And how, after his second inaugural speech from the steps of the Capitol this week, does Bill Clinton fit in - a man whose better self has from time to time been hard to make out in the mud-flinging of Nineties Washington? He did something remarkable. He declared that conflict between statists and anti-statists, the 20th-century battle of the bully pulpits, to be over. We have, he said, resolved a great debate over the role of government. Clinton used his great platform to express a moderate sense of the limits on government action and of government's continuing vitality - government strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves, as the president put it.
Inaugural speeches are not summaries of policy. This was not even a statement of legislative intent. It was mood music. Yet, addressed to Americans as it was, President Clinton's speech also matters to us, on this side of the Atlantic.
The trivial reason is that one way or another our culture and horizons are formed by the domestic condition of the United States. There is another reason, germane this week as the contents of Gordon Brown's extraordinary fiscal promises are digested. Bill Clinton is an inescapable point of reference in the map of possible futures for the centre left or progressive politics in this country. What he has done, and may yet do, are possible compass-points for our Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.
Let's put on one side Whitewater, Paula Jones and the sleaze which clings to this president like drying slime to an Everglades 'gator. What Governor Bill Clinton may or may not have done in hotel rooms in the state capital of Arkansas is irrelevant to his conduct as President, or at least no more relevant than if one tried to judge Harry Truman's actions during the Korean war in the light of his conduct as a Missouri judge. The American people voted Clinton back, unseen "distinguishing characteristics" and all.
That does not mean the slate is clean. Clinton's domestic accomplishments during his first term are not negligible, though they owe a great deal to fortuitous economic circumstances and generally good judgements by the chairman of the Federal Reserve. But the omissions are equally great: conspicuous failure to deal with the costs of ageing; the abandonment of health reform; the incarceration of a growing proportion of the youth, and specifically young blacks, without commensurate effect on crime.
For all that, the President's second-term inaugural is a speech worth hearing with open ears. To British listeners, a phrase such as "the great natural bounty of our water, air and majestic land" is bombast. What they ought to hear is the recapitulation by William Jefferson Clinton of the second president's sense of a new continental power, unbounded in time and unconstrained by geography, destined for greatness.
This style of speech-making is alien to us in our cramped island, especially the way a US president can reach out to all his fellow countrypeople on the basis of common aspiration - for ultimately, perhaps, the only thing that Americans have in common is an idea of onwards and upwards towards Jeffersonian goals of happiness.
Yet isn't that basic political optimism what will always distinguish the political centre and left from the right - a conviction that government has a role to play in securing for individuals and for groups the means for advancement? The political trick, in this post-New Deal era, is to create a kind of government action that does not involve more spending or more officials or even more law-making.
In a world where the pressures are for slightly smaller states, that is essential. But it is practical too? Three themes - fairness, inclusiveness and renewal - sang through Clinton's speech. These are aspirations; but they are richly suggestive. What Clinton is saying is that government has a role - in the lives of both individuals and their civil society - as a source and guarantor of fairness and inclusiveness. The job of the party of the centre left is to win power in order to make the conditions of life fairer. To be an American, in the Clinton perspective, is to resent and, by implication, seek to demolish those structures that exclude people. The party of the centre left is thus the party of equal access, women's advancement, intolerant of racial discrimination, striving to enact policies (welfare to work, child benefit, education, etc) that emancipate the underclass.
This is a new politics of values, which is harder-edged than mere talk or blather. It is a new bully pulpit, with a social mission attached. And it is inspiring - at least to us. It is a reminder to all those who have assumed that Gordon Brown is in some way the gravedigger of progressive British politics that there are other ways of being ''progressive'' than simply tax-raising or big-spending. For the centre left generally, as for the scandal-hit but re-elected William Jefferson Clinton, there is political life after death.Reuse content