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How Democrats would be better off if Bill Clinton had never been president

A look at the Clinton blunders that continue to damage his party today — and what might have happened if George H.W. Bush had won a second term.

PEP MONTSERRAT for the boston globe

AS FLEETWOOD MAC took the stage in January 1993, awkwardness hung in the air. It was, after all, the full band’s first performance since an acrimonious breakup many years earlier. When the familiar chords of “Don’t Stop” filled the stadium, Lindsey Buckingham managed to ape his acrobatic guitar playing from the ’70s. His voice, however, refused to come out of early retirement. Stevie Nicks wore an unfortunate Mad Hatter cap and a confused, bug-eyed expression that hinted at some kind of hostage situation.

Yet as soon as a band member called out, “Sir, would you join us, please?” everything began to feel right. The youthful president-elect, Bill Clinton, looking dashing in his tux, glided onto the stage for a gala on the eve of his inauguration, joined by his wife and daughter, and then Al and Tipper Gore.

Clinton smoothly tapped a tambourine as he sang “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” the hopeful refrain that the Man from Hope had selected as his campaign theme. Watching him light up the place, two observations were unavoidable. First, history was being made. The 46-year-old president-elect — the first boomer to win the White House — was taking the baton from an old-fashioned elder who had been born during Calvin Coolidge’s presidency. Second, not only couldn’t Al Gore dance to the beat, but he seemed to have trouble even clapping to it.

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The next evening, departing from the presidential tradition of simply making an appearance at each inaugural ball, Clinton projected vitality all night long, soaking up the energy from a dozen different celebrations held in his honor. Whether playing the saxophone with Clarence Clemons, swaying to the music with Michael Jackson, or cracking jokes with Jimmy Buffett, Clinton never seemed to want to leave.

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At the “youth inaugural ball,” he bit his lip to signal a serious note and told the young crowd, “You and your generation are a lot of what this election was all about, and I hope you felt like you won today.” As thousands of elated Gen Xers roared their approval, he continued. “I hope that this day will always be something you want to tell your children and grandchildren about, something you’ll always be proud of.”

A quarter-century later, I challenge you to find a beaming Gen Xer who reminisces to her kids about that magical day when she helped usher in the Clinton years. (I mean besides Chelsea — and who knows if even she is doing much beaming these days.)

In the #MeToo era, it has become a common lament for progressive Democrats to wish Bill Clinton would just go away, especially after his latest round of tone-deaf, remorseless comments about “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” One reason: As long as his ghost of sexual misbehavior hovers in the air, it undercuts Democrats’ ability to call out similar malfeasance by other powerful men, most notably the current president.

In reality, that lament is far too narrow. Sexual misbehavior represents just one of the many ghosts from the Clinton years that continue to haunt the Democratic Party.

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Here’s a provocative alternate reality that, with the benefit of time, is just starting to come into focus: All those joyful Democrats who tearfully celebrated the generation-shifting results of the 1992 election would likely be better off today if Bill Clinton had lost and George H. W. Bush had been reelected.

In erasing Bill Clinton’s victory, I am not suggesting we also erase his ’92 campaign, or adopt a George Bailey “better off if I’d never been born” scenario from It’s a Wonderful Life.

Clinton is an enormously important figure in the history of the modern Democratic Party. By pushing his “Third Way” moderate-reform agenda on issues like welfare and crime, he proved the Democrats could once again be viable competitors in postindustrial presidential politics. He stopped the bleeding and may have helped spare them from a Whig-like demise into nothing-but-a-congressional party, and then nothing at all.

Just how far into the wilderness of presidential politics had the Democrats drifted by the time Clinton made his run? Consider this simple arithmetic: Count all the electoral votes that the Democratic nominees for president received in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988, add them all up, and you’d still be 80 votes shy of the 270 it takes to win a single election. The Democrats’ only win in the nearly three decades between 1964 and 1992 was Jimmy Carter’s improbable victory in 1976, an asterisk made possible by a powerful post-Watergate backlash. When Carter ran for reelection four years later, the sitting president garnered a whopping 49 electoral votes.

