Conclusion: The End of a Century

Conclusion: The End of a Century

After a decade of relative prosperity, and the implementation of Clinton’s New Democrat ideals, the conservative Right gained power in both the White House and Congress.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the events of the 1990s and the significant shifts in American policy and culture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • By 1992, many had come to doubt that President George H. W. Bush could solve America’s problems, and many conservative Republicans were upset by his broken pledge to not raise taxes; as a result, Democrat Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992.
  • Bill Clinton described himself as a New Democrat and managed to remake the Democratic Party in ways that effectively institutionalized some of the major tenets of the so-called Reagan Revolution. 
  • Clinton moved the Democratic party significantly to the moderate center and supported the Republican call for law and order and welfare reform—all while maintaining traditional Democratic commitments to minorities, women, and the disadvantaged, and using the government to stimulate economic growth.
  • During Clinton’s administration, the nation began to experience the longest period of economic expansion in its history, almost ten consecutive years. Much of the prosperity of the 1990s was related to technological change and the advent of new information systems, such as the Internet. 
  • Clinton envisioned a post- Cold War role in which the U.S. used its overwhelming military superiority and influence to act as a global policing agent and preserve peace; this foreign policy strategy had both success and failure during his administration.
  • Clinton’s legacy came to an end with the shift in the control of both the White House and Congress to Republican Party in the controversial election of 2000.

Key Terms

  • Operation Desert Storm: During the Gulf War, the U.S. name of the air-land conflict from January 17 through April 11, 1991; waged by coalition forces from 34 nations led by the United States against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait.
  • Cold War: A state of political and military tension after World War II between powers in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies, and others) and powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its satellite states). 

Political Shift of the 1990s 

By 1992, many had come to doubt that President George H. W. Bush could solve America’s problems. He had alienated conservative Republicans by breaking his pledge not to raise taxes, and some faulted him for failing to remove Saddam Hussein from power during Operation Desert Storm. Furthermore, despite living much of his adult life in Texas, he could not overcome the stereotypes associated with his privileged New England and Ivy League background, which hurt him among working-class Reagan Democrats.

Bill Clinton and the New Democrat Approach

William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, Democratic Governor of Arkansas, was elected President of the United States in 1992 and served two terms. Bill Clinton’s presidency and efforts toward remaking the Democratic Party—he described himself as a New Democrat—reflect the long-term effects of the Reagan Revolution that preceded him. Reagan benefited from a resurgent conservatism that moved the American political spectrum several degrees to the right. Clinton managed to remake the Democratic Party in ways that effectively institutionalized some of the major tenets of the so-called Reagan Revolution. Carrying his New Democrat ideals, Clinton moved the Democratic Party significantly to the moderate center, and supported the Republican call for law and order and welfare reform—all while maintaining traditional Democratic commitments to minorities, women, and the disadvantaged, and using the government to stimulate economic growth.

Prosperity and Technology

During Clinton’s administration, the nation began to experience the longest period of economic expansion in its history, almost ten consecutive years. Year after year, job growth increased and the deficit shrank. Increased tax revenue and budget cuts turned the annual national budget deficit from close to $290 billion in 1992, to a record budget surplus of over $230 billion in 2000. Reduced government borrowing freed up capital for private-sector use, and lower interest rates in turn fueled more growth. During the Clinton years, more people owned homes than ever before in the country’s history (67.7%). Inflation dipped to 2.3%, and the unemployment rate declined, reaching a thirty-year low of 3.9% in 2000.

Much of the prosperity of the 1990s was related to technological change and the advent of new information systems, most notably the rise of the personal computer and the Internet. In 1994, the Clinton administration became the first to launch an official White House website and join the revolution of the electronically mediated world. By the 1990s, a new world of instantaneous global exposure was at the fingertips of billions worldwide.

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Bill Clinton: Al Gore and Newt Gingrich applaud as U.S. President Clinton waves during the State of the Union address in 1997.

International Policy 

With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Clinton faced international issues in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa, and Central America that could no longer be pinned on the broader struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. For decades, the contours of the Cold War had largely determined U.S. action abroad; strategists saw each coup, revolution, and civil war as part of the larger struggle between the two major superpowers. Clinton envisioned a post-Cold War role in which the United States used its overwhelming military superiority and influence to act as a kind of global policing agent and preserve peace. This foreign policy strategy had both success and failure during his administration.

Changing Century, Changing Politics

Despite Clinton’s high approval rating at the end of his term, his vice president and the 2000 Democratic nominee for president, Al Gore, was eager to distance himself from Clinton’s impeachment scandal. Unfortunately, he also alienated Clinton loyalists and lost some of the benefit of Clinton’s genuine popularity. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran as the candidate of the Green Party, a party devoted to environmental issues and grassroots activism, and Democrats feared that he would attract votes that Gore might otherwise win. On the Republican side, where strategists promised to “restore honor and dignity” to the White House, voters nominated George W. Bush, governor of Texas and eldest son of former President Bush. Bush had the robust support of both the Christian Right and the Republican leadership. 

The presidential race was so close that news reports declared each candidate the winner at various times during election night. In what became on ongoing battle, Gore called for a recount in the state of Florida, where there seemed to be irregularities in four counties traditionally dominated by Democrats, especially in largely African American precincts. After the recount was begun but eventually stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush was declared President. Clinton’s legacy was undermined by the shift in the control of both the White House and Congress to the Republican Party.