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Bill Clinton's political legacy

The bipartisan general agreement in Washington on President Bill Clinton can be heard almost anywhere in this city:

Yes, he may have been a reckless, flawed and self-indulgent man, but Bill Clinton was without doubt an authentic political genius _ and we shall not soon see his like again.

The man's statistics are truly impressive.

Under his leadership, the U.S. economy produced the lowest overall unemployment rate in 30 years; the lowest unemployment rate ever for Hispanics and African-Americans; the lowest poverty rate in 20 years; and record budget deficits turned into record budget surpluses.

After his party had lost at least 40 states in the three immediately previous presidential elections, Clinton would become the first Democrat since FDR in 1936 to have two back-to-back White House victories.

Bill Clinton commands a higher job rating in his eighth year than either Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan could manage.

Even Clinton's severest critics concede that he put up some dazzling numbers.

But wait.

Every president is also the leader of his party.

And here the retiring president's numbers tell a different and much less impressive story.

On the day Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, there were 102 more Democrats than Republicans in the U.S. House, an institution the Democrats had then controlled for 38 consecutive years.

For the first time since the Coolidge-Hoover era, the GOP, this past November, retained its U.S. House majority for a fourth consecutive Congress.

In 1992, Democratic governors sat in the state houses of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and 21 other states.

By 2000, all those same states have GOP governors and instead of 28 Democratic state chief executives, there were only 18.

When Bill Clinton won his first term, Democrats controlled both Houses of state legislatures in 25 states and Republicans controlled just eight states (the others had divided control).

By the end of the second Clinton term, Republicans control both legislative houses in 17 states to 16 for Democrats.

In 1992, when George Bush was president, there were 1,469 more Democrats than Republicans in the 50 state legislatures.

By Bill Clinton's eighth year, the Democrats' nationwide advantage among state legislators had shrunk to just 278.

And these numbers will matter in 2001, when governors and the legislatures draw new congressional district lines.

Next year, Democrats will control the legislature and the governorship in only one of the eight largest states _ California.

Defenders of Clinton's political leadership point out that he neutralized negative public perceptions about the Democrats.

By backing police officers on the outlawing of assault weapons and by endorsing capital punishment, Clinton rebutted his party's reputation for being "soft on crime." By backing a harsh law to end all federal responsibility for welfare, Clinton went well beyond anything ever advocated by Ronald Reagan.

Still Clinton's victories came at some cost.

By deliberately submerging philosophical differences with the GOP on many economic issues and through his relentlessly aggressive fundraising from big money sources, Clinton was instrumental in transforming the Democrats to a point where U.S. voters were left with two pro-business parties, separated by support for unrestricted abortion rights and unyielding opposition to school vouchers for the nation's poorest children.

Of course his party's loss of popularity and power are not all Clinton's fault. Congressional Democrats, by their arrogance and indifference to the national party's fortunes, brought much of the trouble upon themselves. But as a political genius Bill Clinton was very much a Lone Ranger.

Eight years of genius has proved painful for a lot of Democrats no longer in public office.

+ Mark Shields is a syndicated columnist based in Washington. +

Mark Shields

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