No, the Democrats wouldn’t be better off today if Clinton had never run — just if he’d never won.

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BEFORE WE GET TO WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, let’s review what actually was. We’ll start with a pop quiz for Democrats: Name the three most important domestic achievements of the Clinton administration.

Chances are you’ll say a booming economy — the byproduct of responsible financial stewardship that converted record budget deficits into healthy surpluses. If you lean centrist or buy into pollster sabermetrics, you might mention welfare reform, which finally neutered the devastating if cynical tactic Republicans had used to paint their Democratic opponents as defenders of lazy “welfare queens.” Or maybe you’ll cite the assault weapons ban of 1994, a high-water mark for gun control that no pol of that persuasion has managed to come close to since, despite the numbing frequency of mass shootings.

Follow-up question: Which achievements from the Clinton years still hold up today?

Do you need more time?

I tried this exercise with several presidential historians and public policy pros, and the most common answer turned out to be “very little.”

ILLUSTRATION BY PEP MONTSERRAT
PEP MONTSERRAT for the boston globe

If you’re a policy wonk with a good memory, you might mention the expansion of the earned income tax credit or CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Those are both worthy achievements, but hardly the kind of legacy granite that would get you anywhere near Rushmore.

As for all that hard-fought budgetary discipline that produced a booming economy and an across-the-board rise in real wages, all of that got swept away like confetti the morning after an election party. Not long after Clinton unpacked his things in Chappaqua, his successor was presiding over a sputtering economy, increased poverty, and yawning deficits.

Much of the blame for that financial recklessness, of course, rests with George W. Bush. But the fickle nature and uncertain authorship of boom times explain why historians generally don’t focus much on the economy when calculating their presidential rankings. What’s more, the ease and speed with which the gains from the ’90s were erased helped expose profound miscalculations that Clinton made in economic and social policy.

Take welfare reform. Clinton is now roundly criticized by progressive Democrats for having pushed an overhaul of the welfare system purely for reasons of political expedience. In fact, that characterization is close to dead wrong.

Going back to the early 1980s, Clinton as a young governor was showing his determination to fix the abundant problems in a welfare system creaking with age, inefficiency, and perverse incentives. His Third Way/New Democrat approach made him attractive to voters nationally not just because it was smart politics, but also because it was sound public policy. And he knew he had a winning issue. He repeated his promise to “end welfare as we know it” so often on the campaign trail that aides began using the shorthand of EWAWKI.

Where the pure political expedience kicked in with Clinton was his decision during his 1996 reelection campaign to jettison all his years of seriousness in trying to find a fair, workable welfare reform plan. After vetoing two unserious, mostly punitive Republican welfare bills, Clinton signed one that was only marginally less bad. How bad? Three of the smartest social-policy minds in his administration resigned in protest.

One of them was Peter Edelman, who served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services. (He had been close with Hillary Rodham for decades, having introduced her in 1969 to his wife, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, who became one of her best friends.)

Today, Edelman tells me he knew the president he went to work for was not a fellow liberal. But even if the train chugged along more slowly than he might have liked, he always assumed it would move in the correct direction. Not so. When Clinton signed the Republican welfare bill in 1996, Edelman says, “I was shocked. It was an unspeakable blow to millions of utterly powerless people.”

As for Clinton’s justification that he risked losing reelection if he didn’t sign it, Edelman calls that “pure bull — just rationalizing.” He points to a meeting when Clinton polled his top advisers. Even the most centrist or politically savvy voices in the room — Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, chief of staff Leon Panetta, and senior adviser George Stephanopoulos — sided with the liberals in encouraging him to veto it, confident that it would not cost him a second term. Only domestic adviser Bruce Reed and Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor recommended that he sign it.

The damage, Edelman says, was masked by the rising tide of the late-’90s boom, which lifted all boats and led to record-low poverty rates. But when the economy turned bad, it became clear that the welfare law Clinton had signed effectively dismantled the safety net for millions of vulnerable people. That helped pave the way for today’s near-record-high income inequality.

