Q&A with Patrick J. Maney, author of “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President”

9780700621941Q:     Why did you choose to write about Bill Clinton compared to another president?

A:     He was the first member of my generation to become president. We were born within a couple of months of one another and were shaped by many of the same events: the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, the draft, Vietnam. His heroes were my heroes: Elvis, JFK, Martin Luther King. So I felt a sort of kinship with Bill Clinton—and Hillary.

I was also interested in understanding why they were such polarizing figures. Why the reactions to the Clintons, both pro and con, seemed out of proportion to their actions. How, for example, to account for the hatred that consumed so many of their critics? Sure, they rubbed a lot of people the wrong way by supporting abortion rights, affirmative action, gays in the military, and gender equality. The president’s infidelities understandably upset many. Still, most of their views resided safely in the political mainstream. Indeed, Clinton’s economic and fiscal views made him one of the most conservative Democrats to occupy the White House in the twentieth century. Here was a president who hailed the end of big government; who was more pro-business than pro-labor; who presided over deregulation of the telecommunications and banking industries; approved more corporate mergers than his two predecessors combined; wore his religion on his sleeve; approved drastic cuts in welfare; and was tough on crime. Before he became president, Clinton supported the Gulf War, and, after gaining his footing in the White House, showed himself more willing than many of his Republican critics to deploy American forces abroad. Something other than policy was at work here. The Clintons had become a kind of national Rorschach test upon which people projected their personal hopes and fears, values and attitudes. Critics weren’t alone in projecting onto the Clintons. Ardent supporters were apt to do it as well. How else to explain prominent African Americans like writer Toni Morrison describing Clinton as “the first black president” and “one of us,” even as they deplored Clinton’s support for welfare reform, discriminatory sentencing guidelines, and the death penalty (even in the case of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged African American inmate in Arkansas).

Q:     What did you learn about Clinton that you did not know before you wrote this book?

A:     Foreign affairs loomed much larger in his administration than I had remembered. After a stumbling start, Clinton devised a plausible strategic substitute for the containment policy that had guided the United Stated throughout the Cold War. He helped resolve conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, of course, but also helped diffuse conflicts in Haiti, North Korea, and between India and Pakistan. More controversially, Clinton expanded the president’s war-making powers over Congress; anticipated some of the George W. Bush administration’s tactics in the post-9/11 War on Terror; and, by accusing Saddam Hussein of concealing weapons of mass destruction, helped lay the groundwork for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. We don’t think of foreign policy when we think of the Clinton administration. We should.

Q:     What do you think was Clinton’s defining moment as president?

A:     Politically, the defining moment of the Clinton presidency came on the heals of two devastating defeats in 1994: The demise of health care reform—“Hillarycare”—and Republican rout in the midterm elections. For the first time in forty years, the GOP controlled both house of Congress. “The shape of American politics will very probably never be the same again,” said the dean of American historians, Walter Dean Burnham, adding that the GOP might be the dominant party for years, perhaps even generations. With seemingly no chance of being reelected, Clinton was reduced to telling reporters—not very convincingly—that he was still relevant. But at that very moment–with Clinton laying flat on the canvas and Newt Gingrich, the new Republican Speaker of the House, standing over him with arms raised in triumph–Clinton was plotting his comeback. And what a comeback it was. In 1996 he became the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term. For anyone interested in politics for politics sake, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Q:     How do you think Bill Clinton’s presidency affects Hillary’s campaign?

A:     It’s both help and hindrance. Hillary’s years in the White House, coupled with her career in the Senate and State Department, equipped her with a command of issues and policies rare among presidential candidates. No candidate in either party this year can match her detailed knowledge. Hillary also acquired a network of high-level advisors and policy experts that would be the envy of any presidential aspirant. A year or two ago, her experience and connections would seem to have been an unqualified plus. But no longer. We’re now in the year of the outsider. Senator Sanders’s surprisingly strong challenge has also forced Hillary to distance herself from many of the actions of her husband’s administration: the Defense of Marriage Act, deregulation of the telecommunications and banking industries, and the decision to leave unregulated the market in credit default swaps and other risky derivatives. President Clinton’s Iraqi policies are also a potential millstone. In the end, my hunch is that experience will still work to her advantage, but it’s too early to tell for certain.

