A domestic record of progress, pratfalls ...

Eight years: Tawdry personal failures overshadowed sometimes daring achievements.

The Clinton Legacy

January 19, 2001

SCANDAL HOVERED over him even as he moved into the White House. It remains as he leaves tomorrow after eight tumultuous years.

Seldom in our nation's history has a president presented such a mixed record of important achievement and resounding failure, hitting bottom with his impeachment.

The verdict of historians could well start on the shame end of the spectrum because President Clinton's offenses were so spectacular and because many of his accomplishments must be shared with others.

Leading his party to the center, Mr. Clinton freed it from the iron hand of political history, finding a way to reform welfare, a burned-out New Deal program that had seemed impervious to change.

He accepted a Republican welfare reform idea as the way to get the votes he needed, setting aside the concerns of some advisers who feared his reform plan would shred the social safety net. Then he put his own stamp on the deal, the earned income tax credit. His approach achieved two objectives: re-packaging the poor as workers who deserve help and restoring the image of government as a vehicle for progress and change.

He was blessed but somewhat limited by the robust economy. In a time of prosperity, a president has few opportunities for the bold stroke -- fewer compelling problems to solve. Thus, he gets muted credit for listening, in this case, to Alan Greenspan and for setting aside the old Democratic Party verities. The Federal Reserve chairman insisted that Wall Street would respond energetically to deficit reduction -- investing, generating jobs and deepening the stream of tax revenue.

Given the good judgment exercised here, it is striking that his health-care reform plan failed so miserably. Had his timing been different -- had he tried health-care reform later when he was more sure-footed as president -- he might well have succeeded.

Later initiatives fared better. His administration did enact a program that brings medical insurance to 2.5 million children of low-wage workers. The bigger, unsolved problem remains, however.

Surely his heavy use of polling and focus groups showed deep displeasure about the state of their health care system. Some critics say he relied on public opinion sampling to the point of suspending his own judgment. Yet polling may have given him support to take relatively daring steps, including his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which offended some of his party's most impor-tant core constituencies.

Whether polling ratified his decision or not, he was willing to speak directly about race in American society, defending affirmative action and appointing unprecedented numbers of blacks and Latinos to positions of influence. It is unlikely that any poll backed his use of the Lincoln Bedroom as a funding-raising venue, but sadly he did that, too.

His final days pass with prosecutors after him still. Even if he doesn't escape entirely, he will be thought of by some writers of history as a political Houdini. That distinction will be an empty one against the idea of a man whose presidency might have been distinguished by new thinking.

Bill Clinton, the president who might have been great.

Surely not the epitaph he or his supporters would have chosen.

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