The assault weapons ban produced a different kind of failure. Clinton deserves lots of credit for getting this sensible legislation passed. Still, it was packaged with an overall crime bill that, we now know, did far more damage than good. It significantly accelerated the growth of the prison-industrial complex, and its “truth in sentencing” components greatly increased both the amount of time criminals spent in prison and the racial disparities within our justice system. Across Clinton’s eight years in office, the number of people imprisoned in this country grew by nearly 60 percent.

That’s why it was so easy for Bernie Sanders to score points with progressives in the 2016 campaign by blaming Hillary Clinton for the fallout from her husband’s crime policies, which she supported. In fairness, though, crime was an incredibly hot-button issue with voters in the early 1990s. Fears about carjacking and crack dens, fanned by the emergence of 24-hour cable news, were prominent in people’s minds. Democrats who wanted to stay in office could not be seen as soft on crime. Remember that the darling of the left, Mario Cuomo, added more prison beds as New York governor than all of his predecessors had combined. Also remember that the list of congressmen who voted in favor of Clinton’s 1994 crime bill included a certain Vermont socialist with a Brooklyn accent.

And how about that assault weapons ban? To squeak it through Congress, the Clinton team accepted a compromise letting the ban expire after 10 years. Clinton’s legislative affairs director Patrick Griffin says in his oral history that the price Democrats paid for it could not have been steeper. He argues that the National Rifle Association's rage over the ban was the biggest factor in propelling Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” takeover of Congress that same year, which thwarted Clinton’s entire agenda.

The Clinton years offer plentiful examples of noble goals married with clumsy execution producing devastating consequences. Health care reform blew up badly enough to render it a crime scene that no one dared go near for another decade and a half. The president who attempted to keep his promise to young, progressive supporters by allowing gays in the military ended up signing the retrograde Defense of Marriage Act.

The Republican wave in ’94, framed around Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” sapped much of the policy ambition out of Clinton. Overnight, his focus shifted from persuasion to survival.

For Gingrich, the Republican Revolution was part of a grand plan he began scripting four years earlier. That’s when, as the House minority whip, he had infuriated President George H.W. Bush and the entire Republican leadership by reneging at the last minute on his support for the 1990 bipartisan budget agreement. The budget deal, which required Bush to raise taxes and break his “read my lips” campaign pledge, turned out to be the critical scaffolding on which Clinton’s deficit-reduction plans were built. But it also turned out to be the start to a ferocious revolt within the Republican Party.

“You can draw a direct line from Gingrich’s decision to break with Bush in 1990 to the Contract with America,” says historian and Bush 41 biographer Timothy Naftali. And that line continues long after 1994. The anti-elite, starve-the-beast Gingrich Republicans, he says, paved the way for the drain-the-swamp Tea Party crowd.

And Gingrich clearly had loftier ambitions than simply being elected House speaker in 1994 and upending Clinton’s presidency. As Bush budget director Richard Darman had predicted two years before that, “Newt is on a path for himself to be president of the United States.”

 Although Clinton argued he needed to sign welfare reform to avoid losing reelection, his savviest aides argued otherwise, including, from left, Robert Rubin, Leon Panetta, and George Stephanopoulos.
Associated press/file photos
Although Clinton argued he needed to sign welfare reform to avoid losing reelection, his savviest aides argued otherwise, including, from left, Robert Rubin, Leon Panetta, and George Stephanopoulos.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S CRITIQUES from the leaders of the left, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Sure, they bash Donald Trump and George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. But if you trace their indictment back to its roots, you’ll see they’re really talking about Clinton.

When they complain about how “billionaire bankers” from Wall Street hijacked Washington, “rigging the system” against the little guys, they’re largely referring to the decisions made by Clinton and his most influential economic adviser, Robert Rubin, as well as Rubin’s deputy and successor, Larry Summers.

As with so many of Clinton’s instincts, his shift on economic policy came from a sensible place. After decades of relying on the New Deal/Great Society playbook rather than working to craft a plan better suited to a changing economy, Democrats had developed a reputation for being reflexively antibusiness and pro-bureaucracy. Clinton and others in the centrist Democratic Leadership Council argued that Democrats had to do a better job of listening to business interests.

