Saturday, January 19, 2008

Will the Real Bill Clinton Please Sit Down?

Are any other political progressives as weary of the Clintons' campaign tactics as I'm becoming?

In recent weeks, we've been treated to former President Clinton condescendingly dismissing Barack Obama as a "kid" and describing the Illinois senator's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Then, in Nevada, Clinton accused the Obama campaign of voter supression. His strident tone has been eerily reminiscent of his more noteworthy hyperbole while president, which hardly inspires confidence in the trustworthiness of his patronizing assertions during the present campaign season. I'm surprised that the former president hasn't accused Barack Obama of "a vast left-wing conspiracy" against him and his wife!

It sometimes seems as though the Clintons only appear gracious when they're winning. When they're behind, or even think they're behind, they seem to become paranoid and vindictive. And this attitude betrays a disturbing sense of entitlement on the part of the Clintons: to dominate the Democratic party, as if the divine right of kings had morphed into a party principle, and occupy the White House, as if the presidential mansion were somehow their family home.

Since Barack Obama's strong showing in Iowa, the Clinton campaign has alternated between meanness and condescension, generating a tone that might better be saved for the part of the campaign when the Democratic nominee is actually facing his or her Republican opponent. (And even then, the tone would be questionable.) Indeed, the Clinton campaign seems all-too-willing to adopt a tone and employ tactics we usually associate with the hysterical right-wing of the Republican party. While it is often overzealous campaign workers who indulge in such childishness, sadly, the former president has waded into such antics in a manner that's unseemly for an elder statesperson. If we are learning anything from the current presidential campaign in the United States, it is that the real Bill Clinton no longer seems to be the affable, sensitive leader we remember from the 1990s. Someone needs to tell him that this campaign isn't about him or his tenure as president.

If it were, then present-day liberals would have reason for pause. Bill Clinton may well have been the most conservative Democratic president since Harry Truman, or perhaps even Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, as Paul Krugman observes in his magnificent new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, "On economic issues from welfare to taxes, Bill Clinton arguably governed not just to the right of Jimmy Carter, but to the right of Richard Nixon" (p. 5). And in the senate, Hillary Clinton has hardly been the uncompromising left-wing radical that some feared -- or that some of us hoped for! Only on healthcare does Senator Clinton seem more progressive that Senator Obama, although her credibility on this issue is tainted by her and her husband's failed attempt to reform healthcare in the 1990s.

Although Hillary Clinton would not be my first choice for the Democratic presidential nomination, I sincerely hope she continues to do well. But she will only do well if she and her campaign call off the dogs, take the high road, and return to a focus on the issues and her own record as an elected official. This leads me to ask, "Will the real Bill Clinton please sit down?" His recent performance as a sort of Democratic "Karl Rove" is not helping Senator Clinton and can only undermine the credibility of the Democratic party's presidential nominee, whomever it is.

No comments: