Magazine | November 15, 2010, Issue

The Big He, Not for Me

Bill ’n’ Barney (Stew Milne/AP)
A word against Clinton nostalgia

Bill Clinton has been front and center this year, campaigning for Democratic candidates. Indeed, he is the King Democrat, the White House’s main surrogate, the number-one Democratic speaker on the trail. He can go places where President Obama can’t — because Obama is not at his most popular just now. Clinton has stumped for about 65 candidates, at something like 100 events. And he is very good at it, campaigning. No one has ever disputed that.

Something funny has come over conservatives in the past year and a half or so — since Obama was sworn in, or shortly thereafter. And that something is Clinton nostalgia. With increasing frequency, you hear, “Ol’ Bill wasn’t so bad, compared with this flaming radical we got now. He was a peach of a moderate, Bill was. And he was foursquare within American traditions — not so sure about Obama. I kinda miss the ol’ scoundrel.”

Count me out, I’m here to say. Watching Clinton on the stump this year, I have experienced some of the disgust I felt those years ago, when Clinton was president. We have seen the bullying, the arrogance, the dissembling, the demagoguing, the finger-wagging. The refusal to regard Republicans or conservatives as people, with points to make. As opponents to be engaged and argued with. (Of course, Obama is not too keen to engage either.)

Remember when Monica Lewinsky referred to Clinton as “the big ‘he’”? Well, the Big He may be for thee, but he is not for me.

His central line is that people are voting Republican this year, or thinking of doing so, because they’re “mad” — mad as in angry. The implication that goes with this is that the voters are mad in another sense, too: nuts, out of their minds. How could you vote Republican if you were a rationally thinking human being? I am reminded of a bumper sticker: “I Think, Therefore I Vote Democrat.” Years of self-esteem education has obviously had an effect on these people.

Speaking to a crowd in New Mexico, Clinton said, “I keep thinking I’m too old for this.” The crowd said, “No, no, no!” Clinton continued, “Then I got out here and started stirring around and realized a lot of people were mad and even more confused, and I didn’t want it on my conscience.” (Once more, I grant you: “The people are too mad to think straight” is an Obama theme too, and a general Democratic one.)

In his travels — his “stirrings around” — Clinton went to Massachusetts, to campaign for Barney Frank. The longtime liberal congressman is facing a challenge from an upstart Republican, Sean Bielat. Clinton entered the Taunton High School gym to his theme song, “Don’t Stop (Thinkin’ about Tomorrow).” I used to like that song, before 1992, when the Clinton campaign embraced it.

The former president said, “The only thing that really matters is, what are we going to do now? What are we going to do now, and who’s more likely to do it?” He then said, “If those were the questions the voters in this congressional district asked, Barney Frank would get 85 percent of the vote and we wouldn’t be here.”

Allow me to interpret that: If only the voters had their heads screwed on right, and asked the right questions, there wouldn’t be a competitive race. I, a former president, wouldn’t have to schlep up here. What’s wrong with you people? Why should there be an argument at all? In fact, why should there be a second party in this country?

#page#He pulled much the same stuff in another gym, this one at Valley High School in Las Vegas. He was stumping for Sen. Harry Reid, against the upstart Sharron Angle. He said that, in a “normal time,” Reid would be up on Angle by 25 points. “You and I know that the only reason this is a tough race is that this is a tough time, and when people are having a tough time, and they’re frightened, and they’re confused, and they’re mad, it’s hard to think.” Some of us think that the voters are thinking rather well this year — better than in years past.

Clinton charged that Angle and her fellows were itching to privatize Social Security, just as “the previous administration” tried to do. (Interestingly, George W. Bush, in this same period, said that his greatest failure in office was not getting Social Security reform passed.) Clinton told the Nevadans, “This crowd basically has said, ‘If we win both houses of Congress, we want to give Social Security to Wall Street.’” Is that your understanding of the Republican position on Social Security?

He flailed away at Angle, saying she wanted “massive cuts” for the nation’s air-traffic controllers: “Who gets to decide which airports are unsafe? Maybe Sharron Angle will volunteer Vegas.” The last time Democrats tangled with Republicans over air-traffic controllers — 1981 — they lost big. Maybe they will have better luck this time?

