Wednesday 7 December 2016

Hillary will need the 'Comeback Kid' Bill's talent for escapology

Gavin Esler

Published 08/11/2016 | 02:30

Former US President Bill Clinton (R) talks with his daughter Chelsea Clinton prior to the third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate. Photo: Reuters
Former US President Bill Clinton (R) talks with his daughter Chelsea Clinton prior to the third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate. Photo: Reuters

Donald Trump may yet prove capable of one of the most astounding political upsets in American history. But the polls suggest we should today be imagining the Clinton presidency. What will it look like?

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Crucially for someone unloved, distrusted and - until this weekend - being investigated by the FBI, it will be another Clinton presidency. Bill is an experienced guide into handling inquiries, congressional investigations, special prosecutors and scandals. He had a lot of practice as the only president since the 19th century to be impeached. The self-styled 'Comeback Kid' survived lying over the Lewinsky affair, leaving office more popular than when first elected. But there are other lessons too.

From the moment he took the oath of office in 1993 until he left the White House in 2001, Bill Clinton was a paradox in power.

He presided over the United States prosperous and at peace - but never at peace with itself. The Good Clinton legacy was one of economic growth and success.

The American century ended with an expanding economy, a booming housing market, the United States as the only credible superpower, Communism trounced, and American soft power triumphant worldwide.

Apple, Google, Starbucks, Hollywood movies, hip hop, great American literature and popular culture were celebrated worldwide.

But there was also the Bad Clinton legacy - a housing market bubble, what one Fed chairman called the "irrational exuberance" of an under-regulated market, armed militia groups, domestic terrorism, growing disparities between the rich and everyone else, profound and violent discontent.

In a book I wrote in the 1990s about the Clinton years, 'The United States of Anger', I summed up the Clinton paradox in the words of a Maryland police officer I interviewed in Annapolis.

"Bill Clinton says he has created 11 million new jobs since he became president," the cop told me.

"Sure he has. And I have four of them."

He worked shifts at the police department and then on days off he had three separate part-time jobs as a security guard. His wife also worked. They had young children but no family holidays, and few days off together.

They were frazzled by their attempts to live the American Dream, the promise of a secure middle-class life in which children do better than their parents.

For tens of millions that dream has now died, and in Donald Trump's words, "the system" is "rigged" against decent Americans. Many on the Left of US politics agree.

And that will be Hillary Clinton's key problem if she becomes president after this most bitter campaign. Job One will be to bring together under her leadership a country in which for more than 20 years she has been seen by many not as opposed to a "rigged" system but as a key player in it. For Trump supporters she will never be Commander in Chief as much as Rigger in Chief.

Here's the Clinton promise to deal with this profound sense of American anger: "We will reform our politics, so that in this land the voice of the people will always sound louder than that of narrow interests deserving the trust of all Americans."

Fine. But that's not Hillary. It's Bill at his Second Inauguration. Way back in 1997, he used words that Donald Trump uses now, railing against the distrusted "narrow interests", including Wall Street - the interests which, for Trump supporters, President Hillary will herself represent.

Things have accelerated since I worked in the United States during the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and 'Dubya' Bush presidencies. In the good old days, presidents often ended their term fighting a scandal. This year, whoever wins, the presidency will begin in scandal. Clinton will try to take a tough line with Russia and Assad, and seek to strengthen Nato. Trump may try to cut taxes and crack down on migration. But both face a Congress in which at least one House will likely be implacably hostile to their policies. Many there will loathe them personally.

As someone who loves the vitality of America and Americans, I hope the next president, in Abraham Lincoln's words, binds up the nation's wounds. But more likely it is the president himself (or herself) who will be "bound up", fettered by inquiries, scandal, or political deadlock.

Richard Nixon once feared the United States could become a "pitiful helpless giant" on the world stage. Now the Lilliputian presidency may be upon us, our indispensable ally in which the president, like Gulliver, is tied down and unable to act.

For comfort I talked recently with the great American satirist PJ O'Rourke, a staunch Republican, the self-described Republican Party Reptile. PJ told me he was voting - very reluctantly - for Hillary Clinton as "the second worst thing that could happen to America". And so, please welcome, the next President of the United States … and his (or her) legal team. God Bless America.

Gavin Esler was Chief North America correspondent for the BBC in the 1990s

Irish Independent

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