January 25, 2008—Some rank-and-file Democrats who have weathered three decades of Republican hardball politics aren’t sure what to think when Bill and Hillary Clinton attack Barack Obama over the Iraq War, his attitude toward Ronald Reagan, and his relationship with a sleazy real-estate developer.
It’s as if the Clintons are channeling Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, whose legendary audacity included attacking an opponent on a strong point even when their candidate was more vulnerable. Think Rove’s assault on John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism, though George W. Bush had shirked his National Guard duty.
But some Democrats who send us e-mails view this political chutzpah as a good thing, that the Clintons are showing they’ve learned from the Republican scorched-earth tactics and thus are best qualified to wrest control of the White House from the GOP.
These Democrats ridicule what they call Obama’s “kumbayah” strategy of trying to achieve some form of unity among America’s bitterly divided political factions. The mocking reference to “kumbayah” relates to the campfire song derived from an old African spiritual.
Obama’s “kumbayah” is dismissed as either hopelessly naïve or disingenuous.
Some of these hard-bitten Democrats, who now are rallying behind Hillary Clinton, also say they suspect that Obama is a “closet DLCer,” a reference to the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference, where ironically Bill Clinton was chairman for two years.
As First Lady, Hillary Clinton pushed her own DLC-like strategy, the concept of “triangulation” which rejected traditional Democratic positions and distanced the Clintons from many rank-and-file Democrats, in favor of “third way” compromises with Republicans.
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 who feared that Morris would be a right-wing mole.
“Nobody in the Democratic power structure liked or trusted him,” she acknowledged.
While Morris did help 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.
Regarding Reagan, the Clintons have excoriated Obama for stating in a Nevada newspaper interview that the Republican icon “changed the trajectory of America.” At the Jan. 21 debate, Hillary Clinton accused Obama of “admiring Ronald Reagan.”
Obama denied Clinton’s characterization, claiming he was just acknowledging Reagan’s historical significance. The Illinois senator also noted that Clinton had “provided much more fulsome praise” of Reagan in Tom Brokaw’s book, Boom!, which quotes Clinton as praising Reagan’s flexibility.
“He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements,” she said. “He played the balance and the music beautifully.”
Clinton also found herself explaining remarks she made in gaining the endorsement of the Salmon Press weeklies in New Hampshire. The endorsement editorial said Clinton’s list of favorite presidents included “Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman, George H.W. Bush and Reagan” – plus her husband, Bill Clinton.
Trying to back away from the praise of Bush I and Reagan, the Clinton campaign released a statement quoting the Salmon Press co-owner saying “the question posed was originally what portraits would you hang in the White House if you were President and as the dialogue progressed, who are the presidents you admire most? … She did not say Reagan was her favorite President.”
[For more details on these disputes, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s Dubious Praise for Reagan” or “The Democrats-Praise-Reagan Game.”]
However, it turns out that Bill Clinton may have been one of the Democratic pioneers in the tactic of hailing Reagan as a way to demonstrate independence from the Democratic “base.”
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. recalls how Bill Clinton wowed the Post’s editorial board in October 1991 when he credited Reagan with winning the Cold War and praised his “rhetoric in defense of freedom.”
"The idea that we were going to stand firm and reaffirm our containment strategy, and the fact that we forced them to spend even more when they were already producing a Cadillac defense system and a dinosaur economy, I think it hastened their undoing," Clinton said, with the caveat that there was some wasted U.S. money.
Clinton earned high marks from the Post’s editors and other news organizations for his “free-thinking” about Reagan and his courage in “saying things most Democrats wouldn’t allow to pass their lips,” Dionne wrote. [Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2008]
But Clinton wasn't really demonstrating much courage; he was embracing the Establishment’s safe conventional wisdom on Reagan. It was another “Sister Souljah moment” in which Clinton essentially put down the congressional Democrats and independent investigators who had risked their reputations by critically examining Reagan’s record.
Clinton’s praise for Reagan supposedly winning the Cold War coincided with dramatic Senate Intelligence Committee hearings in fall 1991 when veteran CIA analysts stepped out of the shadows to testify against George H.W. Bush’s nominee for CIA director, Robert Gates, accusing him of politicizing the intelligence analysis in the 1980s.
A principal point of these analysts was that Gates had helped the Reagan administration exaggerate the Soviet threat in the early 1980s and thus obscure evidence of the communist bloc’s disintegration, all the better to justify an expensive military buildup and support for bloody wars in the Third World.
The signs of Soviet weakness already were apparent in the 1970s when many experts concluded that Moscow was facing technological and economic crises, and was eager for serious negotiations with the West. That analysis – that the Cold War was nearing its end – gave rise to the “détente” strategies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
However, old Cold Warriors and a new breed of intellectuals, known as the neoconservatives, resisted this analysis and insisted that the Soviet Union actually was on the march, building highly sophisticated weapons and still moving toward world domination.
Though ultimately shown to be false, these arguments carried the day after Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980. To scare the American people into support for a massive arms buildup, the neocons hyped evidence of Soviet capabilities, essentially setting up a straw man that Reagan’s military expansion could get credit for knocking down.
In 1991-92, while Bill Clinton was cozying up to this Reagan legacy, several investigations were underway into other Reagan-era deceptions – from Republican collaboration with Iran’s radical mullahs, to secret military assistance for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, to corruption and human rights abuses in Central America.
By giving Reagan credit for “winning the Cold War,” Bill Clinton bought into the key justification for ignoring the crimes committed during the Reagan-Bush years. He also was earning brownie points from the journalistic and political elites in Washington.
After defeating George H.W. Bush in November 1992, Clinton was perfectly positioned to help pending investigations into Reagan-Bush crimes – from special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-Contra probe to Rep. Henry Gonzalez’s examination of the Iraq-gate scandal to a House task force’s review of the October Surprise issue, whether Reagan’s 1980 campaign had colluded with Iran behind Jimmy Carter’s back.
Even though the evidence in all these cases pointed toward Republican guilt, Clinton and other key Washington Democrats, such as Rep. Lee Hamilton, swept the scandals under the rug, all the better to gain some bipartisan favor from the Republicans. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege, or Consortiumnews.com’s “The Clintons & the Bushes.”]
As it turned out, Clinton’s collaboration in these cover-ups didn’t work out exactly as he planned. Spared from having to defend Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Republicans and their right-wing attack machine went after Bill and Hillary Clinton, who remained on the defensive for nearly their entire eight years in office.
Now, the Clintons are battling for a new lease on the White House – and they are applying lessons learned from the win-at-all-cost Republicans to discredit Barack Obama.
Though Obama had the foresight to oppose George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, the Clintons accuse Obama of lacking consistency in his anti-war positions. Bill Clinton called the story of Obama’s war opposition a “fairy tale,” ignoring the fact that Hillary Clinton was a war supporter from 2002 almost until the day she jumped into the Democratic race.
The Clintons have sought to make an issue, too, out of Obama’s links to low-income housing developer Tony Rezko, who is under federal indictment in an Illinois corruption probe. [For some background, see Chicago Sun-Times article, Nov. 5, 2006.]
However, the Clintons have had their own difficulties in similar areas, from their ties to the swindler Jim McDougal during their Arkansas days, to the Marc Rich pardon while in the White House, to donations from fugitive Norman Hsu in Campaign 2008.
Most audacious of all, however, the Clintons are making an issue out of Obama’s mild praise of Ronald Reagan, when they have spent years not only complimenting Reagan but protecting his dubious legacy.
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This story was published on January 28, 2008.