City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Fred Siegel
What Might Have Been
Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were making progress on entitlement reform, until . . .
18 July 2008

The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and the Rivalry That Defined a Generation, by Steven M. Gillon (Oxford University Press, 368 pp., $24.95)

Several dozen books have been published on the Clinton presidency in recent years. For the most part, they all traverse the same well-trod, partisan ground from which Clinton and his archrival, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, emerge as soiled saints or satyrs. But Steven Gillon’s new book, The Pact, brings something new to the table. Gillon reveals that in the wake of the 1996 elections—in which, in Clinton’s words, Americans chose with “their eyes open” a president of one party and a Congress of the other—these antagonists discovered not only a sneaking admiration for one another, but also a shared desire to tackle some of the nation’s toughest problems.

After Clinton’s impeachment and a subsequent decade of intensified partisan rancor, it’s easy to forget that the 1990s were, relatively speaking, a decade of government reform. Governors like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin pioneered welfare reform, while cerebral mayors like Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis, John Norquist of Milwaukee, and Rudy Giuliani of New York tackled efficiency, urban design, and crime, respectively. Clinton and Gingrich were the comparable figures on the national stage. Unlike most of their fellow politicians on both sides of the aisle, they shared an intellectual interest in how to make government work.

The two men, bitter enemies who seemed to embody the never-ending hostilities of the 1960s, worked together to pass both national welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement—impressive achievements, especially in the aftermath of the political spanking that Clinton had handed Gingrich in 1995, after the speaker tried, in effect, to govern from the House floor. By the end of 1997, their mutual hostilities notwithstanding, they were ready for a new and even greater collaboration. For the first time in 30 years, the federal government enjoyed a surplus. Standing at $70 billion then, the surplus was projected to grow to $4.5 trillion over the next 15 years. Here was a chance to address widely held fears, particularly prevalent among younger voters, that Social Security and Medicare were headed for insolvency. With Clinton’s second-term chief of staff, North Carolina businessman Erskine Bowles, serving as the indispensable intermediary, the two rivals began discussing how to tackle entitlement reform.

But news of cordial policy conversations between the leaders of the warring camps spread consternation among militants in both parties. Republican conservatives, led by Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas, thought Gingrich was going soft on Clinton and considered deposing him as speaker. Similarly, Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the Democratic minority leader, was suspicious of any compromises with Gingrich; Gephardt, like most liberals, was already alienated from Clinton because of the president’s support for NAFTA. Clinton and Gingrich each had to wonder if the other was leading him into a trap.

When they sat down face to face—appropriately enough, in the Treaty Room in the East Wing of the White House—the outlines of a deal were readily apparent, explained Clinton aide Bruce Reed, one of the many staffers Gillon interviewed. The president agreed that some measure of choice would have to be incorporated into the existing Social Security system in the form of privately managed individual retirement accounts. In return, the speaker agreed to drop his demand for new tax cuts. The two concurred that the retirement age for collecting full Social Security benefits would have to increase. Finally, they decided to form a commission led by Louisiana Democratic senator John Breaux, a man trusted by both sides, which would recommend ways to bring private-sector reforms to Medicare.

Clinton was to unveil the outlines of the plan on January 27, 1998, in his State of the Union speech. But on January 21, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, and American politics has never fully recovered from that disaster. Both parties took their currently malformed contours from the course of the impeachment fight that followed. Clinton—on the ropes and fighting off the misguided Republican attempt to remove him from office rather than censure him—was forced into an alliance with liberals, who had opposed him on everything from trade and welfare to Social Security reform but were willing to defend him to the death on impeachment. The organization MoveOn.org, which eventually helped create the political landscape that produced Barack Obama’s nomination victory, emerged out of the impeachment fight. If there have been any far-ranging, thoughtful attempts at public-policy reform from the Democratic Party since Clinton’s impeachment, they have not been visible to the naked eye. On the GOP side, Clinton-hatred displaced public-policy initiatives as the glue that held Republicans together in a coalition dedicated to forever fighting off the malign influences of the 1960s.

Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma, doesn’t engage in “what if” history, but I will: What if there had been no Lewinsky affair and the deal that Clinton and Gingrich were working on had succeeded? Can’t we imagine, with that pact standing as a monument to problem-solving government, not only a healthier Social Security system but a far healthier political culture than the one we’ve been mired in for over a decade?

Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.

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