Is the right right on the Clintons?
Something strange happened the other day. All these different people -- friends, co-workers, relatives, people on a liberal e-mail list I read -- kept saying the same thing: They’ve suddenly developed a disdain for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but I think we’ve reached an irrevocable turning point in liberal opinion of the Clintons.
The sentiment seems to be concentrated among Barack Obama supporters. Going into the campaign, most of us liked Hillary Clinton just fine, but the fact that tens of millions of Americans are seized with irrational loathing for her suggested that she might not be a good Democratic nominee. But now that loathing seems a lot less irrational. We’re not frothing Clinton haters like ... well, name pretty much any conservative. We just really wish they’d go away.
The big turning point seems to be this week, when the Clintons slammed Obama for acknowledging that Ronald Reagan changed the country. Everyone knows Reagan changed the country. Bill and Hillary have said he changed the country. But they falsely claimed that Obama praised Reagan’s ideas, saying he was a better president than Clinton -- something he didn’t say and surely does not believe.
This might have been the most egregious case, but it wasn’t the first. Before the New Hampshire primaries, Clinton supporters e-mailed pro-choice voters claiming that Obama was suspect on abortion rights because he had voted “present” instead of “no” on some votes. (In fact, the president of the Illinois chapter of Planned Parenthood said she had coordinated strategy with Obama and wanted him to vote “present.”) Recently, there have been waves of robocalls in South Carolina repeatedly attacking “Barack Hussein Obama.”
I crossed the Clinton Rubicon a couple of weeks ago when, in the course of introducing Hillary, Clinton supporter and Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson invoked Obama’s youthful drug use. This was disgusting on its own terms, but worse still if you know anything about Johnson. I do -- I once wrote a long profile of him. He has a sleazy habit of appropriating the logic of civil rights for his own financial gain. He also has a habit of aiding conservative crusades to eliminate the estate tax and privatize Social Security by falsely claiming they redistribute wealth from African Americans to whites. The episode reminded me of the Clintons’ habit of surrounding themselves with the most egregious characters: Dick Morris, Marc Rich and so on.
The Clinton campaign is trying to make it seem as if the complaint is about negativity, and it is pointing out that Obama has criticized Hillary as well. That’s what politicians are supposed to do when they compete for votes. But criticism isn’t the same thing as lying and sleaze-mongering.
Am I starting to sound like a Clinton hater? It’s a scary thought. Of course, to conservatives, it’s a delicious thought. The Wall Street Journal published a gloating editorial noting that liberals had suddenly learned “what everyone else already knows about the Clintons.” (By “everyone,” it means Republicans.)
It made me wonder: Were the conservatives right about Bill Clinton all along? Maybe not right to set up a perjury trap so they could impeach him, but right about the Clintons’ essential nature? Fortunately, the Journal’s attempt to convince us that the Clintons have always been unscrupulous liars seemed to prove the opposite. Its examples of Clintonian lies were their claims that Bob Dole wanted to cut Medicare, that there was a vast right-wing conspiracy, that Paula Jones was “trailer trash” and that Kenneth Starr was a partisan.
Except Dole did vote to cut Medicare, there was a vast right-wing conspiracy and Starr was and is a rabid partisan. (“Trailer trash” is, of course, a matter of opinion, and it’s a cruel thing to say, but as far as whether it’s a lie -- well, it’s not like they called William F. Buckley “trailer trash.”)
So maybe the answer is that the Clintons would have smeared their opponents in the 1990s, but lying is unnecessary when the other party is doing things such as voting to slash Medicare to pay for a big tax cut for the rich.
But the conservatives might have had a point about the Clintons’ character. Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinsky jeopardized the whole progressive project for momentary pleasure. The Clintons gleefully triangulated the Democrats in Congress to boost his approval rating. They do seem to have a feeling of entitlement to power.
If Hillary wins the nomination, most of us will probably vote for her because the alternative is likely to be worse. But what happens if she’s embroiled in another scandal? Will liberals rally behind her, or will they remember the Democratic primary?