Lamenting Lewinsky (Again)

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Historians oscillate between interpretations of past events as the consequence of either great men or grand forces. Rarely are historians inclined to reduce the course of history to singular events and when they do, the conclusion is justifiable only on the basis of extraordinary circumstances. Assassinations such as Lincoln, Franz Ferdinand, and Kennedy qualify; affairs and dalliances do not. Next month marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The revelations of President William Clinton's extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in January 1998 upended the political scene and consumed the nation's attention for a year. Instead of resigning, President Clinton subjected the nation to a torrent of salacious rumors, exposés, investigations, prime time confessions, and ultimately his impeachment and acquittal one year later. In retrospect, however, the Lewinsky scandal, while permanently blemishing his record, has been deemed immaterial to the broader course of American history. The triumphs of the Clinton era -- the bipartisan budget deals, a roaring economy, trillion-dollar surpluses -- are well remembered, especially in the present day as the economy staggers toward the fiscal cliff. The anniversary will come and go, but its occurrence will hardly be characterized as momentous. Or should it?

Entitlement Reform

In July 1997, then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified America's recent economic performance had been "exceptional." Greenspan noted the economy had achieved a six percent growth rate and had just marked the seventh year of expansion, making it third longest post-World War II upswing to date.

The next month, President Clinton signed legislation ratifying an agreement concluded with his arch-nemesis, Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the Republican Congress the previous May. The agreement set a schedule for balanced budgets by 2002, lower domestic spending levels, and tax reductions. The coincidence of a booming economy and a nascent political truce inspired confidence throughout the country.

With short-term deficits addressed and major budget surpluses now possible, the history-changing prospect of tackling the more challenging matter of long-term structural deficits -- those arising from Social Security and Medicare -- enticed Clinton and Gingrich.

As superbly recounted by American historian Steven Gillon in The Pact, the president and the speaker met secretly in October 1997 and agreed to form a coalition designed to achieve entitlement reform.

After an acrimonious three years of political combat marked by congressional investigations, government shutdowns, and countless attack ads, the two men agreed the long-term interests of the country demanded a compromise (and would, of course, also enhance their legacies). Both had collaborated successfully in the past, both had just earned re-election, and lastly, as Gillon noted, both had developed a personal chemistry that defied their public posturing and mystified their colleagues.

To reform Social Security, each men conceded important points. The president agreed to support an increase in the age of eligibility as well as a change to the formula to calculate the annual cost of living adjustment; the speaker agreed to devote anticipated budget surpluses to fully fund Social Security. The former promised to arouse massive opposition from labor and senior citizens -- two key components of President Clinton's political base. The latter contravened the Republican conference's preference to lower taxes and could have sparked a second (and probably successful) attempt to oust Gingrich from the speakership. The two men agreed the country's future was worth the risks and agreed to forge a majority to support the compromise.

The deadline for devising a requisite strategy would be the President's State of the Union address the following January 27th.

On January 17, the website Drudge Report reported that President Clinton had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. On January 21, the Washington Post reported the president was being investigated by an independent prosecutor for encouraging Lewinsky to lie under oath if asked about the relationship.

The revelations rocked the country and the demand for a comprehensive explanation from the president was overwhelming. The day before his State of the Union, the president held a press conference and stated unequivocally, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false." Despite the assurance (or perhaps because of it), the president's opponents insisted on a complete investigation.

In July, Lewinsky received transactional immunity in exchange for testimony and evidence confirming her relationship with Clinton. In August, the president publicly admitted to the relationship in an address to the nation.

In November, the Republican Party lost five seats but retained control of the Congress in the off-year elections; Gingrich, who had projected substantial gains, immediately announced his resignation.

In December, the House voted for articles of impeachment against Clinton. On February 12, 1999, the Senate voted to acquit Clinton, permitting him to complete his term in office.

Instead of announcing a grand compromise to reform entitlements during his State of the Union, the president's evasion the day before foreclosed that opportunity permanently.  The occasion for meaningful change had passed. 

