Richard Reeves

The View From the Left

NEW YORK -- On the left, there is a debate about the legacy of Bill Clinton. Was he just a cowardly disappointment? Or was he the killer of all things bright and beautiful?

Do you remember "the left"? Does anyone? Mother Jones does. She is not a person but a magazine of the left, a good and feisty one, railing against the night or the dusk of American liberalism in the current (October) issue. "Clinton's Legacy -- Good Bill? or Bill of Goods?" pits Michael Kazin, a Georgetown history professor, against Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for The Nation, another small magazine of the left.

Kazin satisfies himself by calling the president, elected by the more liberal of our two parties, a cautious and poll-driven politician who presided over a turn of the wheel from the far right to close to dead-center. Hitchens, a wonderful and witty stylist who has recently ruminated on the darker sides of both the Queen Mother of his native land, the United Kingdom, and Mother Teresa, dismisses Clinton (and his wife, too) as a sleazy agent of "remorseless progress toward a corporate state."

A debate of the left these days might be considered the counting of angels on pinheads, but this one also offers about the most intelligent liberal discourse on the man from Hope that I have seen. The dialogue, as are most Clinton conversations, is about what might have been. Hitchens explores what might have been if the president were, by his standards, an honest man and a sincere liberal. Kazin focuses on what might have been if the president had not used his great political talents to stop a powerful offensive from the right.

"I come to explain Bill Clinton's presidential record, not to praise it," begins Kazin. He refuses to use the word "progressive," the current fashion among liberals, but does offer a list of "progressive" moves by the Democratic president, including the appointment of scores of progressive judges, a list topped by Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

This, however, is Kazin's principal argument about the last seven years:

"He blocked and reversed the growth of the right. For a quarter of a century before his victory in 1992, conservatives had feasted on an image of liberals as arrogant, effete, and out of touch with the problems of ordinary Americans. Clinton -- with his bus tours, his galvanic empathy, and his praise of 'people who work hard and play by the rules' -- helped make at least a mild brand of social reformism palatable to mainstream audiences again."

As Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America rose and fell, Kazin says, "conservatism declined during the '90s." He adds this: "Clinton was the first president since 1945 who didn't use United States military might to protect undemocratic rulers or raw economic interests." Then he concludes by saying that with almost no political activism on the left during these years, Clinton had little choice but to hang out near the center. "The fault, fellow leftists," he says in his last sentence, "is not in our president, but in ourselves."

Oh yeah? Hitchens writes: "In the military and diplomatic relationships with Russia, China and NATO, the administration has followed a policy of which Henry Kissinger himself might approve. At home, it's GOP business as usual. ... Did he say he wanted to end poverty as we know it? No, he said he wanted to end welfare as we know it. Did he say that the morals of a "greed decade" overclass could use an overhaul? No, he said that the morals of the underclass required strict attention."

He reported on faint praise of Clinton by such right-wing commentators as Norman Podhoretz, who said, in Hitchens' paraphrasing: "Clinton 'de-McGovernized' the Democrats. Never again would the party show any skepticism about the military-industrial state, or the corporate world."

Finally, he dismisses as "vacuous" the campaign of Clinton's chosen Democratic successor. On the record, Vice President Gore is usually packing too much rather than too little into his own thinking chamber, but much of the detail he ponders and many of the conclusions he reaches are to the right of Clintonism -- so there is a chance that Kazin and Hitchens will be able to have a go at it again in eight years.

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