Will Clinton Be Our Eisenhower?

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It’s inviting on the Fourth of July to speculate a little about the next presidential election. Thus Politico last week asked, What Happens If Hillary Clinton Passes in 2016? At The New York Times, Jonathan Martin reported Republicans Paint Clinton As Old News for 2016 Presidential Election.

I was traveling last week; as one who had been deeply opposed to her candidacy in 2008, I found myself wondering what a Clinton presidency might mean.  The former Secretary of State is, after all, pretty old.  She began political life in 1964 as a Goldwater girl, was formed in the crucible of the Vietnam War, and was First Lady for eight years, senator for eight more.  She will be 69 by the next presidential election.

Moreover, the nation didn’t fare well when one Bush succeeded another. Why would his-and-her-presidencies be expected to produce a better result?

In 2016, the majority will be looking for a veteran commander who can be expected to steer a steady course and consolidate the gains made since the country turned right after 1980, along with the rest of the world, and, if I am correct, left again after 2008.

That’s probably Hillary Clinton. She may turn out to be our age’s Dwight Eisenhower.

This is a view that takes for granted 1932 and 1980 as fundamental turning points in American political life, part of the inescapable zigzag of history.  The outlines of the New Deal and the Reagan Revolution seem clear enough. It is the evolution in which we are swept up now that is still hazy, perhaps even in the mind of Hillary Clinton.

As a matter of course, many different narratives are unfolding together at the same time in our lives: war and peace, gender equality and civil rights, the international division of labor, the growing responsibility we take for nature, the sources to which we ascribe ultimate meaning. What is required to cause a “turn” in something as complicated as the life of a nation?

On this definition, it takes an economic crisis and a decisive response, some part of which quickly commands a substantial majority. Thus Franklin Roosevelt tried a wide variety of measures to cope with the bourgeoning Great Depression, some of which, such as the planning-oriented National Recovery Administration, were quickly repudiated. Among the reforms that stuck were extensive regulation of markets, commitment to union power and income equality, and mobilization for war.

Ronald Reagan expressed confidence in markets, in tax cuts and tax simplification, in monetary stability, and, in his 1983 Social Security rebalancing, a reaffirmation of the social contract undertaken by the New Deal (FDR had been his political hero).  George H. W. Bush succeeded him, promising a “kinder, gentler” conservatism but was swept away in 1992 in the generally unanticipated end of the Cold War.

Bill Clinton proved to be one sort of conservator of the Reagan legacy, George W.  Bush another.  Each strayed significantly from its basic themes, but each operated within its broad framework. The economic policies of the Clinton administration must be judged a great success from beginning to end, while Bush sobered up only after 2006, with surprising success, beginning with the nomination of Ben Bernanke to succeed Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve chair.

I opposed Clinton in 2008 because I believed Barack Obama stood a much better chance of successfully leading the country in a different direction. I think it turned out to be the case. My hunch is that Obama will come to be seen as having charted another new turn in the zig-zag, less startling than those of 1932 or 1980, but no less durable, precipitated by the financial crisis of 2008, but directed mainly at fundamental regulatory problems that had little to do with the recession the crisis caused.

After some initial confusion, Obama decided in his first term to concentrate on the reorganization of health care, and to leave the economic recovery mainly to the Fed (in this he had plenty of help from the  Republican-led House of Representatives); in the second, on climate change. He probably has charted the course of government action for the next thirty years.  True, he hasn’t yet put his knack for storytelling to work, but it’s not too late.

Three years to the next election is a long time in this fast-paced world.  If it turns out to be Clinton’s turn to carry on after 2016, as now seems likely it will, her job likely will be to take over an agenda set by others and broaden its acceptance, much as Eisenhower took over the New Deal reform from Harry Truman and governed peaceably long enough for the divisions to work themselves out – Roosevelt-hating, anti-communist fear-mongering, and the fear of return to depression.  Finally above the fray, it would be a very different role than the one she imagined for herself, a lifetime ago, as a trailing spousal newcomer to the White House, channeling Eleanor Roosevelt!

There’s going to be plenty of action between 2017 and 2025. At the top of the domestic agenda will be paying for various promises that have been made.  Hillary Clinton seems well-suited for the task of budget-balancing, which this time surely involves tax reform as well as a certain amount of growth. I decided I was at peace with the prospects, and, after the holiday, set out to get back to work.