Again, it’s important to remember that the ’90s were a different time. How different? Millennial progressives, you might want to sit down for this one: Elizabeth Warren was, until 1996, a registered Republican.

Instead of listening to Main Street, however, Clinton ended up embracing the corporatist ideology of Wall Street, whose evangelists arrived overflowing with both confidence and campaign cash.

The Clinton economic approach began with deficit reduction. He hadn’t paid much attention to that issue during the ’92 presidential campaign until Ross Perot hopped into the race, built his entire third-party campaign around it, and improbably garnered 19 percent of the vote. So Clinton began zooming in on the deficit almost from the moment he entered the Oval Office, presumably right after he finished reading that inimitably classy letter of support that outgoing President Bush had left for him.

Leon Panetta, who headed up the Office of Management and Budget for Clinton before becoming his chief of staff, recalls how committed the new president was to doing fiscal discipline the right way. “I can remember almost a day after the inaugural that we sat down with him in the Roosevelt Room and began walking through the budget, line item by line item,” Panetta tells me, pointing out how rare it was for a president to get that granular. That, he says, was Clinton’s great gift — possessing the policy mind of a Jimmy Carter and the communications skills of a Ronald Reagan.

Yet fiscal discipline was only one component of the Clinton economic policy that came to be known as “Rubinomics.” It also featured financial deregulation and pro-corporate trade policy, all set against a largely unquestioning embrace of globalization. Remember that it was during the Clinton administration that derivatives were deregulated, NAFTA was approved, the Glass-Steagall Act separating investment and commercial banks was repealed, and China, despite its record of rampant rules violations and human rights abuse, was welcomed into the World Trade Organization. In championing NAFTA, Clinton assured displaced blue-collar workers they would get a real safety net of job retraining and additional support so they could successfully transition to the new economy. Even though Republicans roundly blocked that kind of spending, that didn’t stop Clinton from pursuing additional trade deals.

It was an agenda that could have been gift wrapped for Goldman Sachs, where the well-liked Rubin served as cochairman before joining the Clinton team, and Citigroup, which he joined immediately after leaving the administration.

“Clinton presided over a huge amount of financial deregulation, which set in motion the extreme speculation that ultimately led to the financial collapse in 2008,” Robert Kuttner, cofounder of the progressive journal The American Prospect, tells me. “It led to a worsening of income inequality and also made the Democratic Party more captive to Wall Street.”

Kuttner, who wrote a prescient profile of Rubin a year before the financial meltdown, says the upshot is that today, “Democrats have less and less credibility with ordinary Americans on pocketbook issues.” (Panetta concedes, “A lot of people dropped the ball, not just in the Clinton administration.”)

What the Democrats ceded was the ability to distinguish themselves as the party not beholden to powerful Wall Street interests. That’s why a New York billionaire like Trump could in 2016 make such light work of painting Hillary Clinton as a tool of Goldman Sachs, even though he would go on to stack his Cabinet with Goldman Sachs executives and billionaire financiers.

AP/File
Clinton’s sexual misbehavior with Monica Lewinsky is just one of the many ghosts still hovering from his presidency.

Of course, Bill Clinton’s biggest unforced error was his affair with 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky. Infidelity by Clinton was not surprising, given all the drama prior to the New Hampshire primary in 1992 about “bimbo eruptions” — the term coined by Clinton deputy campaign chair Betsey Wright to describe the fusillade of rumors about extramarital affairs. People who voted for Clinton knew the sins of this Southern governor involved a lot more than just lust in his heart.

Russell Riley, the head of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says Clinton’s aides were so determined to avoid scandal that they had protocols in place to prevent the president from being alone with women. (Maybe that’s where Mike Pence got the idea for his never-alone-with-a-lady-besides-my-wife rule.) How did the system fall apart with Lewinsky? The government shutdown in November 1995 cleared the White House of everyone except senior leaders and lowly interns, and that left Clinton unchaperoned.

Despite Clinton’s past, his aides were nonetheless shocked by his recklessness. Panetta worked with Democratic and Republican presidents from Carter to Barack Obama. “I never saw someone who loved being president more than Bill Clinton,” he says. “I never in million years thought he’d risk it all like he did.”

