Skip to main content

Bill Clinton is back and looking good

By John Avlon, Special to CNN
  • John Avlon: Bill Clinton warns of the costs of extreme anti-government rhetoric
  • Avlon: Clinton left a huge surplus and high ratings; even one-time critics reassessing him
  • During tenure, he was called radical, hated by conservative talk radio, Avlon says
  • Today, the same hatred and hyper-partisanship distort the issues, he writes

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the new book, "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- With the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing this week, former President Bill Clinton has been back in the news with timely reminders of the costs of extreme anti-government rhetoric and his perspective on the partisan wars in Washington.

After a speech at the Center for American Progress on Friday, an ABC News "This Week" interview on Sunday and an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday, Clinton's resurgence amounts to a reassessment of his presidency -- and Bubba is looking pretty good in the rearview mirror of history, even to his one-time critics.

In some ways, the parallels to today's political debates are striking: A Democratic president from a new generation, representing a mandate for change during a recession, brings his party into unified control of Washington for the first time in more than a decade.

Amid a fight over health care reform, the new president was accused of governing far more liberally than he campaigned. In a relitigation of the 1960s culture wars, Newt Gingrich -- who earlier this month accused Barack Obama of being "the most radical president in American history" -- called the Clintons "counterculture McGovernicks." Bumper stickers sold near the White House featured Clinton's name with a Soviet-style hammer and sickle.

Video: Bill Clinton: Don't fuel the 'unhinged'

Conservative talk radio proliferated in opposition, turning hatred of the president into a cottage industry, providing a profitable boost in ratings. Separately, the militia movement grew, fueled by fears of a tyrannical federal government, new gun restrictions and a foreign policy that was said to sacrifice sovereignty in favor of globalization.

The same narratives endure today, the reflexive reflection of old scripts that still retain their power.

But echoes of 1994 run through this year's midterm elections as well. In their enthusiasm, some Democrats misread the previous presidential election as a liberal ideological mandate. Surging numbers of independent voters turned toward Republicans in their desire for deficit reduction and the checks and balances of divided government. It was a reminder that America remained an essentially center-right nation.

Clinton pivoted back toward the center in the second half of his first term. He worked with Republicans to pass welfare reform with bipartisan margins, over the objections of his liberal base. He was committed to a free-trade agenda and continued to pursue policies that turned a deficit into a surplus, while actually shrinking the size of the federal work force. While recognizing that "the era of big government is over," he was able to make the case for a more limited but still activist government. He reclaimed the allegiance of moderates and the middle class and was re-elected.

Of course, any discussion of Clinton's legacy cannot ignore his self-inflicted scandals. I was a Clinton kid -- a freshman in college in the fall of 1992, a White House intern the same summer as Monica Lewinsky, and a worker at his 1996 convention. I remember the sense of personal betrayal I felt when the man who had so evenly said, "I have less and less control over my reputation, but I still have full control over my character" proved less than candid.

The fact that he was the second president impeached outweighs the fact that he was the first Democratic president re-elected since FDR. Nonetheless, after all the drama and disappointment, he left office with a sky-high 62 percent approval rating. It was a clear endorsement of Clinton's policies, if not his personal life, from the American people.

Given the fury of the partisan fights between conservatives and Clinton, it seems odd that the mid-1990s would now look like a golden age of bipartisan cooperation. But that divided government proved the most fiscally responsible of the modern era.

Through the eyes of history, it seems Clinton was essentially what he said he was: a centrist Southern president who was focused on economic growth. He understood the necessity of forming a durable political coalition and governing from the center -- and in the process, he started a third-way philosophy of governing that proved its ultimate success with Tony Blair across the Atlantic.

The ultimate compliments may come from his one-time bitter adversaries, like Christopher Ruddy -- a conservative journalist who investigated the Vince Foster suicide and who is now editor-in-chief of Newsmax. Ruddy told the The New York Times Magazine last year that he now considers Clinton a friend -- and vice versa. "And to think of all the wars we went through in the '90s, it seems almost surreal. ... I guess we thought, 'This is just politics.' But looking back at my role, I was probably over the top. And if I knew then what I know today, I wouldn't have pursued some of that stuff as aggressively as I did."

This belated revelation should be a cautionary tale for those who find themselves obsessively invested in Obama hatred today. It is a reminder of how hyper-partisanship fundamentally distorts our political debates and often makes them intellectually dishonest.

The resurgence of some of Clinton's old critics, wielding similar lines of attack at Obama, should give cause for pause. At the same time, Obama can learn from some of the lessons of Clinton to recenter his presidency. And we all should take to heart the 42nd president's recent warning that "there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws."

To see politics, we must view it with the broadest sense of perspective -- remembering that patriotism is ultimately more important than partisanship.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.