Clinton was only thirty-two when he entered the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock in January 1979, the youngest governor in the nation since before World War II. Two years later he left office in defeat as the youngest ex-governor in American history.
It all happened so fast. From Oxford he attended Yale University Law School, receiving his degree in 1973, then returned to Arkansas to teach law at the University of Arkansas Law School (1973–1976). In 1974 he launched his elective career with a run for the U.S. House seat in Arkansas' Third District, nearly upsetting a veteran Republican. Elected state attorney general in 1977 and governor two years later, he was the instant golden boy of Arkansas politics. But with a stunning defeat in his reelection, he suddenly became only a bright young man with a great future behind him. That is, until he made the first of his signature comebacks.
Clinton's first presidential term can only be genuinely understood with this prologue: his fall and rise in Arkansas. There are clear parallels between Clinton's first term as governor and his first two years as president, and even more striking similarities in the way he reinvented himself and recovered from the trauma of those two experiences.
He began his governorship with a pent-up idealistic agenda that left him open to the charge of trying to do too much too fast and not focusing on a few major issues. Symbolically he failed to keep one of his earliest promises: that state legislators would have his budget proposals on their desks the first day of the legislative session. His efforts at compromise often ended with both sides angry at him. He had difficulty selling his accomplishments to the voters. He governed during a period of Arkansas politics dominated by angry white men eager to pounce on presumed offenses. Because he pushed through a modest hike in fees for car licenses, for example, he was characterized as a big-tax liberal, arrogant about the plight of the average Arkansan.
He did not have a chief of staff and there always seemed to be some confusion about lines of authority in the governor's office. He constantly fumed at his staff for his own lack of discipline. During his reelection, against an unprepossessing Republican opponent, Frank White, he complained vociferously that his record was being misinterpreted. But after White trounced him, Clinton apologized, said he had been taught a lesson, and went about reshaping his political image to make it more acceptable to the voters.
That 1980 defeat reawakened the trauma of earlier personal losses, but also the sense of loss as being a challenge to overcome. Clinton was now determined never to suffer through such a setback again. From then on, he would become obsessive about raising money and responding to attacks. He developed a brutal metaphor to explain how he would respond in the future: if your opponent is pounding you with a hammer, he said, take out a meat cleaver and cut off his arm.
Whatever guidance to personal behavior he drew from the episode, Clinton also read a larger meaning into the political events of 1980. That year, which saw Jimmy Carter lose to Ronald Reagan, was the culmination of a long, downward spiral for the Democratic party. Clinton had begun as a liberal, first supporting Robert F. Kennedy's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination (tragically cut short by Kennedy's assassination); and two years later, while at law school, serving as the coordinator for the Senate campaign of antiwar Democrat Joseph D. Duffey; and in 1972 serving as the Texas state coordinator for Senator George McGovern's presidential campaign. Both Duffey and McGovern were soundly beaten by the desertion of traditional blue-collar elements of the Democratic coalition, who found the candidates to be too liberal and elitist. And Clinton's Arkansas defeat coincided with the Democratic party's most telling loss, when President Jimmy Carter was beaten by Ronald Reagan. The 1972 and 1980 defeats sent Clinton further down a pathway he had explored with Duffey after that failure, namely a search for a "new politics" by which Democrats could hold some progressive beliefs and not be rejected by an increasingly conservative electorate.
Hillary Rodham, a classmate at Yale Law School whom Clinton married on 11 October 1975, was essential to his personal and political recovery. Both a feminist and an outspoken social advocate, she would remain to the left of Clinton on most political issues. But she was also a practical and effective political operator in her own right. When faced with a choice between ideological purity and political advancement, she would almost always follow the course that benefited her husband's career. Their relationship, one of the more complicated of modern First Couples, went through different phases over the decades. The first lasted from the time they met at Yale in 1970 until 1980. Their attraction from the start was political and intellectual. They shared a passion for literature and politics and agreed that programs and ideals were useless without power to implement them. They quickly realized that together they could get places that they both wanted to go. Still, in their early years together in Arkansas, Hillary played only an occasional behind-the-scenes role in her husband's career. While he was successful, she was free to pursue her own interests as a lawyer and proponent of children's rights issues.
But after Clinton's gubernatorial defeat in 1980, their relationship entered a second phase during which she became politically indispensable to him. She boosted his morale during his two-year exile, brought in pragmatic advisers who would rework his message, and was his top strategic and legal adviser, family breadwinner and investor, and his most dependable governmental aide. She played a major part in his comeback against White and the decade of administration that followed.
The elements of that comeback—a makeover of Clinton's political style—were clearly illustrated not only in the campaign but in the ensuing reelections that spelled ten years of power in Arkansas. His central triumph was an education reform package that Hillary, as chairman of a state task force, put together in 1983 and shepherded through the Arkansas legislature, where her direct manner, in vivid contrast to her husband's easygoing vacillation, impressed veteran state pols. Clinton became known as the education governor, not only in Arkansas but among his gubernatorial colleagues around the country, and the accolade helped him become a national figure during the 1980s as he prepared his inevitable run for the presidency. Throughout that era, the personal relationship of Bill and Hillary was at times tumultuous, but the political partnership was unfaltering as Clinton came to have an implicit faith that whatever his wife did would turn out right. When, later on in the White House, that faith was disappointed by failure in a sterner test, it pushed the marriage into still another, uncertain stage.
