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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Clinton Was a Bipartisan President, Except When He Wasn\'t


CHARLOTTE, N.C. â€" Perhaps only Bill Clinton could deliver one of the most brutal partisan poundings of the other party in recent memory and come out of it with people talking about how bipartisan he is.

For 48 minutes on Wednesday night, he extolled the virtues of working with Republicans, then eviscerated them as dangerous radicals. He offered more abundant praise of George W. Bush than most prime-time speakers at the Republican convention, then said he had left President Obama “a total mess.”

“It was a pretty bipartisan speech relative to a convention,” Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Vermont governor, said on CBS News on Thursday morning.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, another former party chairman, pointed out the caveat. “It was bipartisan,” he said. “It was a little bit like giving someone flowers at the same time you're taking a scalpel and dissecting them.”

In that sense, the speech was a vivid reminder of Mr. Clinton's famed capacity for juggling many different ideas, personas and narratives, and along the way rewriting the history of his own presidency. The story line of a relatively bipartisan era when Democrats and Republicans came together to overhaul welfare, balance the budget and expand the economy profoundly oversimplifies a much more complicated, messier presidency.

As it happens, the revised version of history is something of a bipartisan conspiracy. As much as Mr. Clinton wants to emphasize those elements of his record, so now do Republicans, as a way of contrasting the popular Mr. Clinton with the not-so-popular Mr. Obama. They have praised Mr. Clinton as a bipartisan c entrist, as opposed to the leftist Mr. Obama.

“Bill Clinton was a different kind of Democrat than Barack Obama,” Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, told CNN before the former president's speech. “Bill Clinton gave us welfare reform. Bill Clinton worked with the Republicans to cut spending. Bill Clinton did not play the kind of political games that President Obama's playing.”

After the speech, Mitt Romney's campaign pressed home that theme. “President Clinton drew a stark contrast between himself and President Obama tonight,” said Ryan Williams, a campaign spokesman. “Bill Clinton worked with Republicans, balanced the budget and after four years he could say you were better off. Barack Obama hasn't worked across the aisle.”

It is certainly true that Mr. Clinton in his instincts and messaging was more centrist than Mr. Obama, and the 42nd president emerged from the White House with a string of achievements that both parties laid claim to. But to say that Mr. Clinton worked together with Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republicans on welfare, spending, trade and other issues is an exercise in selective amnesia.

Mr. Clinton's first major budget plan passed Congress without a single Republican vote. Once Mr. Gingrich's party took over Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, the two men clashed over spending so fiercely that the government was shut down. The two sides eventually drafted a plan to balance the budget, but it was made considerably easier by an economy that was growing so fast that few genuinely hard choices had to be made â€" and in fact the budget became balanced years before it was envisioned because of unexpectedly strong tax revenues.

Likewise, many talk today about how Mr. Clinton and Republicans worked together on overhauling welfare. Not exactly. Mr. Clinton had long supported limiting the number of years that reci pients could receive benefits, requiring work in many instances and providing child care, training and other assistance to make that possible.

But he strongly opposed Mr. Gingrich's more conservative vision of welfare and twice vetoed Republican proposals before bowing to the political winds in an election year and signing a third, somewhat modified version. Even then, he spoke out against limits on benefits to legal immigrants and promised to overhaul the overhaul.

By the time he appeared at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte on Wednesday night, Mr. Clinton was grayer and memories fuzzier. The fights of his generation have faded with time, and the accomplishments have been accordioned into simple sentences. At some points it even seemed that Mr. Clinton had forgotten some of the harshest moments of his own time in the White House.

“Though I often disagree with Republicans,” he said, “I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now c ontrols their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats.”

This from the man who was hated so much by Republicans that they impeached him for lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky â€" and who loathed a number of his enemies back.

But Mr. Clinton, more than most politicians, has always been able to reimagine himself and his place in America, and he has a knack for eventually reconciling with those he battled against.

He beat the elder George Bush in 1992, then once out of office became such good friends with him that they hang out in the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Me. He beat Bob Dole for re-election in 1996, then bestowed on him the Medal of Freedom. He campaigned against George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 but now travels the country with him giving joint speeches.

He even broke bread at points with conservative figures like Richard Mellon Scaife, Rupert Murdoch and Christopher Ruddy who were among his biggest antagonis ts in the 1990s. (The one exception has always been Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who investigated his attempts to cover up his affair with Ms. Lewinsky in a sexual harassment lawsuit. “That's another kettle of fish,” he once said.)

In any case, Mr. Clinton's speech on Wednesday night was seen as a template for Mr. Obama, an example of how to run in a difficult year. “Cooperation works better,” Mr. Clinton said and noted the various Republicans Mr. Obama had appointed. But he went on to say that Republican plans “will hurt poor kids,” explode the debt, “force seniors to pay more for drugs,” cut taxes for millionaires and raise them for the middle class.

“They want to go back to the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place,” he said. Then he appropriated the Republicans' greatest recent hero, Ronald Reagan. “As another president once said, there they go again.”

The truth is that party conventions and e lection campaigns are partisan affairs. If Mr. Clinton provided any lesson for the current president on Wednesday, it might not be in how to be bipartisan, but how to be partisan and win while not looking like it.