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).