Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne writes in his column today that
the Clintons’ assault on Obama is so depressing. In many ways, Obama is running the 2008 version of the 1992 Clinton campaign. You have the feeling that if Bill Clinton did not have another candidate in this contest, he’d be advising Obama and cheering him on… Doesn’t calling in Bill Clinton as the lead attacker merely underscore Obama’s central theme, that it’s time to “turn the page” on our Bush-Clinton-Bush political past? And with both Clintons on record saying kind things about Reagan, why go after Obama on the point? Honestly: If Obama is a Reaganite, then I am a salamander. Yet there was Hillary Clinton’s campaign, unveiling a radio ad on Wednesday implying that Obama bought into such ideas as “refusing to raise the minimum wage.” Come on, guys. The worst thing about all this is what both Clintons are doing to their own legacy as pioneers of an approach that rejected, as Bill Clinton said in a 1991 speech, “the stale orthodoxies of left and right.” The great asset shared by both Clintons is their willingness to bring fresh thinking to old problems. “Our new choice plainly rejects the old categories and false alternatives they impose,” Bill Clinton added in that 1991 address in which he offered a long list of new ideas. “Is what I just said to you liberal or conservative? The truth is, it is both, and it is different. It rejects the Republicans’ attacks and the Democrats’ previous unwillingness to consider new alternatives.” Pretty good stuff, still. Why should either Clinton attack Obama for facing some of the same truths that both of them taught their party so long ago?
Maybe the reason is because they are a deeply unprincipled couple who destroy their political opponents and those whom they view as a threat to their power — and in this case, their political opponent happens to be a graceful man and a rising Democratic star.
Dionne’s comments are part of a fascinating reassessment of Bill Clinton that is happening among liberals. Dionne is a particularly interesting example. During the 1990s there were few columnists in America who were as reliable a defender of President Clinton as Dionne. He was a harsh critic of Clinton critics, whom E. J. often referred to as “Clinton haters.” He often made it appear as if opposition to the Clintons and their style of politics was coming from angry and irrational opponents. (Some were — but most weren’t.) And because Republicans and conservatives couldn’t beat Clinton in the realm of ideas, they had to attack his personal life in a vicious matter. He and his wife were victims of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” and the “Republican attack machine.” Or so the theory went.
But that was then.
Now E. J. Dionne, a bright and delightful man, seems to be suffering from vertigo. He is stunned and saddened that the Clintons would criticize Barack Obama in the manner they are, based on distortions of the young Illinois senator’s record. Obama even sounds like a young Bill Clinton; to attack him the way they are is, well, so wrong and so unfair. Yet the Clintons do it anyway. What is a long-time liberal defender of the Clintons to make of all this?
Bill Greider of The Nation is another liberal who is unhappy with the Bill and Hillary Show (it’s worth noting that in the past, Greider was critical of Bill Clinton for not being liberal or bold enough). According to Greider:
The recent roughing-up of Barack Obama was in the trademark style of the Clinton years in the White House. High-minded and self-important on the surface, smarmily duplicitous underneath, meanwhile jabbing hard to the groin area. They are a slippery pair and come as a package. The nation is at fair risk of getting them back in the White House for four more years. The thought makes me queasy… Mr. Bill punches Obama in the kidney and from the rear. When Obama whirls around to strike back, there stands Mrs. Clinton, looking like a prim Sunday School teacher and citing goody-goody lessons she learned from her 135 years in government… The style is very familiar to official Washington, not just among the Clintons’ partisan adversaries, but among their supporters. The man lied to his friends. All the time. They got used to it. They came expect it… We are sure to see more of Mr. Bill’s intrusions because the former president is pathological about preserving his own place in the spotlight. He can’t stand it when he is not the story and, one way or another, he will make himself the story. I used to be sympathetic toward Mrs. Clinton on this point. No longer. She is using her egocentric husband to do the low-road hits for her campaign. He is good at it–a real charmer if you’ve never seen his act before. Or is Mrs. Clinton’s husband using her? People can ask that question without disturbing the principles of feminism. Evidently, many of the mainstream party faithful want the Clinton team as their presidential nominee. It’s their choice, of course. But does the rest of the country really deserve this?
No, it doesn’t. The problem is that those who defended Bill Clinton over the years, as he practiced his brand of ruthless politics to his heart’s content and to the delight of his supporters, are now in such a bad position to complain.
Perhaps a few of the “Clinton haters” are owed an apology.
– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.