There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Pact on the bus

Finished "The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation" by Steven M. Gillon, the resident historian of the History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. This is a must-read for anyone interested in government, and it is especially important when considering the race for the Democratic Party's nomination for president this year.

The book, which is being published by Oxford University Press, won't be released until June. I got my copy of the Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy off the discard pile at work. Everyone figured a book about Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich couldn't have much relevance. Just goes to show you really can't judge a book by its cover.

Gillon has written a well-researched account of the secret partnership between a Democrat who sought to move his party to the middle and a firebrand Republican who harbored visions of a transformed government -- and the tragedy that befell both men because Clinton couldn't keep his zipper closed.

Liberals who disagreed with President Clinton's welfare reform effort or the balanced budget agreement he reached with Republicans will find the book cloyingly approving of those efforts. Conservative Republicans who feel distaste for any deal that compromises principles to gain support will find the book and Gingrich a great disappointment. And supporters of Hillary Clinton will want this book to disappear.

On one level, the book is a tale of the battles of the cultural revolution that began in the 1960s -- the fans of Elvis vs. the fans of John Wayne. As Gillon explains in the preface, "When I started working on this book my plan was to use Clinton and Gingrich as metaphors for the intense partisan divisions that shaped the politics of the 1990s." But in researching the book Gillon discovered that Clinton and Gingrich had been on the brink of forging a coalition of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, a 60 percent majority that would have provided the support necessary to pass long-term Medicare and Social Security reform.

"Clinton was looking for a bold initiative in his final years that would define his presidency, answer critics who claimed he had failed to make a lasting imprint on the office, and encourage historians to rank him among the nation's 'great' presidents," Gillon writes. "For his part, Gingrich was also thinking about how history would remember him. His idol was Henry Clay, the nineteenth-century Whig Speaker of the House who used his influence to expand American power abroad and preserve the Union at home. Gingrich wanted to be remembered as a great statesman, not just as a conservative firebrand rebel and mastermind of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress."

On the evening of Oct. 28, 1997, Gingrich and Arnie Christenson, Gingrich's chief of staff, met with the president, White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and the administration's legislative director John Hilley.

"Both sides went to great lengths to maintain secrecy," Gillon writes. "The president did not tell his vice president, the Democratic leadership in the House, or even his wife, about the meeting." The official photograph of the meeting wasn't declassified until November 2007 after Gillon's freedom of information request.

What did Clinton and Gingrich have in mind?

"In private conversations with Gingrich and with Texas Republican Bill Archer, powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee, the president promised to 'provide political cover' for Democrats and Republicans by announcing his support for raising the minimum age required for Social Security and for changing the COLA formula. The president was willing to oppose the leadership of his own party and support the Republican demand for private accounts. Although most Republicans planned to use the surplus for a massive tax cut, Gingrich privately accepted the administration's position that the surplus should be used first to save Social Security 'for all time,' with any remaining amount used for a tax break."

Four months later, the revelations of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky abruptly ended any possibility of bipartisan work on any issue, let alone such sensitive topics as Social Security and Medicare.

Even casual readers of this blog know that I am a supporter of Barack Obama, and in particular an enthusiastic fan of his efforts to reach across the partisan divide in order to make government work. When Clinton was president, I reluctantly supported his welfare reform efforts. My sentiments were not unlike those of conservative Republicans who gave grudging support to President Nixon's efforts in China. If you are going to have welfare reform, I figured, it's better to have a Democrat in charge, balancing the limits on welfare with job training for welfare recipients and subsidized child care.

But it was as I read this book that I realized just how much the country lost with the stain on Monica's blue dress. In fighting his removal from office, the president had to seek refuge in the left extreme of his party while Gingrich was forced to adhere to the will of a cadre of unbending Republican conservatives he had brought to Congress. Gone was any chance of a middle way, and we have been paying for that to this day.

This is not a book that either Gingrich or Clinton wants published.

Gillon found a brief window of opportunity after the 2004 election when the two men were willing to allow the story of their past effort to work together to be uncovered, but as maneuvering for the 2008 elections began that window closed.

"By 2006, ... with his wife gearing up for her own run at the presidency, Clinton shifted gears," Gillon explains. "He had once seen himself as a post-partisan politician, as the man who would blur ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. Now the master of triangulation pushed Democrats to assume the ideological offensive against Republicans. With his wife locked in a tough primary battle the president was determined to help broaden her appeal to traditional Democratic voters. Telling the party faithful that he had once tried to form a coalition with a man most of them despised was not part of the message."

Not only does the former president not want his efforts publicized, but he also doesn't want to reveal just how limited that "experience" was that his wife touts on the campaign trail.

One of the singular achievements of the Clinton administration was the balanced budget deal he and Gingrich hammered out after the Republicans had suffered major public relations disasters by shutting down the government twice. Hillary's role?

"For liberals, the only remaining ally in the White House was Hillary Clinton. While she was an influential voice in the first few years, she was largely excluded from policy discussions after the health care fiasco. She was much less generous toward Gingrich than her husband, viewing him as part of the right-wing conspiracy that was out to destroy his administration. But she was largely absent from the inner circle after 1994, directing her attention outward, traveling around the world, condemning policies that discriminated against women. Her most high-profile domestic initiative after the health care debacle was a book about the White House pets called 'Dear Socks, Dear Buddy.' [Erskine] Bowles gracefully made clear to the president that he would prefer she keep a low profile during the second term."

Barack Obama's name never appears in the book, but he comes off as the true heir to the New Democrat mantle, the best choice to restore the nation's hope that something more than partisan differences should be the focus of government.

It's time to turn the page.

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