Q:     What aspects of Bill’s presidency could Hillary use to her advantage?

A:     Instead of running away from the record of her husband’s administration, as Al Gore did in 2000 and as she is doing now, she might at least embrace some of the economic successes of the nineties. She might also note that despite the partisan rancor of the times, there was more bipartisan cooperation than at any time since.

Q:     How do you think Clinton’s presidency will be remembered? 

A:     Bill Clinton may well be remembered less for the successes and failures of his administration than for his personal resilience. Journalist Anna Quindlen compared him to “one of those inflatable children’s toys with sand weighting the bottom. You knock him down and he pops back up.” What historian Garry Wills said of Richard Nixon is also true of Clinton: “He rose again, eerily, from each stumble or knockout, apparently unkillable. He raised undiscourageability to heroic scale.” It’s possible Hillary will be remembered in the same way.

–Patrick J. Maney, author of “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President

Bill Clinton’s Back

9780700621941Of the original Gilded Age, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: “There is no other period in the nation’s history when politics seems so completely dwarfed by economic changes, none in which the life of the country rests so completely in the hands of the industrial entrepreneur.” The era of William Jefferson Clinton’s ascent to the presidency was strikingly similar—nothing less, Clinton himself said, than “a paradigm shift . . . from the industrial age to an information-technology age, from the Cold War to a global society.” How Bill Clinton met the challenges of this new Gilded Age is the subject of Patrick J. Maney’s book, “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President,” an in-depth perspective on the 42nd president of the United States and the transformative era over which he presided.

Maney’s in-depth study of Clinton goes beyond personality and politics to examine the critical issues of the day: economic and fiscal policy, business and financial deregulation, healthcare and welfare reform, and foreign affairs in a postCold War world. But at its heart is Clinton in all his guises: the first baby boomer to reach the White House; the “natural”—the most gifted politician of his generation, but one with an inexplicably careless and self-destructive streak; the “Comeback Kid,” repeatedly overcoming long odds; the survivor, frequently down but never out; and, with current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, part of the most controversial First Couple since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Maney’s book is, in sum, the most succinct and up-to-date study of the Clinton presidency, invaluable not merely for understanding a transformative era in American history, but presidential, national, and global politics today.

Obamacare and the Presidential Election

9780700621910As January 31 marked the deadline for those wanting to avoid being penalized for lack of healthcare coverage, Washington Post’s Monkey Cage features an Op-Ed by “Obamacare Wars: Federalism, State Politics, and the Affordable Care Act” authors Daniel Béland, Philip Rocco, and Alex Waddan.  Discussing three ways a Republican president could dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the authors build upon the discussion in their book and offer a timely examination of federalism, politics, and the Affordable Care Act.

The Imaginative Conservative Shares “American Burke’s” Take on Moynihan

9780700620968The Imaginative Conservative shares thoughts from Greg Weiner’s “American Burke:  The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” explaining that Moynihan was, “A defender of the necessity of a strong presidency but also of a robust Congress that maintained a proper constitutional balance. He crusaded against government secrecy that, among other ails, inflated executive power. One of the benefits of international law, he argued, was that it would ground foreign policy in something other than free-ranging executive will.”  Learn more inside Weiner’s “American Burke:  The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”

Louis Fisher on Congress and Protecting Individual Rights

5829925604_36b5677f9e_bAt a time when Congress seems determined to set new lows for being dysfunctional, it may seem strange to publish a book that explains how lawmakers for more than two centuries have protected the rights of blacks, women, children, religious liberty, Native Americans, and other minorities. The purpose is not merely to give credit to the legislative institution and understand how its performance compares favorably to the record of the executive and judicial branches. The book underscores the evident risks of putting our faith solely in Presidents and the Supreme Court. Such a decision moves us from democracy to a government with two elected officials in the executive branch and none in the judiciary. This book does more than remind us of what Congress once accomplished. It encourages a debate on specific steps needed to strengthen U.S. democracy and restore the capacity of members of Congress to discharge their constitutional duties. The intent of the book is to stimulate a dialogue on how we can protect and renew what the Framers hoped to create: a system of self-government.

