May 25, 2008—Hillary Clinton’s comment, referencing Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination to explain why she’s continuing her campaign, may serve as a crass punctuation point for the end of a grim period in American history, the Bush-Clinton era.
This period – roughly marked by George H.W. Bush’s rise as Vice President and then President from 1981 to 1993, Bill Clinton’s embattled two terms, and then eight years under George W. Bush – represented an extraordinary period of lost opportunities for the nation as its global power peaked and began a rapid descent.
Notable for its bitter partisanship, mindless jingoism and willful historical amnesia, this era saw the United States fail to address its bloated energy consumption, reverse the decline in its manufacturing base, stop the erosion of the middle class, provide universal health care for its citizens and wisely deploy its military might.
So, on one level, the Democratic presidential battle has been a struggle over whether Democrats want to revert back to their brief hold on the White House in the 1990s (by picking Hillary Clinton) or strike off in a new direction (by nominating Barack Obama).
Early on, some Democrats told me they supported Sen. Clinton because her election would repudiate the Bush family and its nasty brand of politics. They envisioned a hard-working and battle-tested President Hillary Clinton completing some of the reforms that Republicans thwarted in the 1990s.
However, other Democrats have come to see the Clintons as less a cats-and-dogs enemy of the Bushes than two sides of the same coin, a kind of duopoly that is more common in Third World nations where two ruling families trade power back and forth without disrupting the power structure.
In this view, Bill Clinton essentially earned his bones with the Bush family in 1993 when he swept a dustbin full of Republican scandals under the rug – including the Iran-Contra Affair, Iraq-gate and the October Surprise question.
President Clinton may have thought he was being responsible and buying some bipartisan peace. But he actually cemented an incomplete and false history of the Reagan-Bush period, thus denying the American people a thorough understanding of what their government had done over those dozen years. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Clinton also freed up the Republican attack machine from playing defense for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, enabling it to go on the offensive against Clinton and his wife. In other words, Clinton’s acquiescence to the Reagan-Bush cover-ups proved to be both wrongheaded and shortsighted.
Yet Clinton didn’t seem to learn much. Despite the pummeling he took – including suffering only the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history – Bill Clinton still kept his Justice Department on the sidelines when George W. Bush stole the Florida election and thus the White House from Al Gore in 2000. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
Then, after leaving office, Clinton made one of his chief priorities the forging of an alliance with George H.W. Bush, as they traveled around the world on humanitarian missions. This Bush-Clinton tandem became a feel-good measure of how Washington insiders gauge bipartisanship, the two ruling families working together.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton – having won a Senate seat from New York in 2000 – demonstrated another side of this elite bipartisanship. In 2002, she sided with President George W. Bush in his desire to invade Iraq and remained a staunch war supporter over the next several years.
All in all, at the start of 2005, the future of this Bush-Clinton duopoly looked fairly bright.
George W. Bush had secured a second term and Washington pundits lavished praise on his neoconservative vision for the Middle East, hailing the soaring rhetoric of his second Inaugural Address as well as the seemingly successful election in Iraq and other glimmers of hope across the region.
There was political talk, too, that Sen. John McCain had struck a deal with the Bushes, embracing George W. Bush’s reelection bid in 2004 with an understanding that he would get the Bush family’s backing in 2008 and possibly agree to pick Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as his running mate to set the stage for another Bush restoration in 2012.
On the Clinton side, there was optimism that Hillary Clinton was well positioned to win the Democratic nomination in 2008, with her staunch support of the Iraq War serving to dispel doubts among the general electorate about her national security credentials.
However, 2005 didn’t play out as either the Bushes or the Clintons envisioned.
The Iraqi elections only hardened the sectarian divisions and made progress toward reconciliation tougher. The death toll for U.S. soldiers and Iraqis kept rising and Iranian influenced increased.
The crises in Palestine and Lebanon also grew worse – and signs of democratic progress in Egypt and Saudi Arabia proved illusory.
