Teaching Clinton: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last summer, I redid how I would teach my US History class this school year. For all but one year of my teaching career, I taught US History chronologically. I did themes one year, but I did not like it. I probably did not pick the right themes. This year, I had one goal in mind…to spend more time teaching lessons about modern US History. The only way for me to do that was to alter what I teach and when. So, over a peanut Picture1butter and jelly sandwich, a banana, and a glass of milk, I sat down at my computer, opened up an Excel spreadsheet, and began to draft four or five different versions of how the class might look. I decided to give one a try this year and I can safely say the thematic approach has worked out well. In previous years, I rarely had time to teach about the Clinton era. Usually the lessons were about his presidency (in 1 lesson), Columbine, and technology. There was just not enough time to go into any detail. This year, the thematic approach created space for me to do more on less.

In planning out a unit that included the Clinton era, I set aside 4 weeks/20 days for the unit with 10 days/lessons dedicated to the Clinton era. Teaching Clinton is a challenging task. One reason is the era is fraught with change that has not played out yet. One time a history fair judge told me to “…wait 20 years to write or teach about history properly. That way you can see the effect of the event.” He was right…for the most part. It has been almost 20 years. And the events did reshape the country. Here’s the plan:

The Introductory Lesson – This lesson looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Clinton’s first term. After some brief background information on Clinton, students are given 13 terms (including his failed health care reform) that they must read about and then students determine whether to place the event in the good, bad, or ugly column. After students complete that task, the events are discussed and the Contract with America is examined more and the effect that the midterm elections had on how Clinton governed. Then the big discussion comes on the 1996 election.

Finding a Place in the World – This lesson takes two days. In keeping with the new role of the US in the world, three events in foreign affairs are discussed and examined. Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia are all given a little sample of what Clinton wants to do in each instance.

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Students are then told to only pick one event to do. Then once the students have discussed their decisions, the class then discusses the impact of doing all three. Students individually investigate Bosnia and Haiti while the class as a whole looks at Somalia and Operation Restore Hope in detail including the use of an educational film on the real Black Hawk Down. The students finally examine the role of the US in the post Cold-War world and whether or not to be the policeman of the world.

The Scandal – Delicate planning is needed for two lessons on the Lewinsky Scandal. This one is going to be fun for the students to learn about while scary for me to teach. Day one involves setting up the roles for the students and presenting the evidence. This includes some documents, a PowerPoint on Who’s Who, some constitutional background, and an educational film from National Geographic’s series “The Final Report” that I downloaded from iTunes. (Here’s a preview)

The scary part as a teacher comes in discussing some of the salacious details which is why I have decided to only show certain portions of the educational film. The high point for the students is they get to act as the US Senate and sit in judgment of the evidence on day two of the lesson. Cartoons are brought in for openers, but the students  actively participating clearly is the key to them feeling as if they are part of history. I debated on whether to have them sift through the evidence on both sides and place evidence in certain categories, but I tend to like the mock trial better.

Grunge – Oh, how I loved the early 1990s for music! Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Mother Love Bone are still in daily rotation on my iPod for exercise. In this fantastic trip down memory lane, students examine the reasons for the Seattle music scene and how it reflected youth culture and was actually very anti-music industry in its attitudes. Students watch a short film, read a PowerPoint, read some lyrics, and make a paper grunge doll (those are hysterical) along with more information in a product. I will probably take two days to do this right. I will also include some choice bits from PJ 20 and an old VH1 documentary on grunge.

Mother Love Bone's classic LP - Apple

Mother Love Bone’s classic LP – Apple

Technology and Culture – This is a fun day as students use the Internet to find bits and pieces of 90s culture and create a product of how technology was then and how it has evolved into what the students use today. This is one of the few days which their textbook is the main source of information. I also provide a link to here.

Columbine – This one day lesson is the one that I find most disturbing. It is a web search that I hope does not glorify what those two young men did that day. Rather the search focuses on the reasons for their actions and what lessons can be learned and applied today.

Defining a Legacy – Similar to the Place in the World Lesson, this lesson examines Clinton’s and the US’s role in foreign affairs in his second term. I am not done planning it yet. I have the introduction to the lesson done and I have 2 scenarios/situations mapped out in my head (one involving Bin Laden), I just haven’t gotten to tying them all together with some activity yet. I do know Clinton’s legacy will be examined using parts of this PBS article from their wonderful Clinton series. I do believe it is important to teach the events in foreign affairs from his second term but I think the culminating activity of determining a legacy is even more important and how Kosovo, Desert Fox, terrorism, and Bin Laden fit within that legacy, if at all.

