CLINTON WAS THE BEST

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The Big Question: Anne McElvoy believes Bill Clinton established a fresh way of talking about politics...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

First, a concession: a president who ends up indicted in office and havering over the precise meaning of the word "sex" with an intern is not going to win a contest based on personal morality. But then that might knock out a few contenders, including JFK. And, despite his infamous flaw, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton (42nd president, 1993-2001) was a great one for America. 

He created a new, more potent form of progressive politics by grasping that a left-of-centre party could deploy the best instincts of the moderate right. Clinton saw that this is what a lot of voters want. Without this model, it is hard to imagine the politics of Blair or Cameron in Britain, or Gerhard Schröder in Germany. Clintonism is a successful export.

On arriving in office in 1993, Clinton balanced the books by cutting the deficit, rather than adhering to a tax pledge he should never have made. This is the lesser of the evils in a politician and it established his reputation as a fiscally responsible leader—something his avatar, Barack Obama, has still not quite managed.

A readiness to embrace policies associated with the right enabled him to expand charter schools, bring excellence to the poorest children and, in the Welfare to Work programme, provide a template for tough-but-tender reforms by other leaders seeking to break down the dismal cycle of reliance on the state.

Accused of lacking substance by those who underestimate the importance of style, Clinton established a fresh way of talking about politics: affable, inclusive and persuasive. He understood that America requires empathy as well as leadership and changed the way politicians communicate, just as the great orators of America's past had done.

In the altered world left by the end of the cold war, Clinton saw that America would not involve itself in every foreign skirmish and needed new principles of intervention. Although it took him too long to act, an end to the carnage in Bosnia and Kosovo came only because he was brave enough to back intervention and build a coalition. His reluctance to commit troops to ground wars while deploying the might of US air power against murderous dictators was wise, or, at least, markedly less damaging than what followed. 

Bill Clinton made it harder for America's critics to dislike her. That is a very good thing for anyone who believes that the remaining superpower can be a force for good.

Who do you think was the best president? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Emily Bobrow on George Washington, David Thomson on Franklin D. Roosevelt, David Rennie on Thomas Jefferson, Jesse Norman on Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Lockwood on Theodore Roosevelt

Anne McElvoy is the public policy editor at The Economist. She is a columnist for London's Evening Standard