Whatever his failings in everyday life or in governance, put Bill Clinton in front of a roomful of laborers or intellectuals and he always delivers a tour de force.
The venue recentlty was the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, where the former president was invited by its founder, the German economist Dr. Klaus Schwab, to talk about a way out of the problems of the world. Whatever the questions from the brains—the uneven distribution of global economic growth, Haiti, Tunisia, China, disease and human development in sub-Saharan Africa, energy, the environment, the future of the United States or subatomic physics—it sounded like Clinton had studied or thought about nothing else for the past 10 years. Numbers, anecdotes and ideas flowed in a ceaseless torrent.
But the subject he knew best because it required only refined intuition and no research was the American political predicament. Schwab said the U.S. society seemed to the rest of the world to be unusually polarized and he wondered whether it was momentary, what it portended and Clinton's recipe for bringing the country together.
"Let's just look at the political season through which we have just come," Clinton said. The Democrats were due to lose a lot of seats in Congress in 2010 because they had picked up marginal seats in 2006 and 2008 owing to the terrible economy and the unpopularity of the Middle East wars. But the party took a much worse beating, he said, because the economy was still bad and "because there was a well-organized, well-financed, two-year effort to drive every alienated person nuts by comparing the president and the leaders of Congress to crypto-socialists who were driving the country flat off the brink."
The opposition claims often had not the remotest connection to reality, such as Rep. Michelle Bachmann's ridiculous assertion in the tea-party response to the president State of the Union message that America had the greatest healthcare system in the world and didn't need reform. Clinton said he and anyone in the room could get world-class healthcare in the United States but that was not the same thing as having a system that worked for everyone.
He said he didn't blame the Republicans for driving the lies because their job is to win. Democrats were to blame for not having a strategy to counter then.
So Democrats were made responsible for the mushrooming national debt and raging government spending and had been raising everyone's taxes. The opposite was true but the Democrats never countered with it.
He might have pointed out, but didn't, that federal income tax rates have been coming down for everyone in America for three generations, with a small bump here and there for many people in the highest income groups and that all federal taxes combined—income, excise and payroll—as a share of the nation's economic output are the lowest in 60 years and will fall even lower this year.
But let Clinton tell the story of how the people rewarded the policies that they say they are against by voting for the party that was responsible for them.
"Since 1981 when the Republican Party parted from traditional conservatism into demonizing the government as an institution by saying the most important thing you can do is to cut taxes and attack government, America has been dominated by them. We had eight years and they had 20—12 on one side of me, and eight on the other—until President Obama was elected. Now, during that time the conservatives produced 20 deficits. They quadrupled the debt before I took office and doubled it again when I left, and I produced four budgets that were surpluses and paid down 600 billion dollars on the debt. In other words, it's not what it seems."
Clinton said he lost control of Congress in 1994 because while the Democrats raised a lot of money they spent it in individual races instead of a national campaign like they do in presidential election years. Republicans always have a unified national strategy and the Democrats rarely do. But the Democrats ran a national campaign in the 1998 midterm elections and won for the first time in a six-year presidency since 1822.
"In 2010," he said, "for reasons I will never understand, the Democrats reverted to the strategy of 1994, raised $1.6 billion and didn't spend even 10 percent of it to tell the American people what they had done, what they intended to do and what the differences were. So basically we had no national message and they did."
The bleakest scenario, he said, is that the Republicans will prevail and attack the debt issue not by addressing the spending that caused the big run-up in the deficit—military and national security spending, Medicare and other healthcare costs—but by attacking the 15 percent of the budget that is the pathway to the future such as education, the environment and energy development. But he thought it likely that after going to the brink enough people of good will on both sides will get together to avoid doomsday and solve problems as Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole did in his second term.
That is the other Clinton trait, brazen optimism.