–Written by Louis Fisher, a Scholar in Residence at the Constitution Project and author of the forthcoming book, “Congress: Protecting Individual Rights.”

Bull Moose or Bull Mouse: TR, Donald Trump, and a Third Party

9780700616060Donald Trump has recently mused about the possibility of a third party candidacy should the Republicans select someone other than him as their presidential nominee. Trump, who leaves few thoughts unexpressed, will thus stir memories of another Republican who, failing to get the GOP nomination, launched his own political party to win the White House. In 1912, defeated at the Republican National Convention by the forces of President William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt took his delegates out of the convention and nominated himself on the ticket of the new Progressive Party. In terms that would suit the most fervent of today’s evangelical Republicans, Roosevelt proclaimed that “we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”

Roosevelt made a strong race against the Democratic nominee, carrying six states with 88 electoral votes. He got about 27% of the popular vote and was an overall second behind Woodrow Wilson’s 41 %.  But he did lose. Popularity and charisma took Roosevelt only so far. Like other third party hopefuls from Robert M. La Follette in 1924, George Wallace in 1968, and Ross Perot in 1992, the partisan allegiances of the general electorate in the end frustrated third-party runs.

The similarities and differences between Trump and TR are interesting. Roosevelt in 1912 did not hint at a third party run until a month before the GOP convention. Here is Trump a year out dropping public warnings to the party that he might use his wealth to underwrite a third party run. Yet cursing the party establishment did not work for Roosevelt in 1912. Although his ill-treatment at the convention, and allegations of stolen delegates, initially justified his defection, he soon abandoned that strategy in favor of a reform program based on his “New Nationalism” of expanded government power.

It seems unlikely that Trump, who rarely goes near substance, would emulate Roosevelt’s, effort to lay out a blueprint for an America with greater corporate regulation, enhanced social justice for poorer elements in society, and a larger role for the federal government. Whatever one concludes about Roosevelt in 1912, there was a serious mind at work engaging the contemporary concerns of his time.  It is hard to imagine Roosevelt giving out the personal information of his opponents or attacking the war records of prominent senators. When friends brought him alleged evidence of Woodrow Wilson’s marital indiscretions, TR rejected it out of hand and would not use it, even though he disliked Wilson intensely.

When Roosevelt came to the Republican convention in Chicago, reporters asked him about how he felt. He said he felt as fit as  a “Bull Moose,” and that mighty animal became the symbol of Roosevelt’s third party.  There was an element of a sore loser in Roosevelt’s decision to leave his political home, but he redeemed himself, at least in the eyes of history, by the intellectual content of his campaign. Much of the liberal agenda of the 20th century emerged out of Roosevelt’s third party campaign and came to fruition in the New Deal and Great Society,

Donald Trump seems very adept at articulating popular grievances on immigration and foreign policy in language that, though often coarse and indelicate, resonates with the Republican base.  His preemptive assertion that he might take his marbles, his helicopters, and his audience appeal and run alone should the GOP delegates reject him is characteristic of someone with an ample ego and a large fortune. As Theodore Roosevelt learned, however, there is more to politics and running for president than one-liners and insults.  It is one thing to rattle the Republican National Committee with a third-party threat.  It is quite another to do the hard work of building up a genuine third party in all fifty states and make it a real political option.  Trump may be a master of the art of the deal, but at least on his record so far, there is little evidence of the capacity to do retail politics with any realistic prospect of success against Republicans and Democrats in a national election. One of TR’s successors, Warren G. Harding, spoke of the joys of vague rhetoric in political matters. Harding called it “bloviating.”  Trump is a serial bloviator. When it comes to a potential third party, Donald Trump is more likely to be remembered for his temporary celebrity than as an heir of one of the great politicians in American history, Theodore Roosevelt, and his memorable third-party run in 1912.

-Written by Lewis L. Gould, Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at Monmouth College and author of “Bull Moose on the Stump: The 1912 Campaign Speeches of Theodore Roosevelt” and “Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics“.