The Republican House impeached Clinton, led by Gingrich, whose moral outrage was undiluted by the fact that he was cheating on his second wife and had reportedly pressed his first wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer, about a divorce while she lay in a hospital bed recovering from surgery. After the impeachment push turned out to be a giant overreach, Clinton not only survived but saw his approval ratings rise.

Yet the collateral damage for the Democrats was massive, and enduring.

Before the Lewinsky scandal, Fox News was a distant third in prime-time cable news. Because of it, the conservative channel’s ratings grew a staggering 400 percent. In his book, The Loudest Voice in the Room, Gabriel Sherman writes that during the scandal, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity “were reborn as cultural bulwarks against a growing number of contemptible influences: Bill Clinton’s libido, the media, environmentalists, gay activists.” He quotes a former executive for the network saying, “When Bill [O’Reilly] started wagging his finger at the president and raising his voice, that was the genesis of the modern Fox News.”

If Clinton didn’t pay for his transgressions — and continues to resist owning up to them — others around him sure did. Aside from Lewinsky, the biggest victim of the scandal had to be his handpicked successor, Al Gore.

AND NOW, AN ALTERNATE VERSION OF HISTORY . . .

PEP MONTSERRAT for the boston globe

Let’s get the disclosures out of the way. Yes, I understand you can’t go back and change the past. Even if we could, we’d never be able to predict with confidence how events would have unfolded. As Quantum Leap taught us, just the attempt to alter the past can introduce all manner of unintended consequences.

If your mind won’t let you get past the limitations of this counterfactual imagining of a Clinton loss to Bush in ’92, I won’t protest if you stop reading now. For everyone else, please buckle up and remember to keep your hands inside the car at all times as you hop on this alternate-political-reality ride. It begins in 1997 as George H. W. Bush completes what would have been his second term in office . . .

George H.W. Bush sat down at his desk in the Oval Office on the last morning of his presidency and began writing a letter to his successor. Right thing to do. “When I walked into this office just now, I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt all those years ago,” he began. “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good Luck — George.”

He dated it January 20, 1997. He addressed it, naturally, to his successor, Bill Bradley.

[Or maybe it was Al Gore. Or Jay Rockefeller, George Mitchell, Ann Richards, Paul Wellstone, John Kerry, or Howard Dean. Or maybe even, at long last, Hamlet on the Hudson himself, Mario Cuomo. It might even have been a Democrat with an unfamiliar name. This is, after all, the imagined part of our alternative version of history. The point is: Bush, after two terms, would have been handing off the presidency to a Democrat who was not Bill Clinton.]

 As Bush reflected on his tenure, the word he kept coming back to was "exhaustion." The 41st president was 72, and, after two terms as president and two terms as Reagan’s vice president, he was more than ready to leave Washington for good. Time to relax with Bar and the dogs in Houston and especially in Kennebunkport.

Bush was being sincere in wishing his Democratic successor well. He was a proud Republican, had been all his life. But first and foremost, he was an American. Why wouldn’t he root for the president? The American president?

And if he was being completely honest with himself, Bush shed no tears for the Republican nominee who had just lost the 1996 election, Newt Gingrich. Never trusted that guy — too slippery. That’s why Bush had been so crushed when Gingrich cruised past both Dan Quayle and Bob Dole in the primaries to get the ’96 Republican nomination.

Bush’s mind flashed back to that meeting in the White House during his first term, the one when Gingrich had agreed to stand with him in support of the 1990 bipartisan budget deal. United front. Good of the country and all that. But when they started walking out to the Rose Garden for the press conference, Bush asked an aide, “Where’s Gingrich?” Turned out, the guy had headed up to Capitol Hill. CNN even caught his betrayal on camera as he walked away. Then Gingrich had wasted no time in bad-mouthing the deal. Could tell even back then how thirsty for power that fella was, how he wouldn’t stop until he was president.