Then, in summer 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, with the widespread death and destruction exposing the cronyism and incompetence of the Bush administration. Bush’s approval ratings dropped below 50 percent and never recovered.
Hillary Clinton’s bet on the Iraq War soured, too. She found herself on the wrong side of the dominant opinion among the Democratic base, leaving her little choice but to reposition herself as a war opponent in 2006.
Still, as the Democratic race took shape in 2007, Sen. Clinton found herself as the clear frontrunner.
She possessed the potent Clinton fund-raising machine; she benefited from nostalgia for the relatively affluent 1990s; she enjoyed strong support from older feminists; and she faced fairly weak opposition, especially with Al Gore shying from the race.
The one wild card among her rivals was the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who was a phenomenon among college students and younger voters. But he appeared struck in the 20 percentiles through summer 2007, leaving Clinton with a wide lead.
Feeling a growing confidence about her inevitability, Clinton chose to reaffirm her hard-line credentials in a Sept. 26, 2007, vote on a resolution sponsored by neoconservative Sen. Joe Lieberman urging President Bush to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard an international terrorist organization.
By voting with Lieberman, Clinton rejected warnings from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, that the resolution could pave the way to a wider war. Her vote also reminded many rank-and-file Democrats of her past support for Bush’s Iraq War resolution, causing them to give Obama another look.
On Dec. 17, 2007, a still-confident Bill Clinton offered voters a sense of what bipartisanship meant to Hillary Clinton. He announced that his wife’s first act in the White House would be to send him and George H.W. Bush on an around-the-world mission to explain that “America is open for business and cooperation again.”
In other words, the Clintons and the Bush patriarch would clean up some of the messes left behind by a headstrong Bush son. Implicit in this picture was the Clintons giving another pass to the Bush family. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Fight for Bush’s Legacy.”]
As the Democratic “base” started to rebel against this Bush-Clinton arrogance, Barack Obama’s support began to surge. In the Iowa caucuses, he pulled off a stunning victory, with Hillary Clinton stumbling in third behind John Edwards.
With dreams of their restoration suddenly threatened, the Clintons quickly turned to divisive tactics often associated with the Bushes and Republicans. Indeed, one of the arguments that I heard from Clinton operatives at the time was that it was their duty to destroy Obama now because otherwise the Republicans would do it in the fall.
In her comeback win in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton also learned the power of playing the gender card in getting white women, particularly in the over-50 demographic, to vote for her. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hillary Plays a Risky Gender Card.”]
When Obama chose not to counter with the race card, the Clintons played it for him – as Bill Clinton disparaged Obama’s South Carolina victory by noting that Jesse Jackson also won there. The goal apparently was to treat Obama as the black candidate, rather than the post-racial candidate that Obama sought to be.
At first, the racial insinuations redounded negatively against the Clintons as many white Democrats – especially youth and men – voted for Obama along with a solid phalanx of blacks who were offended by what they saw as George Wallace-style racial tactics.
Though it wasn’t immediately apparent, Hillary Clinton’s campaign reached its Waterloo on Feb. 5, 2008, with the coast-to-coast Super Tuesday primaries. Instead of racking up the decisive victories that were supposed to cement her inevitable nomination, Clinton managed only a split decision with Obama.
Rather than making the later primaries irrelevant, the muddled Super Tuesday results made them more important. But the Clinton campaign had not planned for an extended campaign and needed a cash infusion from the candidate simply to stay afloat.
In the weeks after Super Tuesday, Obama went on a winning streak of 11 straight contests, building an almost insurmountable delegate lead. In a Feb. 21 debate, Clinton declared that she was “honored” to be on the same stage with him.
Some Democratic operatives were hopeful that the “honored” moment heralded an end of any nasty campaigning. However, Clinton soon reversed herself, deciding not to throw in the towel, but rather to “throw the kitchen sink” of her “oppo” research at Obama.