During his long second act as governor (1983–1993), Clinton relied on a four-person brain trust—himself, Hillary, chief of staff Betsey Wright, and political consultant Richard Morris—to develop a mode of government that resembled a permanent campaign. Clinton decided never again to push a major initiative without first testing public support and then selling the program. He and Morris were constantly polling the Arkansas electorate to see how voters would respond to different rhetorical arguments. They also kept trying to circumvent the state-house press corps and using television advertising, leafleting, and telephone banks to build popular acceptance for their proposed measures, and place pressure on state lawmakers.
Along with these tactical changes, Clinton shifted his political emphasis to centrist issues that attracted mainstream support. Morris pushed him to follow his natural instincts and adopt a strategy that Clinton would employ from then on whenever his political future seemed tenuous: co-opt the Republicans on their issues (especially crime, welfare, and taxes). He abandoned years of ambivalence on capital punishment and carried out the death penalty, which was overwhelmingly favored by Arkansas voters. He initiated programs in Arkansas to move welfare recipients into the workforce. At Morris's urging, he became more willing to pick fights, especially with traditional friends and interest groups who were losing public favor. He angered Arkansas public school teachers by forcing them to take competence tests, which they considered belittling. But Clinton, though holding no animus toward teachers, had correctly concluded that the use of such tests was the only way he could receive the necessary corporate and voter support for his educational reforms.
Although the competence tests were seen by some blacks, including Clinton aides, as an indirect attack on black teachers, Clinton consistently attracted stronger black support than any candidate in Arkansas history. He appointed more African Americans to state boards, commissions, and agency posts than all his predecessors combined. His empathetic personality worked well in the black community, as did his facility with scripture and his love of gospel music. At Yale Law School Clinton had been comfortable sitting at what became known as the black table in the cafeteria during the black power era, and as a law professor at Arkansas, he was popular with black students by virtue of his approachable nature and his willingness to help many of them who had struggled on probation. But he understood the complicated role that race played in modern Democratic party history. Black voters were an essential faction in the Democratic coalition, yet there was a line beyond which an increasing number of white voters left the party if it seemed too much money and attention was being devoted to social programs associated with blacks and poor people.
Clinton attempted to reverse that trend as he entered the national political realm. Rhetorically, he argued that race was an artificial issue that had been used historically by segregationist southern Democrats and was now being employed by Republicans for political advantage. The real problems were economic. And to attack those, he helped lead a coalition of centrist Democrats, many from the South, in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), of which he had been a founder in 1985. The goal of the DLC was to develop new policies, or at least revise old ones so that the party could lure back a white male majority by making itself more pragmatic and moderate. Clinton became chairman of the DLC in 1990 and used it as his unofficial precampaign vehicle as he traveled and politicked nationwide after announcing that he was a candidate for president on 3 October 1991.
The theme he developed was one of opportunity and responsibility—the government should provide citizens opportunities to succeed, but individuals had corresponding responsibilities to work and contribute to the civil good. This was an effort to link progressive programs to the traditional American ethos of work and fairness, and to shift the Democrats' focus from questions of justice and equality to opening the pathways of economic advancement. That theme became the philosophical foundation of his presidential campaign and the framework for proposed programs ranging from welfare reform to voluntary national service. He called his idea of publicly provided opportunity wedded to private responsibility a "New Covenant." The phrase alarmed some aides by its righteous tone but pleased Clinton, who seemed equally comfortable cursing (in private) and citing scripture. And in fact the theme proved to be a winner, helping Clinton to win both the nomination and election of 1992.
Clinton prevailed in the primaries that year not only by his ideas, but because he proved to be an indefatigable campaigner with a gift for connecting empathetically with his audiences. It allowed him to triumph even as revelations came out in the press about his sexual infidelities, a curious land deal in Arkansas known as Whitewater, and his long-ago effort to avert the draft. And Clinton was willing to counterattack by using negative advertising against his opponents and making promises that he could not keep.
During the general election campaign against President Bush and independent candidate H. Ross Perot, a billionaire entrepreneur from Texas, Clinton's advisers posted a sign at their headquarters in Little Rock that became a daily mantra—"The economy, stupid." While offering centrist "new Democrat" proposals on welfare and trade, Clinton sounded a classic populist message of economic disparity. During the 1980s, he argued, only the wealthiest Americans continued to enjoy real growth in their annual income; for the middle class and poor, the Reagan era had been one of losing ground. Clinton hammered at the burden of the $4 trillion national debt and promised to cut the yearly deficit that swelled it—while also promising a middle-class tax cut and more investments in education, infrastructure, and jobs programs to promote income growth for average American workers. Clinton's diffuse economic brain trust was actually split between "deficit hawks," who warned him that he had to cut the deficit above all else, and those who urged measures to jump-start the economy with a spending program focusing on jobs. Clinton was convinced he could do both.
Actually, less than half the electorate voted for him. He won with 42.95 percent of the vote, compared with 37.40 percent for Bush and 18.86 percent for Perot. Yet as he prepared to take office, the country's mood was turning somewhat optimistic: 1992 recorded growth in gross domestic product and decline in unemployment, signaling the end of a recession during Bush's term. But there was still unease over such trends as the lure of cheap labor overseas, the unequal exchange of manufacturing jobs for low-paying service jobs, the economic drain of interest payments on the huge debt, and the rising cost of health care. Clinton vowed to focus on these economic issues "like a laser beam." Much of the nation thought he would succeed. With Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress after twelve years of divided government, it seemed likely that he could.