Modern history

Politics at the End of the Twentieth Century

The baby boom generation that produced Bill Gates and Kristen Breitweiser also brought President Bill Clinton (and his successors George W. Bush and Barack Obama). The first president born after 1945, Clinton had to deal with the challenges facing the post— Cold War world. He embraced globalization as the key to economic prosperity and showed his readiness to promote and defend U.S. national security. Despite achieving general prosperity and peace, Clinton could not escape the political polarization that divided the American electorate, and his tenure in office only made this schism worse.

The Clinton Presidency

Born in Arkansas in 1946, William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton served five terms as Democratic governor of his home state. As governor, Clinton spoke out for equal opportunity and improved education and economic development. After defeating President George H. W. Bush in 1992 (see chapter 27), Clinton entered the White House brimming with energy and enthusiasm. An admirer of President John F. Kennedy, Clinton echoed Kennedy’s sentiments in his inaugural address: “Today a new generation raised in the shadow of the Cold War assumes new responsibilities in a world warmed by the sunshine of freedom but threatened still by ancient hatreds and new plagues.”

President Clinton failed in his first attempt to achieve his goals. Against powerful congressional opposition, he backed away from ordering the admission of gays and lesbians into the military, though many already served secretly. Under pressure, the president instead devised the policy of “don't ask, don't tell,” which permitted homosexuals to serve in the armed forces so long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret. Gay service members did not benefit from this compromise and continued to encounter discrimination in the military.

Clinton had even less success in reforming health care. Since President Harry Truman had first proposed a system of universal health care coverage in the late 1940s (see chapter 24), the American Medical Association and private insurance companies had succeeded in blocking passage of this and all subsequent plans, despite the general approval of the American public. The Clinton administration recommended a system of universal medical coverage based on “managed competition”—the establishment of regional health care cooperatives to purchase low-cost, private insurance paid for largely by employers. Although Clinton’s plan did not advocate “socialized medicine” (government-run medical care) as many critics charged, the plan nonetheless went down to defeat.

President Clinton was more successful in achieving his goals in other areas, some of which were no less controversial. In 1993, reversing Reagan-Bush policies, President Clinton signed executive orders allowing physicians in federally funded clinics to advise patients about abortion; authorizing military hospitals to perform abortions; and funding UN programs that included abortions. Clinton also demonstrated that women’s rights were not incompatible with family values. He approved the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which allowed parents to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborn children without risk of losing their jobs.

Clinton tried to appeal to voters across the political spectrum on other issues. He signed a tough anticrime law that funded the recruitment of an additional 100,000 police officers to patrol city streets, while supporting gun control legislation. Managing to overcome the powerful lobby of the National Rifle Association, in 1993 Clinton signed the Brady Bill (named after Ronald Reagan’s aide who was shot in the attempted assassination of the president in 1981), which imposed a five-day waiting period to check the background of gun buyers.

The president achieved even greater success in promoting racial diversity. He appointed African Americans to high-level positions in his cabinet—his selection of four African Americans at one time was unprecedented. His “rainbow administration” welcomed women and minorities to other important posts. Born in the segregated South, Clinton had become a strong advocate of affirmative action and did what he could to protect it from conservative challenges in the states and the courts.

Clinton’s fiscal policies ushered in a period of economic growth and prosperity, which ended the recession of the early 1990s. With congressional support, the president reduced domestic and defense spending by $500 billion, while raising taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. By the end of the 1990s, the Clinton administration had eliminated the deficit, the gross domestic product was rising 3 percent annually, unemployment dropped from 6 percent to 4 percent, and the stock market reached record highs.

President Clinton’s accomplishments aroused fierce opposition from conservatives. Right-wing talk radio hosts criticized the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a lawyer and leader in the effort to reform health care. Conservatives blamed Clinton for all they considered wrong in society—feminism, abortion, affirmative action, and secularism. Rush Limbaugh, a popular conservative talk-show host, donned the self- proclaimed mantle of the “angry white male.” His rhetoric respected few boundaries, even on publicly owned airwaves, where he uttered comments such as “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women access to mainstream society.” Clinton’s personal life also provided ammunition for his opponents. Rumors of marital infidelity hounded him, and questions about his and his wife’s pre-presidential dealings in a controversial real estate development project known as Whitewater prompted the appointment in 1994 of a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of impropriety.

Facing conservative opposition, the president and the Democratic Party fared poorly in the 1994 congressional elections. Republicans, led by House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich of Georgia, championed the Contract with America. This document embraced conservative principles of a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget, reduced welfare spending, lower taxes, and term limits for lawmakers. Democrats lost fifty-four seats in the House, and for the first time since 1952 Republicans captured a majority of both houses of Congress. This election also underscored the increasing electoral influence of white evangelical Christians, who turned out to vote in large numbers for Republican candidates.

Stung by this defeat, Clinton tried to outmaneuver congressional Republicans by shifting rightward politically and championing welfare reform. In 1996 he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children provision of the Social Security law, the basis for welfare in the United States since the New Deal. The measure required adults on the welfare rolls to find work within two years or lose the benefits provided to families earning less than $7,700. Welfare had provided Republicans with a wedge issue to divide the Democratic electorate, and Clinton diminished its effect by supporting reform. Also in 1996, the president approved the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied married same-sex couples the federal benefits granted to heterosexual married couples, including Social Security survivor’s benefits.