Here was Clinton at his most flagrant: “It would be unbelievably negligent to say, ‘I know you’re right, but I’m just too mad.’” I know you’re right! “I’ve got to vote for this woman — this woman who doesn’t want women to have mammograms in their health-insurance policies, who thinks autism is sort of a flaky, made-up deal.” Angle, as she has stressed, does not hate mammograms or welcome breast cancer. She thinks that mandates on insurance companies ought to be rethought, for the sake of American health care overall. And she believes that too many problems and disorders are grouped — grouped sloppily — under the rubric “autism.” But Clinton, flailing, does not have time for the niceties.

No one begrudges the right of an ex-president to campaign for his party’s candidates. Not everyone can be like Bush 41 and stay above the fray. But shouldn’t an ex-president, as a figure who belongs to the nation, sort of, refrain from personal attacks? Shouldn’t he largely confine himself to saying positive things about his own guy? Shouldn’t he campaign on a fairly high level of principles? Am I being ridiculous?

Check out Clinton’s principles in Napa, Calif., where he was on the trail for a congressman named Thompson. “Trickle-down economics does not work,” he said, “and they have promised to give it back to us on steroids.” Trickle-down economics? Has anyone talked that way about the principles of a free economy since 1975 or so? Wasn’t Clinton a New Democrat? Has he become Old, at this stage of his career?

No, I don’t miss him, not in the least. Sure, he capitulated to Republicans on welfare reform, when he was “triangulating,” wanting to be reelected. So? Sure, he complained about being forced to govern as an “Eisenhower Republican.” So? Those were the times, and he was of them. He was an adapter, a flexible pol. That’s great. But I don’t believe that Clinton, in his heart and head, is philosophically distinct from Barack Obama. He tried the same health-care revolution, and, lacking the congressional majorities that the Democrats would have later, came up short. I think he governed as far to the left as possible, while maintaining his “political viability within the system.” (Remember that phrase?)

#page#In an interview with me years ago, Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican, said that, “in eight years, Bill Clinton did America relatively little harm.” He kept getting in his own way. Also, a Republican Congress got in his way. As for his foreign policy, it was “weak,” but “without Ivan at the gate, it didn’t make any difference.” (Classic Gramm.)

Fine, fine — but there was so much more. Let me recall another presidential phrase: “to flick the scab off the wound.” Nixon used to say that, when contriving to dredge up an old hurt: “Let’s flick the scab off that wound.” I will now do a little flicking, just a little.

Clinton promised “the most ethical administration in the history of the Republic,” but he cut every corner, to put it mildly. James Riady and the Lippo Group, the renting out of the Lincoln Bedroom, and on and on. Then he would bluster and bully and stonewall and blame. In October 1997, before the country was introduced to Monica Lewinsky, Mark Helprin wrote a memorable article for the Wall Street Journal with the title “Impeach.” It began, “Here we stand in a clearing of the most difficult century of human history, wanting our deserved rest, and standing with us may be the most corrupt, fraudulent and dishonest president we ever have known.” As I said, that was before.

And after? I could cite you chapter and verse — keep you here till next week. See Truth at Any Cost, by the veteran reporters Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf, for a nauseating refreshing. The intern aside, and even Kathleen Willey aside: How about Juanita Broaddrick? Did you find her claims credible? A lot of people did, and they were not all Clinton-haters, believe me. And it was not comfortable, believe me, to take Juanita Broaddrick seriously.

You don’t have to wonder much about Barack Obama. I would be surprised if he cheated at golf. I don’t believe there is anything corrupt or dishonest about him. We conservatives simply have big disagreements with him (“simply”?). In the past ten years, I have occasionally found myself charmed by Clinton. At Davos, he said something that actually moved me (and I reported so): something about persevering despite adversity. I’m glad his daughter had a happy wedding. But I would not swap him for Obama, no — not for a term, not for a month.

Rallying for Senator Murray out in Washington, Clinton said, “Look, folks, I’ve seen this movie before, in 1994. I called the president the other day, and I said, ‘Relax. They haven’t said anything about you they didn’t say about me. The only reason they’re being nice to me right now is because I can’t run for anything anymore.’” Smart fellow, Clinton — no one ever disputed that.

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