In an interview with Gillon, Gingrich commented, "[t]here is no question in my mind in October of 1997, that we were looking forward to a period where we would cooperate on a broad range of really big issues." Gillon quoted Erskine Bowles, Clinton's White House Chief of Staff at the time and a participant to the meeting, who said, "Monica changed everything. There were real opportunity costs -- we had so much planned for 1998."

Gillon noted both men were confident that their coalition would rival the New Deal and the Great Society in terms of the significance of legislation enacted.  Gillon concluded "the Clinton years were a period of missed opportunities. ... During that unique period of peace and prosperity, the nation had an unprecedented chance to tackle important domestic issues."

The emphasis on domestic in the preceding quote has been added. 

The Pact is a comprehensive examination of the political era dominated by Clinton and Gingrich, but its conclusions did not extend to the realm of national security. During the Nineties, America was essentially between wars and the imperative for vigilance overseas ebbed. Indeed, the ellipsis in the preceding quote replaced the following words: "A brief ten-year window separated the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the new age of global terror."

Perhaps Gillon concluded the harm from the Lewinsky scandal was limited only to the domestic matters. Gillon would be justified in concluding so; no major power threatened America in the Nineties, and in 1999, the aerial bombing campaign against Serbia ended without a single casualty. In August 1999, the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century (established by Gingrich) concluded a global competitor to the United States was unlikely to rise over the next twenty-five years.

A year later, however, the Commission acknowledged that the future would be marked by contradictory forces of integration and fragmentation and that identifying specific threats would be a challenge. More pointedly, the Commission warned "Americans are less secure than they believe themselves to be."

The reason? America had failed to adapt its national security institutions and military capabilities during this rare "unipolar moment."

Not that the proposal wasn't made though.


As comprehensively revisited by American analyst Ricardo A. Marquez in "Transformation Achieved?", in the late Nineties a small team of defense and military experts did examine potential future challenges and argued for a "transformation" of America's approach to national security.

The National Defense Panel, originators of the "transformation" concept, initially embarked upon their work as a congressionally-mandated independent review of the newly established Department of Defense quadrennial defense review (QDR) process. The Department of Defense issued its QDR report in May 1997; Congress mandated by and received from the National Defense Panel a report in December 1997.

In its report, the National Defense Panel asserted transformation was an immediate priority.

The panel did not recommend changes to force structure or name new missions but instead emphasized existing missions (homeland defense, countering weapons of mass destruction, maintaining space superiority, developing information capabilities, projecting military power, and preserving regional stability) and particular capabilities (stealth, speed, range, leaner logistics, and precision strike) for greater attention.

Transformation would be twofold: "institutionalizing change and reforming the approach to national security." The former would entail dedicated commands and units conducting purposeful experimentation with attention to the missions and attributes mentioned above. The latter would entail greater interagency coordination, the cultivation of national security professionals, the prioritization of homeland defense, and preparation to work with new security stakeholders.

The December 1997 report included 85 recommendations. When asked how the panel would achieve the change in culture called for in the report, the panel chairman, Philip Odeen acknowledged the Pentagon was a conservative organization, but that segments across the department recognized the need for change and were prepared to be advocates in their own right. As to Congress, Odeen would only comment that the Hill "a different problem," but he asserted enthusiastic support from key leaders left him optimistic, prompting him to state, "If the only result of this is an active debate on these issues, I think we'll feel like our goals were achieved."

The panel anticipated testifying before Congress in January or February.

Chairman Odeen and four other members of the panel testified on its report and recommendations before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28, 1998 -- one week after the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted.

The panel members testified en masse again in March, but did not return to the Hill for the remainder of the year, save for one member's appearance before the House National Security Committee in October to discuss modernization -- as one of nine witnesses.

As Marquez notes, national security matters did play prominently in the remaining years of the Clinton Administration (Al Qaeda, Iraq, Serbia), but the "opportunity for a substantive examination of defense transformation was lost."


