Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Giving Clinton His Due

Most Presidents accomplish very little in the legacy department during their tenure. Policy changes are relatively common and usually changed again by someone else. Presidents are fortune to leave one major legacy and it usually requires two terms. Reagan left a few, which is why he is held in such high regards by others. He changed the debate on taxes from one of the patriotic position paying as much as possible without complaining to holding the government accountable by demanding they tax less. Further, he profoundly convinced people that tax increases not only hurt the economy, but often fail to actually increase revenues. On the foreign policy front, Reagan developed the concept of "peace through strength," convinced the Soviets of the rise of the strategic defense initiative (AKA "Star Wars") and largely ended the Cold War without a shot being fired. Before Reagan, "Mutual Assured Destruction" (MAD) was considered the wise position of strength. Reagan believed and convinced enough Americans that the acronym was a good name for this philosophy.

The first President Bush left virtually no long term legacy. Hampered by a single term (largely, in my opinion, for failing to keep his promise not to raise taxes), Bush was largely lucky to leave with minimal damage reputation wise.

The current President Bush has developed a policy of preemptive defense (e.g., in Iraq), but the jury is out on whether on not that will create a legacy. A legacy is noted by how it effects future policy, not just current governing. Also, he has made an articulate argument for Social Security reform that certainly had the potential of leaving a positive legacy. But right now that is a dream. Bush II, as legacy maker, is in question.

What about President Clinton? Any regular listener of my radio show or anyone who has read my articles or books know how I feel about Clinton. He was an embarrassment on several fronts. There is, however, one area I must give him his due and that is welform reform. A policy for which we are celebrating a 10th anniversary. I believe we can call it a legacy because it is still in tact and Congress is entertaining on how to build on it. When welform reform was pursued in 1996 it had three objectives: to reduce dependency on welfare and foster employment, to slow down and reduce child poverty, and to reduce out of weklock births and promote marriage. It clearly succeeded in all three fronts.

The following are a few facts:

  • Following the passage of this bill in 1996, welfare caseloads declined in earnest and has fallen 56 percent since then.
  • There has been a hundred percent increase in employment among young single mothers age 18 to 24 since passage of this bill.
  • Between 1995 and 2003, overall unwed childbearing has increased very slowly, only 2.4 percentage points, a fourth of the pre-reform rate of increase of 7.7 percent annually (and at over 40 percent when the bill passed into law).

This bill has succeeded and the legacy continues to expand as Congress considers tackling other means tested programs besides AFDC, which was centerpiece in the 1996 act. I encourage everyone to review some of the events and papers surrounding the ten year anniversary of this important law by visiting the Heritage Foundation's site commemorating it. I also encourage people to contact their Member of Congress and encourage them to take further action towards ending welfare as we know it.

For the many cynics out there (I know, I'm often one of them) who believe Clinton was forced to pass this legislation by a Republican Congress, I disagree. In the early 1980s when I was a student at Abilene Christian University, I remember reading about a young governor who offered hope to conservatives who thought the Democratic Party was entirely liberal. This governor actually supported a pro-life position and spoke widely about "ending welfare as we know it" and "replacing welfare with workfare." That governor was Bill Clinton and he wasn't a "Johnny come lately" on the welfare issue. And although he clearly lost his conservative leanings in some (if not most) issues, he didn't on that one, and the results have been nothing short of profound. And what he has left in this one important area is a legacy we should build on.

I also believe it took a Clinton. More than likely if there had been a Republican President, the proposal would have been shot down as cold hearted, even with a Republican majority. It was the right bill, for the right Congress and, most importantly, the right President, at the right time.

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