Ever since Hillary Clinton announced her White House run, we all knew that her past support for the Iraq War would be a liability. But nobody expected that her very popular husband would turn into a problem. It all started three weeks ago when Bill Clinton lied that he had always opposed the War, and it has grown worse since. His December 14th PBS interview with Charlie Rose was a disaster – as he lashed out at Barack Obama with contempt, even going so far as to say that the Illinois Senator should just wait his turn to run for President. For a campaign that has largely relied on Clinton nostalgia, Bill’s conduct under pressure has shown that the ex-President has a less seemly side to his demeanor. Voters may agree that things were better in the 1990’s, but they don’t want to revisit an Administration that left progressives with no lasting legacy.
It’s incredible how popular Bill Clinton is among Democrats – when you consider that he left the party with fewer seats in Congress, demoralized activists and few policy accomplishments. NAFTA eviscerated the party’s labor base, Welfare Repeal threw poor people into the street, the Telecommunications Act allowed Rupert Murdoch to buy up the airwaves, and the Defense of Marriage Act condoned bigotry at the state level. Even the economic recovery brought on by Clinton’s 1993 Budget is a distant memory, as George Bush quickly erased the budget surplus with a tax cut for the rich.
Was Clinton really the first “black” President, as Toni Morrison once claimed? I doubt Lani Guinier, who he left hanging dry after Republicans attacked her nomination to the Justice Department, would agree. If anything, Clinton is lucky that the right-wing despised him so much that they impeached him over a blow job: his victimhood made Democrats (including African-Americans) rally to his defense, and in the course forget all that was wrong with him. The fact that he was followed by our country’s Worst President has only further accentuated that myth.
Clinton’s interview last week with Charlie Rose was revealing for several reasons. While he claimed to have “nothing bad to say” about the Democratic candidates, his venom for Barack Obama was painfully obvious. He said that voters who pick a fresh face over experience were taking a risk because it was “less predictable,” and that Obama lacked substance. At one point, he effectively said that Obama had no meaningful accomplishments. “I know I’m old fashioned,” he said, “but I think a President ought to have done something.”
The bitterness in Clinton’s words evokes a major problem with Hillary’s campaign. Her run is premised on the notion that while our country has gone astray for the last seven years, all we need to do is go back to the Nineties. As long as Clinton campaigned with a positive tone about his past accomplishments, it worked. But now that he has taken a negative aim towards Obama, it reminds voters how divisive a figure Clinton has been.
This is not the Bill Clinton of 1992 who said “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” or even the Clinton of 1996 who promised to “build a bridge” to the future. He’s now the elder statesman with a sense of entitlement, who questions why we would dare pick a new kid on the block. Clinton recounted to Charlie Rose how in 1988 he believed that he was capable of running for President – but instead chose not to. “I was a good enough politician to win,” he said, “but I didn’t think I was ready to be President.”
What Clinton effectively said is that Obama should have the courtesy to “wait his turn.” And according to at least one African-American blogger, such an attitude smacks of white paternalism. “The Clintons are attempting to tar Obama as a ‘boy,’” he wrote, “with all the disrespectful, condescending, emasculating, just-who-does-he-think-he-is connotations that the historical use of that word implies – but they are very cunning and keeping it just below most white peoples’ conscious radar.”
Is that an overreaction? Probably not. Two weeks ago, Nation editor David Corn wrote a blog posting about how much the Clinton campaign people hate Barack Obama. “It’s his presumptuousness,” he reported. “[The notion] that he thinks he can deny her the nomination. Who is he to try to do that?” When Corn asked one operative if they think Obama is “uppity,” they said yes. Anyone familiar with the history of that term as it relates to African-Americans will know exactly what that means.
Everyone knew that whoever took on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination – Obama, John Edwards, and the others – would face a difficult time for a basic reason. Besides the corporate money, establishment ties and centrist credentials that make the mainstream media swoon, Bill Clinton is the Democratic Party’s big “success story.” Defeating Hillary in the Democratic primary is an indictment of the Clinton years, and a statement that the Clintons no longer represent the standard in Democratic (or progressive) politics.
But Clinton’s defensiveness about Obama’s challenge paints a different picture that has been submerged for over a decade – the Clintons are not progressive, and in fact they bring out the worst in people. Bill Clinton, who until very recently was considered Hillary’s not-so-secret weapon on the campaign trail, has become a liability for her presidential campaign. Gone is the optimistic “putting people first” aura that we all respected 15 years ago; what we have is an establishment figure who questions the premise of an Obama candidacy. And, for that reason, there is hope about what will happen in Iowa.
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