When Clinton discussed foreign policy in 1992, he criticized Bush for giving short shrift to human rights violations in places such as China and Yugoslavia. He has had to double back a bit on this point. His China policy, for example, is indistinguishable from Bush's.
But his other dominant theme in 1992 was that the old lines between domestic policy and foreign policy are blurring. In this, Clinton has remained constant. It is, in short, the Clinton Doctrine.
"Whether we like it or not, in ways both good and bad we are living in an interdependent world," Clinton said earlier this month. "That's why we must break down the walls in our mind between foreign and domestic policy."
During the past four years, a pattern emerged in how the Clintons handle allegations concerning everything from his avoidance of military service to their marital relations or Whitewater investments. The pattern was first to deny, then when corroborative facts emerged, to stonewall. Then, finally, to attack their accusers.
In 1992, after the Whitewater story broke, Democratic presidential rival Jerry Brown accused Clinton of "corruption" and "conflict of interest." "His wife's law firm is representing clients before the state of Arkansas' agencies -- his appointees," Brown said.
Glaring at Brown, Clinton denied it. "I don't care what you say about me but you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife," Clinton said. "You're not worthy of being on the same platform with my wife!"
But Brown had been right.
As governor, Bill Clinton appointed former campaign worker Beverly Bassett Schaffer to head the state's banking commission. She was thus responsible for overseeing the troubled thrift, Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, which was owned by the Clintons' Whitewater partners and represented by Hillary Clinton.
Testimony before congressional committees shows that Hillary Clinton phoned Schaffer in her capacity as a lawyer for Madison to discuss helping Madison. Billing records subpoenaed by both the special counsel and the congressional oversight committees mysteriously turned up two days later in a room in the White House residence adjacent to the first lady's office. The first lady said she told a grand jury the same thing she said publicly -- she doesn't know how the billing records got there.
When Republicans on the Senate Whitewater Committee said they didn't believe her, they were attacked for partisan motives.
"That's what this has all been about from the beginning: damage the president by damaging the first lady," said Lynn Cutler, a Democratic activist.
As a campaign tactic, striking back at those who raise "character" issues worked well in 1992 -- and might prove successful in 1996 as well. But in the White House, it may have created new problems.
A classic example was the abrupt May 1993 firing of the seven civil servants who constituted the entire White House Travel Office.
In announcing the action, then-press secretary Dee Dee Myers said that an audit had shown financial irregularities and that the FBI had been called in. Subsequent investigations, even the one done by the White House, showed that the FBI was called in before the audit. And the impetus to get rid of the travel office -- as well as the allegations of wrongdoing against them -- came from a close Clinton friend who wanted the travel business for his own air charter company.
Furthermore, testimony has revealed that Hillary Clinton pressured top White House aides to fire the employees because she wanted "our people" in the jobs. That is hardly a crime, but the first lady denied this allegation under oath. Special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr is now investigating to see whether she committed perjury.
This pattern of quick denials of any impropriety was present in the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., in the questions surrounding Hillary Clinton's profits in the futures market, in the scandal of hundreds of FBI background files being found in the custody of White House political aides. In each case, Bill Clinton or his lawyers and aides have had to retract or amend their initial responses.
"If you think Reagan was the 'Teflon president,' well, Clinton wrote the book on it," says Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta political consultant.
"Bill Clinton always speaks well," Haley Barbour likes to say. And he's the chairman of the Republican Party.
There is a silver lining for the GOP, however. Not everything Clinton says is the literal truth, and so Republicans have made a sport of picking out inconsistencies, exaggerations and fibs in the president's pronouncements.
Here are some examples: Bill Clinton is the only president who knew anything about agriculture when he got to Washington. There is no trade deficit with Mexico. The Republicans made him raise taxes. All of these assertions are demonstrably false.
"In 1992, the economy grew by 2.7 percent and Clinton described it as the 'worst economic performance in 50 years,' " says Alan Reynolds, director of economic research at the conservative Hudson Institute. "In 1995, the economy grew by 2 percent and in his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton said the economy was 'the healthiest in 30 years.' "
More sinister, according to Clinton's critics, is when the president demonizes Republicans -- and frightens elderly people -- by denouncing proposes curbs in the growth of Medicare as "extreme and unnecessary budget cuts."
University of Virginia presidential scholar William Miller, speaking on the issue of presidential communication, says that for a president to be considered eloquent he has to do one of two things: Say something no one has said before or state something in such a compelling fashion that it gets Americans to look at an old problem in a new way.
"It's a high bar," Miller says. "It was put there by Lincoln."
But if Clinton doesn't quite rise to that standard, he does something that impresses even his critics. He says things others wouldn't or couldn't say, especially on the sensitive issue of race.
As president, Clinton tackled a taboo subject for white politicians: black crime and black family formation. Speaking in Memphis, Tenn., Clinton told black pastors that he believed that if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, he would say, "I fought for freedom -- but not for the freedom of people to kill each other with reckless abandon, not for the freedom of children to have children and the fathers of the children to walk away from them. "
Clinton then said, "It is our moral duty to turn this around. We have to make our people whole again."
The ease with which Clinton employed the first-person plurals "our" and "we" among an all-black audience impressed those who were there -- and those who weren't. Ronald Reagan earned the nickname the Great Communicator, but some Republicans have wondered aloud if Clinton hasn't earned the mantle himself.
After listening to the president speak in support of NAFTA, one day George Bush remarked simply: "Now I understand why he's inside looking out and I'm outside looking in."
Pub Date: 8/25/96