In the days before the Ohio and Texas primaries, Clinton ratcheted up the negative campaigning, questioning Obama’s honesty, his readiness to answer a 3 a.m. phone call, and his fitness to serve as commander in chief – ripping pages from the playbooks of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.
When those tactics contributed to her victories in both primaries (though she lost the parallel Texas caucus), she escalated the negativity.
Before the Pennsylvania primary, the Clinton campaign borrowed Joe McCarthy’s guilt-by-association tactics by feeding the furors over Obama’s ex-pastor Jeremiah Wright (and through Wright to Louis Farrakhan and Hamas) and Obama’s tenuous links to Vietnam War radical William Ayers.
Clinton personally made a big issue out of Obama’s supposedly being “elitist” because of his comments about “bitter” small-town voters in Pennsylvania.
The Clinton camp also struck an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend alliance with some of the same pro-Republican media outlets that Hillary Clinton had dubbed in the 1990s the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
This alliance of convenience made Sen. Clinton a strange bedfellow with right-wing media mogul Richard Mellon Scaife, Fox News and even Rush Limbaugh, who urged Republicans to vote for Clinton in the Democratic primaries to block Obama’s nomination.
As part of the “ghetto-izing” strategy, Clinton supporters also fed the animosity toward Obama by fanning white unease about and resentment toward this talented but little-known black politician with the exotic name.
Throughout the campaign, Clinton supporters had dropped comments about his acknowledged drug use as a young man, sent around photos of him in African garb, and referenced his family ties to Muslims. Clinton backer Geraldine Ferraro called him “lucky” to be African-American.
This George Wallace/Joe McCarthy/Lee Atwater/Karl Rove-style politics appeared to pay dividends in Pennsylvania on April 22, when Clinton won by nearly 10 points with solid support from working-class whites.
However, her momentum stalled two weeks later on May 6 when Obama won decisively in North Carolina and came close in Indiana.
Then, in an interview on May 7 with USAToday, Clinton voiced what had become a sub rosa pitch to Democratic “super-delegates” for months – that the black guy just couldn’t win in today’s America.
Clinton cited Obama’s troubles with "hard-working Americans, white Americans” who were moving toward her campaign.
Despite outrage from many rank-and-file Democrats proud of their party’s history on race relations, Hillary Clinton proved her point the next week by drawing overwhelming white, working-class support in trouncing Obama by 41 points in West Virginia.
That was followed a week later with a 35-point Clinton victory in Kentucky, but Obama countered that with an 18-point win in Oregon, virtually guaranteeing that he would end the primary battle with a majority of elected delegates.
Three days later, when asked by a South Dakota newspaper to explain why she was continuing her long-shot campaign, Clinton suggested there was some bias implied in the question.
The candidate, who had pegged her strategy on wrapping up the race by Feb. 5 and making the subsequent primaries essentially irrelevant, argued that it was natural for Democratic races to extend into June.
“We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” Clinton said.
She later explained that the comment was meant only to provide historical context. However, others were horrified at the suggestion that she was staying in the race because of the possibility that something terrible might happen to Obama, another argument that Clinton backers have been raising privately (albeit without the notion of a violent ending).
Yet, whatever was going through Clinton’s mind, the RFK reference – when combined with the Wallace/McCarthy/Atwater/Rove tactics that preceded it – there can be little doubt that the Clintons are grasping at whatever straws still might be available, no matter how flimsy or how slimy.
This ugly denouement has the look of an ugly era reaching an ugly end.
Arguably the Bush-Clinton duopoly might have a chance at another restoration if something bad does befall Obama or if John McCain wins as a likely one-termer in November.
If Obama loses, Hillary Clinton can say “I told you so” and make another run in 2012.
And perhaps another round of nostalgia for the Bushes might give Jeb a chance to carry the Bush family’s banner back into the White House four years from now.
But it looks more and more as if the American people have chosen to move on – leaving the disasters and the disgraces of the Bush-Clinton era to a sad chapter in the history books.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on May 22, 2008.