Monday, January 21, 2008

The Lying Clinton Meme

Barack Obama seemed hesitant as he went after Bill Clinton on Good Morning America today - lots of blinking, lots of pauses. Still, this carefully measured stop-lying-about-my-record counterattack may well be effective, because without using the word "lie," Obama chimed several times in several minutes on the Clintons-can't-quite-tell-the-truth meme that is lodged, with good reason, in our collective psyche:

You know the former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling...He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts -- whether it's about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas.

I completely understand his wanting to promote his wife's candidacy, and Michelle is out there doing the same thing on my behalf. But I do think think that there should be standards of honesty in any political discourse. That's part of the change I want to bring about. If you have something that just directly contradicts the facts coming from a former president I think that's a problem because people presume that a former president if going to have more credibility. I think there are certain responsibilities that come with that.

I understand him wanting to promote his wife's candidacy. She's got a record that she can run on. But I think it's important that we try to maintain some -- you know, level of honesty and candor during the course of the campaign. If we don't, then we feed the cynicism that has led so many Americans to be turned off to politics."

What I don't want is a situation in which we are so driven to just win that we are willing to say anything, and over time, you know the American people just get turned off because they don't believe what politicians say (my emphasis).
As is usually the case with Obama, his choice of words displays simultaneously his mode of "fighting" - that is, criticizing his opponents - and his mode of "uniting" - acknowledging the element of legitimacy in his opponent's efforts. (As Mark Kleiman points out today, Obama is "perfectly sincere about wanting to make major progressive change without using demonization as a primary political tactic." That goes for Bill Clinton as well as Ronald Reagan.) His tone was more in sorrow than in anger, his stance that of an adult calling timeout when a child's game overheats. Almost every allegation was couched in either praise of (Bill) Clinton or acknowledgment that his support for Hillary is itself legitimate. The rhetoric was masterful; again, I'm not so sure about the delivery. It's that hesitancy that I think made me lean toward Hillary after watching several debates this past fall.

The moment of Clintonian dishonesty that ABC focused on in the aftermath was not that egregious. According to Bill, Obama “said that since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas." Obama actually said, ``I think it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10 to 15 years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.''

Okay, Obama didn't say the ideas were 'good,' but generally, challenging conventional wisdom is thought to be a good thing. Perhaps Obama got his time frame wrong; earlier in the interview, he had acknowledged that the American people were ready for Reagan's call to shrink government, strongly implying that doing so was a "good idea": "I think they [the American people] felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating." (He might have added, but didn't, that "peace through strength" was a good idea, in that our military buildup pressured the Soviets into attempting the reforms that unraveled their economy.)

Obama made his comment more inflammatory by shifting the time frame from the Clinton years to the present--a frame in which the only "ideas" Republicans have acted on are huge tax cuts for the wealthy, government by lobbyists and budgeting by earmarks, and war of choice to preempt imaginary threats.

Obama is on firmer ground calling Bill Clinton out for dismissing his claim to have consistently opposed the war in Iraq as a "fairy tale." There Clinton was engaging in a classic smear-the-Senator maneuver, mis-characterizing up-or-down votes as complete representations of a policy position. Like most Democrats in favor of withdrawing active combat troops from Iraq, Obama did not vote to cut off funding for them while they're there. End of story.


  1. "The era of big government is over." -- Bill Clinton

  2. He seemed pretty frustrated with it during the debate too!