October 11, 2010


It's time for Obama to pull a Clinton (Michael Takiff, 10/10/10, Salon)

After the slapdown of 1994, Bill Clinton seemed a zombie president -- moving around, talking, living in the White House, but powerless and pathetic. Yet only two years later he coasted to reelection. The turnabout began when Timothy McVeigh, only hours after the president insisted on his relevance, set off his bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Bill Clinton’s speech four days later at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena displayed what may be the man’s most admirable and valuable gift: empathy. It’s not a joke, it’s not a put-on, he really does "feel your pain," and people know it. The speech reintroduced him as a strong, compassionate leader to a country that had come to view him as weak and elitist. And it played into what would be the theme of his politics for the rest of the year.

Clinton and his advisors didn’t make an explicit equation of the militia movement, with which McVeigh sympathized, to the conservative rule of Congress, but neither did they ignore the opportunity to make a point. In May at Michigan State Clinton told graduates "there is nothing patriotic about hating your country, or pretending that you can love your country but despise your government." "It wasn't consciously trying to tie conservative extremism in the House to the militia groups," says then-White House press secretary Mike McCurry. "But it was very clearly a statement about extreme rhetoric that declares government is not the solution, it's the problem ... Our rhetoric was subliminally a way to push Gingrich and the Republicans more and more to the extreme side." And so Clinton & co. worked tirelessly to convince the public that the Republican agenda, which sounded like common sense in the Contract, was in fact a plan to shove the country to the fringe. "Over and over again," recalls McCurry, "we used the words radical and extreme interchangeably to discuss the priorities of the new Republican leadership in Congress." On Feb. 24 Clinton spoke of "radical right-wing measures that are coming out of these House committees." June 23: The Republican budget proposal "is still too extreme." Aug. 2: A Republican bill featured "extreme anti-environment provisions"; Republicans favored "extreme budget cuts." Oct. 19: Republicans should "turn back from passing extreme measures."

That the strategy worked was testament as much to the personality of Newt Gingrich as to Clinton’s political skill and the essentially moderate temper of the country. In 1994 Gingrich seemed to much of the public new, smart and thoughtful. In 1995 he wore out his welcome. For one thing, he was (and is) simply unappealing on television, in contrast to the warmly telegenic Clinton. What’s more, he couldn’t stop talking. As Paul Begala recalls, "He was like a Thomas Nast cartoon of a right-wing thug: Overweight, bombastic and given to hysterical rants. He blamed liberals for Susan Smith -- the woman in South Carolina who murdered her children. Woody Allen left his wife for his wife's adopted daughter -- and that was the Democrats' fault." In policy matters he overreached, going beyond the discrete proposals of the Contract to call for the abolition of the Department of Education and threatening to throw the United States Treasury into default if he didn’t get his way in the ongoing budget negotiations.

As those negotiations proceeded through the summer, Clinton staked his position on the defense of four issues: Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. Medicare was Exhibit A in the case Clinton was making; he hammered Gingrich with it at every turn. When the Republicans proposed $270 billion in Medicare cuts over five years and tax cuts totaling $240 billion over the same period, the near 1-to-1 correspondence handed Bill a ready-made argument that the Republicans wanted to use the program so dear to the hearts of seniors "as a piggybank to fund huge tax cuts for people who don't really need them." When the government shut down in November, and CNN broadcast pictures of padlocked national parks and unsent Social Security checks, the public blamed Gingrich. The following year, Clinton & co. tied Gingrich around the neck of the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, himself no fan of the vainglorious speaker. Clinton barely broke a sweat as he breezed to reelection, just two years after his political obituary had been written.

It took the loss of Congress to shake Clinton into branding his opponents radicals and extremists. Barack Obama, fortunate that he has 1994's cautionary tale as guidance, needs to start his effort to do the same right now.

The author overlooks the degree to which Mr. Clinton otherwise embraced the Republican Revolution. Were the UR to base his 2012 re-elect on trade liberalization, budget cuts, drastic reform of a major entitlement program, and the like, he'd be tough to beat, because the GOP stands ready to hand him that series of victories too.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2010 6:52 AM
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