In the end, teaching Clinton is like walking a tightrope. You have to be balanced as you go across the rope. If you get too much to one side, you begin to fall. I think that is the key. Present the evidence, from multiple-viewpoints, and let the students decide for themselves. Whether it is the scandal, foreign affairs, culture, economics, trust the students to use the evidence to learn and craft responses to history. I think, without a doubt, there are multiple lessons to be learned. Whether the event was good, bad, or ugly, there is an inherent moral in each lesson that can be learned from this polarizing President. I think the best part might come when the unit is complete and Clinton’s actions are compared and contrasted to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Then, and only then, I think, one can begin to see the impact that Clinton had for the good, the bad, and the ugly as President.

Bill Clinton’s 1993 Attempt at Health Care Reform: Almost Sinking a Presidency

In 1993, President Bill Clinton spoke to Congress about the need for health care reform. He said,bill-clinton-healthcare

If Americans are to have the courage to change in a difficult time, we must first be secure in our most basic needs. Tonight, I want to talk to you about the most critical thing we can do to build that security. This health care system of ours is badly broken, and it is time to fix it.

Despite the dedication of literally millions of talented health care professionals, our health care is too uncertain and too expensive, too bureaucratic and too wasteful. It has too much fraud and too much greed. At long last, after decades of false starts, we must make this our most urgent priority, giving every American health security — health care that can never be taken away, health care that is always there. That is what we must do tonight.

Later he added,

So tonight, I want to talk to you about the principles that I believe must embody our efforts to reform American health care system, security, simplicity, savings, choice, quality and responsibility.

That night, Clinton laid out the need for a reformed health care system. He would call it the Health Security Act. The attempt to pass this piece of legislation would almost sink his presidency. The story of the act actually begins on the campaign trail and would end in a crushing defeat of Democrats in the 1994 mid-term elections. It almost sank Clinton’s presidency…almost.

Bill Clinton would not be the first President to talk about health care reform. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman had spoken about the need long before Clinton. In the spring of 1992, Bill Clinton began addressing the need to change the health care system while on the campaign trail. It was not a priority in the minds of many voters that year. The economy would be the big issue of the day. For Clinton, however, he kept the idea on the back burner. As to what Clinton’s plan was, it was ever-changing throughout 1992 and into 1993. Whether it was “managed competition” or “pay-for-play,” no one was really sure as it changed often.

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Hillary Clinton addresses Congress on Health Care Reform in 1993

Shortly after his inauguration, Clinton announced the formation of “The President’s Task Force on National Health Reform.” It would be headed by his wife, Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton initially wanted the health care reform package to be part of the next budget and gave a 100 day deadline to get both the budget and the plan, as part of the budget, passed. The plan did not make it far.

The spring saw Bill Clinton begin to assemble meetings on the issue of health care reform. Leaks from members sabotaged any progress or effort. At the end of May, the President disbanded the task force. That summer saw the President take a new initiative to handling the issue. He set up a war room to handle attacks on the forthcoming fall plan and to help get the word out about the benefits of the plan. Opponents, both Democratic and Republican, attacked the “employer mandate” section which would require all employers to provide health insurance. Presidential Adviser David Gergen tried to convince the President to postpone his fall attempt at Health Care for another year. Clinton did not adhere to the advice. After his budget was passed that summer, the Clintons were all in on health care.

On September 23, 1993, President Clinton laid out his plan before Congress.

The plan, called the Health Security Act, was to have a hard row to hoe. Five days after the address, Mrs. Clinton began several days of testimony before Congress. The soon to be 1300 page plan was not going to just sail through Congress. In addition, the Clintons began to shut out the outside the world, in particular, their own party. They wanted things done their way which meant relying on populist support. The problem was their perception of populist support was wrong.

Even before the plan was laid out for all the country to see, attack ads began airing on television. In addition, counter ads also played off of what became known as the “Harry and Louise” ads.

On November 20, 1993, the bill made its first official appearance. The 1300 page document laid out what Clinton thought was going to be his legacy. It almost ended it. The Health Security Act was government-run health care. The government was going to oversee and control every aspect of the health care industry. After having spent the 1980s listening to Ronald Reagan say that government was the problem, America was not going to support the plan.
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Over the next year, the support for the bill waned.The Clintons still could not persuade their own party to sign on to the bill. Closed door meetings between the Clintons and Democratic congressional leaders were tense, terse, and non-compromising. Neither side budged. In fact, Democratic leaders began to assemble their own bills in 1994. Senator George Mitchell and Congressman Dick Gephardt lead the charges to revamp health care as they saw fit. The Clintons tried to use the public to pass their bill by marching citizen after citizen before the cameras to tell of their individual woe in regards to health care. It was all for naught.

