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Sep 14 2012

Clinton, Reagan and Demagoguery

In the wake of Bill Clinton’s masterful speech at the DNC, which clearly was a huge help to the Obama reelection effort, it’s been fascinating watching so many conservative pundits and pols suddenly claiming that Clinton was a centrist while Obama is a hardcore liberal / socialist / gaymuslimcommiepinko. As Matt Lewis points out, much of it is coming from the same people who savaged Clinton with many of the same criticisms when he was in office:

I think Kurtz might have been a tad surprised when I admitted that it was simply politically convenient for Republicans — having spent the decade of the 1990s attempting to cast Clinton as a radical — to now argue he was always just a moderate “new” Democrat. (After all, Clinton can do little harm these days — and praising him is a very sly way to criticize the Democrat who can do harm — Barack Obama.)

In fairness, this tactic is employed by both sides. Liberals who used to mock and denigrate Ronald Reagan, now use him as a cudgel to argue that today’s conservatives have strayed from Reaganism. Heck, in some media circles, Mitt Romney is already being unfavorably compared to George Romney and even George W. Bush!

I think this is a false equivalence. Yes, many Democrats and progressives, including President Obama, have cited Reagan and negatively compared current Republicans to him, but only, as far as I’ve seen, in regard to specific issues. Obama noted that Reagan had strongly advocated the idea that the wealthy should pay higher taxes, but only to point out that today’s Republicans have gone much further than even their hero ever went on the subject of taxation. And I have pointed out Reagan’s staunch support of the UN Convention Against Torture. But neither Obama nor I were making a case that Reagan was overall a liberal, or overall a great guy or good president. I’ve been making the case that the modern conservative opinion on torture is seriously out of step not only with their own traditions but with the man they so frequently cite as their primary role model.

But that isn’t what the right has done with Clinton and Obama. They painted Clinton as an America-hater, a socialist, a communist, and a weak-kneed appeaser who aided America’s enemies. Now they’re painting him as a serious centrist politician that got things done and tarring Obama with those same accusations when they don’t apply any better. Lewis at least recognizes what is really going on:

As I implied on “Reliable Sources,” the more likely scenario is that, while Bill Clinton was a liberal, many conservatives also engaged in demagoguery when Clinton was president.

That sort of conservative prestidigitation may work on people who have no memory of the 1990s. But it also raises some questions about the intellectual honesty of some conservative pundits.

But the problem with this sort of hyperbole is that it could one day be like the boy who cried wolf.

I already is like the boy who cried wolf. The right tries to tar every Democrat with the same brush, always inaccurately, and the only ones who don’t see that they’ve always been wrong are those who actually believe their demagoguery. The fact is that Clinton was a moderate; hell, he was practically a Republican in many important wants. It was Clinton who signed GATT and NAFTA over the loud objections of a primary Democratic constituency, the labor unions. It was Clinton who signed the welfare reform bill over the loud objections of most liberals. It was Clinton who deregulated the financial industry and forbid the federal government from regulating credit default swaps and the derivatives market, over the loud objections of most liberals. In all of those cases, the support in Congress for those bills came predominately from Republicans. Clinton may be a loyal Democrat politically, but he certainly didn’t behave like a real progressive in office. And it isn’t just absurd that the Republicans declared him to be a far-left figure, but that many Democrats believe it too.

And much the same is true of Obama. He hasn’t behaved like a real progressive in many important areas since he took office. When it comes to most criminal justice issues, he’s been indistinguishable from a conservative law-and-order politician (in favor of prosecutorial immunity, opposed to the right to access DNA evidence that could prove someone’s innocence, etc). When it comes to executive power issues, he has been virtually indistinguishable from Dick Cheney (maintaining and expanding the NSA’s blatantly unconstitutional data mining program, defending the executive’s absolute immunity from the courts through the State Secrets Privilege, refusing to prosecute those who ordered and engaged in torture and illegal surveillance, supporting the reauthorization of FISA and the Patriot Act, etc).

As has been pointed out many times, even the signature achievement of his presidency, health care reform, is little more than the Republican alternative to real health care reform of 20 years ago. And yet much of the left still sees him as a hero and the right continues to savage him as the second coming of Joseph Stalin. This is a story not only of the right’s demagoguery, but of many Democrats wearing tribalistic rose-colored glasses (though, to their credit, most serious liberal intellectuals like Glenn Greenwald and civil liberties groups like the ACLU have remained consistent on these matters).

15 comments

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  1. 1
    d cwilson

    I think the main difference is liberals aren’t pretending they like Reagan. They still think he was awful on most issues. They’re just pointing out the hypocrisy of Reagan-worship by conservatives who would drive a republican with views similar to Reagan’s competely out of the party today.

  2. 2
    Michael Heath

    Even more ironic than Republicans lauding Bill Clinton now in spite of misrepresenting him while he was in office is their treatment of Hillary Clinton; especially since she currently wields powers as Sec. of State.

