Sen. Hillary Clinton is telling Democrats that they shouldn’t let their hearts run away with their heads by embracing the lightly experienced Sen. Barack Obama for President. She says she is the battle-tested one who can best carry the Democratic banner.
Yet, despite Sen. Clinton’s insistence that she’s the responsible choice, there is logic to “Obama-mania.” Indeed, he may be the only Democrat in the race who can transcend the expected dirty politics of the Right and achieve a victory that can transform American politics for the better.
While Sen. Clinton says she knows how to combat the right-wing attack machine, the truth is that she and her husband most often ended up on the losing end of those fights.
Under fire from the Right, they botched the best chance in decades to enact universal health care; they oversaw devastating Democratic congressional defeats starting in 1994; Bill Clinton became the first President since Andrew Johnson to be impeached by the House though he managed to survive after the spectacle of a Senate trial; and their missteps set the stage for the restoration of the Bush Dynasty in 2000.
The Clintons also engineered a generational change in the Democratic Party that ushered out – or marginalized – many of the party’s old lions and replaced them with a coterie of careerists and accommodators.
Though the Clintons may have wanted to “do good” for the country, they opted for a strategy of unprincipled compromise and “triangulation,” a concept of endless repositioning that Hillary Clinton championed as First Lady and as a top political adviser to her husband.
In her memoir, Living History, Mrs. Clinton claims credit for bringing Republican pollster Dick Morris back into President Clinton’s inner circle in 1994, overriding resistance from others in the White House. “Nobody in the Democratic power structure liked or trusted him,” she acknowledged.
While Morris helped advance Mrs. Clinton’s “triangulation” strategies, he ultimately proved his critics right by betraying the Clintons and going on TV to decry Democrats in the most venomous terms, helped by the insider credibility that Hillary Clinton had bestowed on him.
Her alliance of convenience with Morris was typical of the Clinton brand of politics. The Clintons rarely stood up for decent individuals who suffered for doing the right thing in Washington; usually those people got sold out as the Clintons sought out unprincipled characters on the other side who could be put to short-term use.
For similar reasons of self-promotion, the Clintons and their top advisers also misrepresented how they prevailed in 1992 against President George H.W. Bush. Their preferred narrative was contained in James Carville’s pithy slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
But the economy alone would not have sunk President Bush’s re-election bid. After his victory in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Bush enjoyed record-high poll numbers and was widely admired for his foreign-policy acumen.
However, in the months after the U.S.-led victory over Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, an investigation led by House Banking Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, revealed that the Reagan and Bush administrations had helped and coddled Hussein during and after his eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.
Investigative journalists, such as Murray Waas at the Los Angeles Times, expanded on Gonzalez’s findings. Evidence emerged that Reagan and Bush had sanctioned indirect military aid to Hussein, including precursor chemicals for weapons, and had supplied the dictator with battlefield intelligence.
This “Iraqgate scandal” took the gloss off President Bush’s singular foreign-policy achievement.
Meanwhile, the continuing Iran-Contra investigation ate away at Bush’s insistence that he was “not in the loop” on the arms-for-hostage dealings with Iran or the illegal assistance to the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Combined, these allegations and suspicions eroded two of President Bush’s greatest political strengths – the impression that he was a master of foreign policy and the belief that he was a reasonably honest politician.
Instead of the great foreign-policy sorcerer, Bush looked increasingly like the sorcerer’s apprentice who created the messes that needed cleaning up.
In 1992, though then struggling in the polls, Bush remained an accomplished political infighter, knowing how to play dirty when in “campaign mode.”
Bill Clinton and his advisers may have seen themselves as a match for Team Bush, but the reality was that at a key moment in fall 1992, Clinton needed to get bailed out by experienced Democratic operatives on Capitol Hill.
In late September 1992, Bush gave his aides a green light to search through Clinton’s passport file looking for some derogatory information that could destroy Clinton, possibly a rumored letter renouncing his citizenship.
Though the purported renunciation letter didn’t exist, Bush’s operatives cited some staple holes in the corner of Clinton’s passport application to fashion a criminal referral that suggested that someone may have removed the letter.
The referral and its nasty insinuation were then leaked to the press, creating a firestorm over whether Clinton was, in effect, a disloyal American.