Bush wasn’t crazy about the budget deal, of course. Knew the critics were going to savage him for breaking his “read my lips” campaign promise. But if he was prepared to take it on the chin for violating his Dirty Harry pledge, why shouldn’t some guy who’d been House minority whip for only one year? Bush also knew if they didn’t tackle the deficits, none of the economic prosperity that the country had begun to enjoy during his second term would have been possible. Sometimes, even Republicans had to raise taxes. For crying out loud, even Reagan knew that.

Bush had heard all about Gingrich’s blame game trying to explain away his loss in ’96. So like him to point fingers instead of taking responsibility for his mistakes. Be a man. Instead, Gingrich had been peddling some cock-and-bull revisionist story to anyone who would listen about how the Republicans would have been better off if Clinton had actually beaten Bush. Imagine that, a Republican leader talking with regret about a Republican president winning reelection!

Bush knew Gingrich had been a history professor before entering politics, so people took him seriously when he talked about historical patterns. How new presidents tend to get clobbered in midterm elections. How, if Clinton had actually beaten Bush in ’92, the timing would have been perfect two years later for some kind of fierce backlash. How it would have produced a Republican wave across the country in ’94. Not just enough to win back the Senate, mind you, but enough to finally break the Democrats’ hold on the House. Gingrich was telling people now that, instead of being stuck in the minority, he would have become speaker and been able to reshape national politics. Dream on, Newt.

 If Bush had beaten Clinton in 1992, his second term would likely have been a long intraparty battle with the ambitious Newt Gingrich. Instead, Clinton became Gingrich’s chief target.
AP/File
If Bush had beaten Clinton in 1992, his second term would likely have been a long intraparty battle with the ambitious Newt Gingrich. Instead, Clinton became Gingrich’s chief target.

The fella now insists all the philandering that got Clinton into so much trouble during the campaign would have resurfaced if the Arkansas governor had actually managed to win in ’92. Would’ve doomed his presidency. To Bush, that seemed like to a whole lot of nonsense.

Bush never shied away from tough politics. He was proud of his record as an honorable and principled guy while in office, even if he knew he was sometimes less so when vying for it. Campaigns weren’t for the faint of heart.

That’s why he looked the other way in 1988 while Lee Atwater did his thing and some PAC ran that Willie Horton ad savaging Mike Dukakis. A decent man, Dukakis was. Still is. If you want to Monday-morning-quarterback it, Dukakis probably didn’t deserve all that Horton business. But he probably shouldn’t have been running for president, either.

Even if you campaign aggressively, though, Bush knew there had to be limits. Had to keep it about policy, not personal lives. That’s why, during the ’92 race, he had no interest in turning Clinton’s womanizing into a campaign issue.

Besides, where does Gingrich get off talking publicly about bimbo eruptions and all that? Back in 1980, after he argued with his first wife about the terms of their divorce while she was in the hospital, didn’t he tell his aide that the poor lady battling cancer wasn’t “young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of the president”? Disgraceful. And he was already angling for the White House when he’d been in Congress for just two years!

The only excuse for Gingrich’s loss that seemed legitimate to Bush was that Ross Perot probably had cost him the ’96 election by running as a third-party candidate. Back in ’92, Bush had feared that Perot might screw up his own reelection bid if the Texas billionaire jumped into that race, but he had stayed on the sidelines. And Bush had the same worry four years before that, when that blowhard Trump kept running his mouth about how he was going to run for president as an independent in ’88. Buying full-page ads in the papers, campaigning in New Hampshire, and whatnot. Good thing that turned out to be just empty talk. Like so much with Trump.

Bush had to admit that his first term felt a whole lot more fulfilling than his second one. Amazingly, managing the end of the Cold War and the international coalition that forced Saddam out of Kuwait had turned out to be less soul-sapping than trying to negotiate, over and over, with the obstinate right wing of his own party.

How many times had he sat Gingrich down on that cream-colored sofa over there and tried explaining it all to that son of a so-and-so? How, if a Republican president couldn’t count on his own party to get things done, he’d have no choice but to make deals with Dick Gephardt and George Mitchell. How, if Gingrich couldn’t get past his purity tests over taxes and insisted on carrying out a civil war within their party, he’d ensure that a Democrat — and not Gingrichwould be the next occupant of the White House.