Americans now had a new voice to listen to in the spring and summer of 1994. The Republicans drove home a message that the Health Security Act meant more “big government.” More government programs was something the public did not want. In addition, the Whitewater and Paula Jones Scandals became fodder for Republican candidates as they campaigned not for themselves, but against Clinton. By late fall and just before the elections, the plan was dead. It would not even come before either house of Congress for a vote.

The mid-term elections in 1994 were a disaster for Republicans as Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the 1950s. All the blame lay at Clinton’s feet and the Health Security Act.

The attempt to reform health care failed for several reasons. The biggest and most pronounced reason was the inability of the President to work with his own party to ensure passage. Instead, at every opportunity to forge alliances in his own party, President and Mrs. Clinton stood fast for fear of compromising what they thought was the integrity of their plan. Instead, it was the downfall.

Bill Clinton reflects on why the 1993 attempt to reform Health Care failed:

Despite the horrific political disaster that the attempt at Health Care was, it did have its lessons which Clinton quickly put to use in the next session of Congress from 1995-1996. Throughout the crisis, he developed a thick skin. By the end, he knew he had lost, but he also learned how the game of politics in Washington was played. When the Republicans take control in January of 1995, they begin pushing through their “Contract with America” and all its platforms. Clinton stood strong and chose his battles wisely. When a budget battle threatened to shut down the Government, the public blamed the Republicans under the leadership of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. Clinton became presidential. It may not be how he wanted, but nonetheless, he now knew how to fight back. Teh Republicans tried their own version of health care reform in 1995 and it failed, too. By the fall of 1995, eleven of the thirteen platforms in the “Contract with America” had failed to pass. The President may have lost the battle for health care reform in 1993 and 1994, but he won back the Presidency 2 years later in 1996. In his 1996 State of the Union speech, he declared that the era of  “big government was over.”

Shades of 1994: The Republican Revolution

For almost 40 years, the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then along came Bill Clinton. Like Obama, Clinton polarized America. Clinton’s brash attempt at Health Care Reform turned many away from the Democratic Party. In the mid-term elections in 1994, the Republicans swept both houses of Congress for the first time since 1953. Largely based on their “Contract with America”, the new Republican Congress would try to change government and sweep out Clinton in the process. Not all went as planned, but in the following years, government did change.

The story of the Republican Revolution begins with none other than Barry Goldwater. Most think it starts with Reagan, but back in the 1960s, Goldwater began the conservative movement within the Republican Party. A candidate for president in 1964, Goldwater’s sharp contrast to Lyndon Johnson did not go down well with Americans outside of Arizona and the deep south. Personally, Goldwater was more of a libertarian than would become known as a conservative.

A sharp move to conservatism began in the Republican party with the Halloween Massacre of Gerald Ford in 1975. In one fell swoop, Ford, his chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s aide, Dick Cheney, swept out the moderate wing of the party, and the remnants of Nixon cronies and replaced them with more conservative thinkers.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan came to embody the conservative movement. Reagan had a fantastic ability to speak about American values and how government was the problem. In reality Reagan’s inability to control legislation resulted in the largest deficits (at that time) in the nation’s history. However, the conservative movement continued to gain steam in the Republican Party. The conservatives, led by a group called the Religious Right, transformed politics as 150 years of the Democratic Party control in the south faded away in a matter of 10 years. Thus the base of the party of was born.

What created the rise of Republican anger that swept into Congress in 1994 was the reaction to Clinton’s attempt at health care reform and the growing federal deficit. Clinton, largely elected on George H.W. Bush’s failed campaign promise not to raise taxes, had been a disaster as President his first two years. Unbeknownst to many American, the Republican Revolution would change Clinton for the better as an executive.

The Republican’s swept into Congress largely on the outrage of Americans, much like the 2010 mid-term elections. But the 1994 Republicans also brought with them their Contract with America. It stated

On the first day of the 104th Congress, the new Republican majority will immediately pass the following major reforms, aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government:

  • FIRST, require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress;
  • SECOND, select a major, independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;
  • THIRD, cut the number of House committees, and cut committee staff by one-third;
  • FOURTH, limit the terms of all committee chairs;
  • FIFTH, ban the casting of proxy votes in committee;
  • SIXTH, require committee meetings to be open to the public;
  • SEVENTH, require a three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase;
  • EIGHTH, guarantee an honest accounting of our Federal Budget by implementing zero base-line budgeting.

