Increasingly, Bill Clinton is making a habit of disowning his achievements. On Wednesday, he admitted the laws on crime he helped put in place have made the country he used to run worse.
He’s also had second thoughts on financial deregulation, DOMA, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the genocide in Rwanda he ignored. The list may expand from there. It isn’t hard to imagine him coming out against NAFTA if the polls sway too far against Obama’s planned trade agreements with Europe and Asia.
In some ways, this is refreshing. Certainly, there are other public figures it would be nice to hear have a little regret over their choices. Those figures did undeniably more damage to the country than Clinton. Most of what he has renounced recently were compromises he should have fought harder against and policies he didn’t do much to overturn. We’ve been deregulating since the ’80s, after all, and the drug war and mass incarceration were hardly his ideas either.
Still, it is a little odd to see a former president turn against his entire legacy like this. There is political expediency in jettisoning some baggage as his wife hits the gas on her campaign, but if he isn’t careful, people will start wondering why they’ve regarded him and his family so well for so long, especially if all he did was make mistakes over his eight years as the most powerful person on the planet.
To date, there are still some positives to be taken from the (first) Clinton presidency: the NATO campaign in Bosnia still looks pretty good and the Family and Medical Leave Act was a good, if incomplete, step to the kind of job protections expected of a first world country.
Most of the rest, though, seem to come down to the benefit of the strong ‘90s economy, something Clinton gets some —but sometimes perhaps too much — credit for.
That economy, though, is likely to be what keeps President Clinton in the good graces of the American public. Whether he deserves it or not, his name is directly attached to positive remembrance of that decade. History may be less romantic and nostalgic, but Clinton can count of the current electorate to keep idealizing his tenure, even if it continues to become little more than wasted chances and regrets.