The Lewinsky scandal haunts the United States to this day.

The fiscal cliff -- this epitome of governmental dysfunction -- being broached today is, in part, a consequence of time squandered on the Lewinsky scandal.

The scandal's eruption eviscerated the secret agreement and foreclosed the matter for the remainder of Clinton's term. In his first year, Clinton's successor, Republican George W. Bush, proposed and won approval for the Republicans' preferred use of the budget surplus -- comprehensive tax reductions. To exacerbate the matter, in 2004, President Bush signed legislation augmenting Medicare, expanding the entitlement to include prescription medicines. When President Bush announced his intent to explore options for reforming Social Security in 2005, he did so without gauging the potential for collaboration with Congressional Democrats. Bush's successor, Democrat Barack Obama (in cooperation with a Democratic Congress) succeeded in enacting the largest expansion of entitlements -- national health care -- and has presided over unprecedented budget deficits, massively expanding the public debt.

Similarly, the attention diverted to the Lewinsky scandal precluded a comprehensive examination of how transformation might be achieved; its fate eventually became intertwined in the outcome of the next presidential election. The original co-sponsors of the National Defense Panel, Senators Joseph Lieberman and Dan Coats, were the Democratic vice-presidential nominee and the expected Republican secretary of defense, respectively. While Bush won the election, he eventually passed on Coats and instead selected Donald Rumsfeld. After the attacks of September 11th, Secretary Rumsfeld became a forthright advocate of transformation, directing the department to transform how it fought, how it organized, and how it cooperated with other organizations. Rumsfeld accomplished numerous reforms, but his inability to secure victory in Iraq led to his dismissal, discrediting transformation in the process. The mantra of reform has since been supplanted by the frantic pursuit of efficiencies and the scramble for increasingly scarce resources amidst the inevitable post-war budget drawdown.

Most fatefully, during the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton and Gingrich retreated from the agreed upon secret alliance and resorted to rallying their bases for an all-out battle over the fate of Clinton's presidency. The political polarization almost superseded by the October agreement returned with a vengeance and subverted nearly every matter thereafter, from the inviolability of the Secret Service to the decision to use military force abroad. In the next election, the value of every single vote was harshly reinforced. Since then, every election has been about turning out the base -- and from those bases, few visionary leaders have been emerging. President Obama and Republican Speaker John Boehner do not have the working relationship Clinton and Gingrich had and neither have the basis for exploring common ground on the future of the economy or the nation's security. Comprehensive bipartisan proposals to reform entitlements have become increasingly rare. Nor does a constituency exist for exploring potential solutions in either party. (In a cruel twist of fate, the aforementioned Erskine Bowles failed twice during the 2000s to win a U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina. He most recently served on President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which named recommendations for achieving long-term fiscal sustainability. The commission's recommendations have essentially been ignored.)

In August 2011, Standards and Poor downgraded America's credit rating from AAA. 

 In revisiting the findings and recommendations in 2011 and whether America was prepared the security challenges of the 2010 to 2020 period, only one panel member responded in the affirmative. Four panel members answered in the negative and the remaining four panel members thought the record was mixed.  

The key provisions of the fiscal cliff: expiration of the Bush tax reductions and $550 billion in automatic across-the-board defense budget reductions over the next ten years.


In his Farewell Address, Clinton put three challenges to the American people -- maintaining fiscal responsibility, remaining committed to leading the world, and remaining united in the face of diversity and adversity.

Today, the country is economically stagnant. The unemployment rate has hovered above seven percent since 2009 and the growth rate has averaged less than three percent for the same period. The country is strategically adrift as American foreign and national security policy continues to be implemented with mechanisms and processes that were crafted sixty-five years ago. The president now wages war unilaterally with remotely-piloted vehicles and exercises leadership "from behind." Lastly, the country's future is on the precipice of calamity because present executive and legislative leadership are partisans, not patriots.

Historians may judge Clinton leniently, but for his inability to withstand temptation, the course of history changed and the American Republic staggers.

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