“I don’t doubt that you’re a smart cookie,” Bush would tell him. “But the American people want to see Washington get things done. Not going to twiddle my thumbs for the next four years while you say no to everything.”   

Clinton may have lost in ’92, but because he had turned it into such a close race, after a generation of blowouts for the Democrats, his party realized the Arkansas governor had been on to something after all. It dawned on them that if they found someone like Clinton — maybe a little less centrist so the liberals wouldn’t get so worked up, and with a much more normal personal life — they’d have a real shot the next cycle.

Bush figured that’s why, after years of stalling, Democratic leaders had finally been willing to tackle welfare reform during his second term. Gingrich should have welcomed the opportunity, given how long he’d been talking about the broken system. But Gingrich refused to support any reform that didn’t slash funding. Didn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that would be a nonstarter with a Democratic Congress. So Bush had cut a deal with Mitchell and Gephardt that gave millions of poor mothers the kind of training and support they needed to move from welfare to work. What kind of person wouldn’t support that?

In pivoting away from Gingrich and toward bipartisan deals, Bush had been replicating some of his biggest successes from his first term. Take the Americans With Disabilities Act. Let the old cranks at the diner whine about all the money being wasted on ramps, or all the best parking spaces now being off-limits. Just thinking about how that one law improved the lives of millions of disabled Americans including lots of wounded veterans, this nation’s true heroesmade Bush smile. And every time he sat out on his patio in Kennebunkport and took in the clean, salty air while watching the Atlantic waves crash into Walker’s Point, he was reminded of how precious this planet is. And how proud he was of his work to help keep it that way by signing the Clean Air Amendments back in 1990.

Having to deal with a Democratic Senate meant that when Bush had the chance to name two more justices to the Supreme Court in his second term, he had no shot of getting another lightning rod like Clarence Thomas through. Mitchell and Joe Biden assured him that if he chose another moderate like his first appointment, David Souter, the nominee would sail through. A lot of Republicans had grumbled that Souter was some kind of “stealth” nominee, a closet liberal. Bush was surprised Souter turned out to be so moderate, especially since he’d been championed by Bush’s conservative chief of staff, John Sununu. Still, Souter seemed like a decent, smart, sensible fella. Reminded Bush of his own father, a rock-ribbed New England Republican who was star quality in everything he did. A couple more Souters on the court wouldn’t be so bad. Especially since Bush knew he’d never have to run for reelection again and be forced to listen to those self-important bores at the Federalist Society chewing him out.

The only times Bush secretly wished he had lost to Clinton in ’92 were when that pest Lawrence Walsh held yet another press conference or announced yet another indictment in his endless Iran-Contra probe. No doubt that whole investigation would have withered on the vine if Bush had not been reelected. Instead, Bush’s win breathed new life into Walsh, who could be as single-minded as Millie was when biting into her chew toy. Bush had considered pardoning Caspar Weinberger, his pal from the Reagan administration, at the end of his first term, but knew the Democrats would accuse him of obstruction of justice. So he waited until the end of his second term.

Bush glanced at his watch. It was getting late. He sealed the letter for his successor and left it on the center of the desk blotter. As he stood up and admired for one last time the luminist landscapes hanging on the Oval Office walls, his son walked in.

“Dad, it’s almost time,” George W. Bush said.

“All set,” Bush replied. He wondered what would be next for his son. George W. had cycled through so many assignments in the White House during his father’s two terms, never quite finding the right fit. He’d begun talking about maybe running for governor of Texas in ’98, but that didn’t seem very likely.

Bush prized his son’s loyalty. Nothing more important than loyalty. But being a successful politician took a lot more than that. Bush thought back to his first term, when his son had volunteered to play the enforcer role for his father. Bush went along with it, even giving his son the thankless assignment of being the one to tell Sununu he had to resign. And yet Sununu had emerged from that meeting with W. convinced he still had the job. Some enforcer W. was. Just thinking about that incident again now, Bush felt a smile forming at the corner of his mouth.

As he exited the Oval Office for the last time, Bush knew there was no chance George W. would ever get a turn behind that desk.

 But there was always Jeb.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @neilswidey. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.