Lamenting Lewinsky (Still)
Twenty-five years ago, scoring short-term political points prevented both parties from tackling real and necessary structural reforms.
This January marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The revelations of President Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern in the first month of 1998 upended the political scene and consumed the nation's attention for the year. In retrospect, however, the scandal, while permanently blemishing his record, has been deemed immaterial to Clinton’s legacy and contemporary American history. Amid inflation and war, its occurrence can hardly be characterized as momentous. Or should it?
In August 1997, Clinton signed the Balanced Budget Act, ratifying an agreement concluded with Speaker Newt Gingrich that encompassed balanced budgets by 2002, lower spending, and tax reductions. With short-term deficits addressed and possible budget surpluses, Clinton and Gingrich were enticed by the history-changing prospect of tackling one source of long-term structural deficits: Social Security.
As superbly recounted by Steven Gillon in The Pact, Clinton and Gingrich met secretly in October 1997 and agreed to undertake various Social Security reforms. The president agreed to increase the age of eligibility and to change the annual cost of living adjustment. The speaker agreed to devote future budget surpluses to funding the program fully. The deadline for crafting a strategy would be the President's State of the Union address the following January 27.
On January 17, news of Clinton’s affair exploded. Three days later, the public learned that an independent prosecutor was investigating whether Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to lie under oath if asked about the relationship. The revelations rocked the country. Instead of resigning, Clinton subjected the nation to a torrent of salacious rumors, exposés, investigations, prime time confessions, and ultimately his impeachment and acquittal one year later.
Clinton and Gingrich did not announce a grand compromise to reform entitlements. The scandal foreclosed that opportunity permanently. In his book, Gillon quoted Clinton's White House chief of staff: "Monica changed everything. There were real opportunity costs—we had so much planned for 1998." 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 that quotation is deliberate. The Pact’s conclusions did not extend to national security. Indeed, the ellipsis in the preceding passage 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."
Gillon was justified in thinking the harm from the Lewinsky scandal was limited only to domestic matters. In September 1999, the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century had concluded that a global competitor was unlikely to rise over the next twenty-five years. However, the Commission also pointedly warned that "Americans are less secure than they believe themselves to be."
America had failed to adapt its national security institutions and military capabilities to new circumstances. Not that the proposal hadn’t been made.
In January 1997, the congressionally established National Defense Panel inaugurated its review of the Department of Defense’s long-term strategic planning processes. In its subsequent December report, the panel asserted “transformation” was an immediate priority. The report recommended existing missions (defending the homeland, maintaining space superiority, developing information capabilities, projecting military power, and preserving regional stability) and emergent capabilities (stealth, speed, range, leaner logistics, and precision strike) for greater attention.
Unfortunately, the first hearing on the panel’s findings occurred 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. As one analyst noted, "opportunity for a substantive examination of defense transformation was lost."
The Lewinsky scandal haunts the United States to this day. The present dysfunction in fiscal and defense matters is, in part, a consequence of time squandered on the scandal. It voided the secret agreement with Gingrich and foreclosed the matter for the remainder of Clinton's term.
The nation’s fiscal condition has only worsened in the intervening twenty-five years. George W. Bush proposed and won approval for the Republicans' preferred use of the budget surplus: comprehensive tax reductions. In 2003, Bush exacerbated the situation by expanding Medicare. Bush’s subsequent proposal to establish private Social Security accounts was met with vehement opposition from which he quickly retreated.
Barack Obama succeeded in enacting the largest expansion of entitlements of all—national health care—and presided over historic budget deficits. And Donald Trump abandoned the fiscal discipline promised by Tea Party Republicans during the Obama administration and raised spending to new heights, promising to never touch Social Security.
And like it did to our fiscal house, the attention diverted to the Lewinsky scandal precluded a comprehensive examination of how a transformation of our national defense posture might be achieved. After the attacks of September 11, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s secretary of Defense, became a forthright advocate of transformation.
Rumsfeld made progress, but attempting such broad reforms while waging war in two theaters was inevitably doomed. Rumsfeld’s failure to achieve victory in Iraq led to his dismissal, discrediting transformation in the process. The mantra of reform has since been supplanted by recourse to simply increasing Department of Defense budgets.
Most fatefully for our political culture, during the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton and Gingrich retreated from their secret alliance and resorted to rallying their partisan bases for an all-out battle over the fate of Clinton's presidency. The political polarization almost tamed by their 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. Since then, every election has been about turning out the base.
No president and speaker since then have had the working relationship Clinton and Gingrich did. Comprehensive bipartisan proposals to reform entitlements have been nonexistent. Nor does a constituency exist for exploring potential solutions in either party. Today, the country is economically stagnant and strategically adrift.
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The government responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with massive emergency funding in excess of $6 trillion. The result has been the Second Great Inflation during which prices have risen above 5 percent every month for almost two years. Last December, the Congressional Budget Office warned Social Security could become insolvent in ten years. The agency estimates that Social Security benefits would need to be reduced by 23 percent in 2034.
The United States is closer to war with a major power than at any other time in the past forty years. Despite record-high budgets, the Department of Defense withdrew from Afghanistan after twenty years under ignominious circumstances. More embarrassingly, less than a year of comprehensive military support to Ukraine in its war with Russia has nearly depleted the country’s inventory of weapons. The situation cannot even be resolved with more money; the defense-industrial base has similarly postponed undertaking requisite reforms.
Historians vary in their 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 in the instance of extraordinary circumstances. Assassinations such as Lincoln, Franz Ferdinand, and Kennedy qualify; affairs and dalliances do not. Historians may judge Clinton leniently, but for his infidelity, the course of American history changed, and for the want of a great man the Republic staggers along.