    In the 1990s and prior to Ms. Clinton becoming a U.S. Senator, she was evil incarnate – no hyperbole, check out some of the books about her during that period. Now I rarely encounter Republicans attempting to defame her; why I have no clue.

  3. 3
    slc1

    Hell, by today’s Rethuglican standards, Richard Nixon would be a dangerous socialist.

  4. 4
    Nick Gotts

    And yet much of the left [Obama] still sees him as a hero

    Really? Can you give us some names? I can’t think of anyone I would classify as belonging to the left who sees him as anything more than preferable to the only alternative.

  5. 5
    sivivolk

    I know Reagan supported the CAT, but given what he had going on in Central America during that time, it’s hard to argue that current right-wing attitudes on torture at that far out of step from what they had going on in the early 80s (though I recognize Carter probably should get blamed for a bunch of the stuff at the end of the 70s).

  6. 6
    d cwilson

    Now I rarely encounter Republicans attempting to defame her; why I have no clue.

    Go to Breitbart.com right now. They’re not only blaming her for the attacks in Libya, they are calling for her head.

  7. 7
    Trebuchet

    Clinton was pretty much forced to become a centrist because of the election debacle in 1994. He had better luck with that than Obama has been able to after his similar debacle in 2010 because the R’s were at least somewhat less unreasonable. (Discounting the whole impeachement thing, of course!)

    The 1994 and 2010 Republican sweeps were both caused by the same thing, health care. I cringed when I saw Obama going after it right away because I was pretty sure it would be a repeat of 1994.

  8. 8
    d cwilson

    It’s terrifying that we can now look back at Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker as the time when republicans were more reasonable.

  9. 9
    Area Man

    “But it also raises some questions about the intellectual honesty of some conservative pundits.”

    In related news, questions have been raised about the peace-loving nature of Genghis Khan.

  10. 10
    laurentweppe

    I[t] already is like the boy who cried wolf

    Not yet: until we see the rise of a US demagogue gaining a strong following by arguing that the upper-class should be dekulakized, the “Clinton/Obama is a radical Marxist who hates the Job Creators” trope will not be like the boy who cried wolf for lack as no actual wolf as yet arrived.

    ***

    even the signature achievement of his presidency, health care reform, is little more than the Republican alternative to real health care reform of 20 years ago

    I still strongly suspect that many among the GOP never saw this alternative as anything more than a rethorical trick, a way to say “we want to reform health care too” and never intented to actually implement it.

  11. 11
    laurentweppe

    In related news, questions have been raised about the peace-loving nature of Genghis Khan.

    Genghis Khan sent three diplomatic delegations, two of which were slaughtered to Persia before starting to burn it to the ground. By today’s GOP’s standard, he was a far-leftist pacific hippie.

  12. 12
    Michael Heath

    Trebuchet writes:

    Clinton was pretty much forced to become a centrist because of the election debacle in 1994.

    My reading of Bill Clinton is that he’s been a long-time moderate. I didn’t observe any sea-change as president relevant to his record as governor. We got what we should have expected from him.

    In the present, I perceive Barack Obama as a solid establishmentarian with a strong Burkean streak where his grounding is derived predominately from liberal successes going back to the enlightenment and arguably, liberal-friendly passages in the New Testament. From my perspective that makes him moderately right of center.

    I also see the president evolving more to the right in terms of being more supportive of business than when he was a Senator. I attribute that to his having a better understanding of economics where his point of reference on education and teacher performance suggests he’s evolving on business matters in a way that isn’t surprising but consistent with his desire to go after optimal outcomes – something I love about the guy.

    The two enigmas which caused me to do so much research since I couldn’t nail them down was George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. My position on Reagan is well-represented in this forum. With Bush I came down to him being a guy who cared about becoming president, was lazy, and really didn’t give much of a shit at all about governing or the country.

  13. 13
    M can help you with that.

    I certainly won’t praise Reagan…and, hell, at least Romney hasn’t (AFAIK) pushed to suppress HIV/AIDS research funding so that his right-wing buddies could more effectively jerk off at the thought of gay men and black people suffering and dying.

    Then again, maybe I don’t count; I’m on the left rather than the center-right, so the Democratic party has little to do with me.

  14. 14
    ArtK

    @ M Groesbeck

    So Romney &co’s approach to women and their health/autonomy is better than Reagan vis HIV and gays? I’m not seeing a whole lot of difference there.

  15. 15
    Pierce R. Butler

    Michael Heath @ # 12: I also see the president evolving more to the right in terms of being more supportive of business than when he was a Senator. I attribute that to his having a better understanding of economics …

    The economics Obama now better understands involves the cost of re-election campaigns in the post-Citizens United era, such that he dares not antagonize any Big Spenders (even, according to his apparent understanding, those already committed to his total ruination).

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