- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By Jack Godwin
Amacom, $27.95, 290 pages

Given the hatred many on the right had for former President Bill Clinton, one often forgets how much his policies owed to some of the ideas of conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

While it’s a stretch to call Mr. Clinton a closet Reaganite, his governing ideology in areas such as federal-state relations and welfare reform was influenced as much by the Gipper as by Democrats such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. That’s the essence of the argument Jack Godwin makes in “Clintonomic$: How Bill Clinton Reengineered the Reagan Revolution.”

Mr. Godwin, chief international officer at California State University at Sacramento, contends that the conventional wisdom about Mr. Clinton as an unprincipled triangulator with few firm convictions is erroneous. To make his case, the author analyzes the Clinton presidency while also synthesizing the philosophical principles that shaped Mr. Clinton’s policies.

The result is a well-researched, though flatly written, book that will have limited appeal beyond the policy-wonk crowd. One can only imagine what a lively book on the subject someone such as Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman or Daniel Gross of Slate and Newsweek might have produced.

Mr. Godwin is onto something, but at times he carries things too far with comments such as, “Clinton and Reagan are fellow travelers separated more by party affiliation than political ideology.”

It would be more accurate to say that Mr. Clinton sought to achieve progressive ends using both liberal and conservative tools and wanted to smooth out the uncompassionate parts of conservatism.

Although Mr. Clinton was liberal on civil rights issues and cut his teeth politically opposing the Vietnam War, his approach to governing never came purely from the playbook of traditional Democrats. He was always much more willing to decentralize decision-making, listen to the concerns of the business community and anger traditional Democratic interest groups than most leaders of his party.

During his tenure as governor of Arkansas (which I covered for two years while reporting for a newspaper in Little Rock) he learned how to tailor progressive principles to appeal to an electorate that often was quite conservative, despite the state’s Democratic heritage.

Although he raised taxes as president and tried to increase the role of government in health care (the latter ironically was something that President George W. Bush would accomplish) he often clashed with his base on welfare reform, education issues and his efforts to revamp the federal bureaucracy. Conservatives, by contrast, saw Mr. Clinton as a traditional tax-and-spender who only veered right occasionally out of political expediency rather than principle.

This “third way” approach to governing, which contained elements of both Adam Smith and John Kenneth Galbraith, made it hard at times for Mr. Clinton to put together coalitions and often put him in political no man’s land. Despite those obstacles, Mr. Clinton wound up having a somewhat successful presidency.

Mr. Clinton shared an independent streak with Mr. Reagan. While the Gipper was a strong conservative, he also could be quite pragmatic and at times angered his base, as when he struck deals with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mr. Godwin admires Mr. Clinton’s skills and accomplishments more than he does Mr. Reagan’s.

“Reagan was the storyteller, the prophet who interpreted American nationality and inspired people to reach across the line that separates the practical from the ideal,” he writes. “Clinton was the fixer, the policy wonk who reengineered the Reagan Revolution evolution, effectively solved problems such as welfare and the budget, and offered a coherent governing philosophy equal to the global era.”

This shortchanges Mr. Reagan, who not only communicated well, but helped redefine American attitudes toward government and took actions that helped end the Cold War.

When Richard M. Nixon adopted some liberal economic policies, he famously said, “We are all Keyneseans now.”

In “Clintonomic$: How Bill Clinton Reengineered the Reagan Revolution,” Mr. Godwin makes a strong case that Mr. Clinton took several pages from Mr. Reagan’s ideological playbook. However, we’re not quite at the point where one can say, “We are all Reaganites now.”

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on politics and history.

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