As Clinton’s poll numbers plummeted, congressional investigators dispatched by House Foreign Affairs Committee chief counsel Spencer Oliver examined what had happened with Clinton’s passport file. What they discovered was an illegal dirty trick orchestrated by senior Bush administration officials.
So, the Clinton passport gambit blew up in Bush’s face, becoming known as “Passportgate.” The furor essentially insulated Clinton from other smears that Bush's operatives had planned for the closing days of the campaign.
Then, on the Friday before the election, to Bush’s chagrin, the Iran-Contra scandal came back to haunt him. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh filed a new indictment against former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger that included documentation undercutting Bush’s longtime “not in the loop” claim.
Bush and his top advisers, including then-White House chief of staff James Baker, blamed this series of calamities -- the botched passport dirty trick, the last-minute Iran-Contra indictment and the corrosive effect of other scandals like Iraqgate -- for their failure to win a second term.
After the election, however, Clinton and his inner circle put the spotlight on their own political savvy and Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid” slogan. They simultaneously turned their backs on investigators who had stuck their necks out challenging the powerful Bush administration.
The incoming Clinton administration helped sweep the Iraqgate and Iran-Contra investigations under the rug, leaving Rep. Gonzalez and prosecutor Walsh looking like misguided old men.
Spencer Oliver, who had been dealing with Republican dirty tricks since his phone was bugged during the first Watergate break-in in 1972, was offered no prominent job in the new administration. He instead moved to Denmark and became secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s parliamentary assembly.
As Oliver – an early critic of the rising neoconservatives – was leaving the United States, Clinton was rewarding Democratic neocons who had supported him. Clinton gave the job of CIA director to James Woolsey, a neoconservative Democrat who had worked closely with the Reagan-Bush administrations.
Journalists who had pursued stories of Republican wrongdoing also were left in the lurch. As the new Clinton administration “looked to the future,” the dirty history of the Reagan-Bush years was “left for the historians.” At times, the Democrats even joined in trashing evidence of Republican wrongdoing.
Mocked as “conspiracy theorists,” some journalists and government investigators who had exposed Reagan-Bush abuses saw their careers badly damaged, while others who had played ball with the Reagan-Bush regimes gained stature. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The Clintons had set the stage for a new breed of Democrat, always willing to sacrifice a principle, always ready to strike a deal with the Republicans, never too committed to the truth. Meanwhile, the Republicans – freed from the need to defend the Reagan-Bush years – went on the offensive.
So, when Hillary Clinton harkens back to the 1990s as some golden age when she learned how to handle nasty Republicans, there is a measure of fantasy to the recollection. Despite some real achievements of the Clinton administration, such as balancing the federal budget, the decade was essentially a period of Democratic decline and defeat.
It was a precursor to the Democratic pattern of submission before President George W. Bush in this decade.
Having lost the skills of political warfare – indeed having sidelined many of their best political warriors – the Democrats were left with little choice but to “triangulate” their response to Bush’s expansion of presidential powers. They endorsed the Iraq War; they shied away from battles over Bush’s right-wing Supreme Court nominees; they accepted draconian laws like the Military Commissions Act; they didn’t dare talk about impeachment or seriously challenge Bush's blank checks for open-ended war.
Now, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign seeks a reaffirmation of those strategies from the 1990s, more maneuvering to the right as a way to buy some protection from the right-wing machine, more acceptance of the Republican frame of debate while counting on poll-tested phrases to finesse GOP attacks, more promises that some nice government programs might somehow transcend the need to stand up for principle.
By contrast, Obama’s appeal for a new paradigm that relies on the enthusiasm of young voters and the patriotism of rank-and-file Americans to leap past the stale politics of the Clinton and Bush years makes some sense.
Given Obama’s relatively thin résumé, his candidacy may require a leap of faith. But it is at least a leap toward something new and untested, rather than something old and failed.
If his campaign continues to gain momentum, Obama might be wise, too, to reach back to that earlier generation of Democrats who dared to challenge the deceptions of the Reagan-Bush years.
Rather than dip into the pool of accommodating careerists who now dominate Official Washington, Obama might look for experienced Democratic hands who suffered for their commitment to principle.
Along with bringing in newcomers from around the country, Obama also might consider former officials from the CIA, State Department and other federal agencies who sacrificed their careers rather than play along with policies that were either dishonest or harmful to the nation.
In short, the gamble of “Obama-mania” may be the Democrats’ safest bet.
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This story was published on January 8, 2008.