In adopting such positions as deficit reduction, welfare reform, and antigay legislation, Clinton ensured his reelection in 1996. Running against Republican senator Robert Dole of Kansas, a military veteran of World War II, and the independent candidate Ross Perot, Clinton captured 49 percent of the popular vote and 379 electoral votes. Dole received 41 percent of the vote, and Perot came in a distant third with 8 percent, a sharp decline from the 19 percent he had received four years earlier (see chapter 27).

Global Challenges and Economic Renewal

Clinton faced numerous foreign policy challenges during his two terms in office. As the first president elected to office in the post—Cold War era, Clinton could approach trouble spots without the rigid anti-Communist views of his predecessors. Increasingly, the problems facing the United States did not result from customary military aggression by one nation against another; rather, the greatest threats came from the implosion of national governments into factionalism and genocide, as well as the dangers posed by Islamic extremists.

At first, the Clinton administration acted cautiously. During a civil war in the African nation of Rwanda, Hutu extremists dispatched armed militias to exterminate the ethnic Tutsi population. The United States watched from the sidelines, along with most of the rest of the world. The slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus brought condemnation but little action other than the United Nations’ attempt to evacuate refugees from the massacre. Following this tragedy, Hollywood told the story of this genocide in the movie Hotel Rwanda (2004), which occasioned sympathy for the plight of the Rwandan victims, if not shame for the inaction of the United States.

By contrast, Clinton responded boldly to violence in the Balkans, an area considered more vital to U.S. national security than Rwanda. Along with the collapse of Eastern European regimes in 1989, Yugoslavia splintered into religious and ethnic pieces after the crumbling of the ruling Communist regime. The predominantly Roman Catholic states of Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from the largely Russian Orthodox Serbian population in Yugoslavia. In 1992 the mainly Muslim territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina also broke away, much to the chagrin of its substantial Serbian population (Map 29.1). This unleashed a civil war between Serb and Croatian minorities and the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government. Supported by Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of the neighboring province of Serbia, Bosnian Serbs wrested control of large parts of the region and slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims through what they euphemistically called ethnic cleansing. In 1995, following three years of violence, Clinton sponsored NATO bombing raids against the Serbs and dispatched 20,000 American troops as part of a multilateral peacekeeping force. At the same time, the president brokered a peace agreement, known as the Dayton Peace Accords, among Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia at a conference in Dayton, Ohio. In 1999 renewed conflict erupted when Milosevic’s Serbian government attacked the province of Kosovo to eliminate its Albanian Muslim residents. Clinton and NATO responded by initiating air strikes against the Serbs and placing troops on the ground, actions that preserved Kosovo’s independence. (Milosevic was later brought before the World Court to face trial for war crimes but died before the court reached a verdict.)

The United States faced an even graver danger from Islamic extremists intent on waging a religious struggle (jihad) of terror against their perceived enemies and establishing a transnational Muslim government, or caliphate. Former presidents Jimmy Carter in Iran and Ronald Reagan in Lebanon had experienced the wrath of radical Muslims (see chapter 28). The United States’ close relationship with Israel placed it high on the list of terrorist targets, along with pro-American Muslim governments in Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia. In 1993 Islamic militants orchestrated the bombing of the World Trade Center’s underground garage, which killed six people and injured more than one thousand. Five years later, terrorists blew up American embassies in the African nations of Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds and injuring thousands of local workers and residents. In retaliation, Clinton ordered air strikes against terrorist bases in Sudan and Afghanistan. However, the danger persisted. In 2000 al-Qaeda terrorists blew a gaping hole in the side of the USS Cole, a U.S. destroyer anchored in Yemen, killing seventeen American sailors.

MAP 29.1

The Breakup of Yugoslavia, 1991-2008 With the collapse of Communist control of Yugoslavia in 1989, the country splintered along ethnic and religious lines, eventually forming seven separate nations. A civil war between Serbia and Croatia ended in 1995, but Serbs then attacked Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.

International terrorism did not lead to the undoing of President Clinton, but more mundane, sexual indiscretions nearly brought him down. Starting in 1995, Clinton had engaged in consensual sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, a twenty- two-year-old White House intern. Clinton denied these charges under oath and before a national television audience, but when Lewinsky testified about the details of their sexual encounters, the president recanted his earlier statements that he had never had “sexual relations with that woman.” After an independent prosecutor concluded that Clinton had committed perjury and obstructed justice, the Republican-controlled House voted to impeach the president on December 19, 1998, the first time it had done so in 130 years (see chapter 14). However, on February 12, 1999, Republicans in the Senate failed to muster the necessary two-thirds vote to convict Clinton on the impeachment charges.

Despite his impeachment, Clinton left the country in more prosperous shape than he had found it. At the height of the sex scandal in 1998, the unemployment rate fell to 4.3 percent, the lowest level since the early 1970s. The rate of home ownership reached a record-setting nearly 67 percent. As the “misery index”—a compilation of unemployment and inflation—fell, the gross domestic product grew by more than $250 billion. By 1999 the stock market’s Dow Jones average reached a historic 10,000 points, up 2,000 pointatration boasted that its economic policies had succeeded in canceling the Reagan-Bush budget deficit, yielding a surplus of $230 billion for the fiscal year 2000. This boom, however, did not affect everyone equally. African Americans and Latinos lagged behind whites economically. The gap between rich and poor widened, as the wealthiest 13,000 American families earned as much income as the poorest 20 million. Despite these shortcomings, most Americans seemed pleased with the economic renaissance of the Clinton years.


• How did conflicts between Democrats and Republicans affect President Clinton's accomplishments?

• How did the end of the Cold War shape President Clinton's foreign policies?

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