Thereafter, within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, we shall bring to the House Floor the following bills, each to be given full and open debate, each to be given a clear and fair vote and each to be immediately available this day for public inspection and scrutiny.
1. THE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out- of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses. (Bill Text) (Description)
2. THE TAKING BACK OUR STREETS ACT: An anti-crime package including stronger truth-in- sentencing, “good faith” exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer’s “crime” bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools. (Bill Text) (Description)
3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility. (Bill Text) (Description)
4. THE FAMILY REINFORCEMENT ACT: Child support enforcement, tax incentives for adoption, strengthening rights of parents in their children’s education, stronger child pornography laws, and an elderly dependent care tax credit to reinforce the central role of families in American society. (Bill Text) (Description)
5. THE AMERICAN DREAM RESTORATION ACT: A S500 per child tax credit, begin repeal of the marriage tax penalty, and creation of American Dream Savings Accounts to provide middle class tax relief. (Bill Text) (Description)
6. THE NATIONAL SECURITY RESTORATION ACT: No U.S. troops under U.N. command and restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world. (Bill Text) (Description)
7. THE SENIOR CITIZENS FAIRNESS ACT: Raise the Social Security earnings limit which currently forces seniors out of the work force, repeal the 1993 tax hikes on Social Security benefits and provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance to let Older Americans keep more of what they have earned over the years. (Bill Text) (Description)
8. THE JOB CREATION AND WAGE ENHANCEMENT ACT: Small business incentives, capital gains cut and indexation, neutral cost recovery, risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis, strengthening the Regulatory Flexibility Act and unfunded mandate reform to create jobs and raise worker wages. (Bill Text) (Description)
9. THE COMMON SENSE LEGAL REFORM ACT: “Loser pays” laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation. (Bill Text) (Description)
10. THE CITIZEN LEGISLATURE ACT: A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators. (Description)

Further, we will instruct the House Budget Committee to report to the floor and we will work to enact additional budget savings, beyond the budget cuts specifically included in the legislation described above, to ensure that the Federal budget deficit will be less than it would have been without the enactment of these bills.
Respecting the judgment of our fellow citizens as we seek their mandate for reform, we hereby pledge our names to this Contract with America.

Source: http://www.house.gov/house/Contract/CONTRACT.html

Some of the measures would pass, some would be altered, others radically changed, but many measures would not change. However, several changes occurred as a result. Conservatism was now “in”. From the south to great plains, a new America was cast. And for the past 16 years, it has not changed. What began with Goldwater, shifted with Reagan, was fully born with Gingrich and the Republican Revolution in 1994. The 10-point legislative plan aimed to reduce federal taxes, balance the budget, and dismantle social welfare programs established during six decades of mostly Democratic rule in Congress. Gingrich was feisty, sometimes controversial, but he knew he had somewhat of a mandate from the American people.

What the Republicans did not foresee were two changes on the horizon. The biggest change of all in America as a result of the Republican Revolution was Clinton’s governing style. As we used to say in south central Polo, “He grew a pair.” He stood up to Gingrich. And on one occasion, Clinton shut down the government rather than give in to the Republicans. Americans sided with Clinton.

The second change was with a computing and technology revolution, the economy boomed in 1995 and 1996. In the Presidential election, Republicans did not select the a candidate to challenge Clinton appropriately. As a result Clinton defeated Bob Dole and Ross Perot (for a second time). The Republican Congress continued to keep an eye on fiscal matters, and with Clinton, they both balanced the budget and created surpluses many thought would last a decade and the US would be out of debt by 2010. Yeah,…..that didn’t happen. By 2002, the Republican controlled Congress under George W. Bush had strayed far away from the roots of the Revolution. The Republicans were out of Congress after the mid-term elections in 2006. Over the last four Bush years, and Obama’s first two years, the largest deficits in our nation’s history occurred raising the deficit to a staggering 12 trillion dollars including 3 straight years of trillion dollar deficits with no end in sight.

It was no surprise to anyone that this past week, America responded by changing the course of the Congress. The Republicans took back the House but not the Senate. As to what will happen, neither party has control of anything. Gridlock may be the answer. Who knows? We may be having this same conversation in two years about how either Obama “grew a pair”, the Republicans wasted an opportunity, the economy grew or fizzled, or even the birth of a new political party. We will just have to wait and see. One thing is clear, Americans have had enough and want results.