Monday, January 28, 2008

Return of the Clintonian Repressed

Polls always indicated that Americans were willing to cut Bill Clinton some slack on the question of honesty: people recognized his mendacity but approved of his policies. "No one died when Clinton lied" expressed not only a cost-benefit analysis but also a sense that Bill Clinton did act on a genuine commitment to extend economic opportunity and tighten the social safety net -- in effect that he was honest where it counted most. That commitment to good policymaking shone ever more brightly through the Bush years -- burnished all the more by Bill's emergence as a global Santa Claus, a benevolent ghost of Americas past.

Now, as he did with Monica and with the Marc Rich pardon, Bill has suddenly let the storm winds out of the sack. As he appeared on TV again and again belittling Obama, hectoring the press, misrepresenting his own record, and dredging up distorted historical analogies, Democrats nationwide were swamped with the return of the repressed. No bimbo this time, but an eruption of something unreliable and manipulative and aggressive at the core of all that charisma and caring and intelligence.

Obama has handled this implosion brilliantly by moving trust to the center of his pitch for a new kind of politics. In the South Carolina victory speech, he said, "We are up against the idea that it's acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election. We know that this is exactly whst's wrong with our politics; this is why people don't believe what their leaders say anymore; this is why they tune out. And this election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again.: While asserting that all Democrats "share an abiding desire to end the disastrous policies of the current administration," he managed to roll the Clinton years and the Bush years into one morass of mendacity.

This counterpunch against Clintonism was all the more devastating for being depersonalized. He renamed Hillary the status quo: "and right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems that people face..." But the hammer blows were gloved not just with euphemism but with a kind of deadly magnanimity that cast Hillary (and Bill) as avatars of forces bigger than themselves. His opponents are "fine candidates in the field -- fierce competitors, worthy of respect. " Collectively, "we're up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from who we want to be as a nation." (This turns around Hillary's pitch that she's toughened and battle-tested. ) Finally, "we are not just up against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington, we are also struggling against our own doubts, our own fears, and our own cynicism." Obama might share that struggle with Hillary and the rest of us, but the audacity of the hope he's pitching is clear: he's the one to lead us out of the wilderness.

Those who doubt Obama's toughness should note that in this speech he swaddled Hillary in respect and compassion and fellow-feeling only to rhetorically beat her to a pulp. The blows took the form of defining what "we are up against": "we are up against the belief that it's ok for lobbyists to dominate our government...We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as President comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House...We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together..." His whole pitch to change the playing field rather than level it was leveled against Hillary.

Related posts:
Not Dead Yet: Democracy in America
Obama's "what I meant" moments
Truth and Transformation
The lying Clinton meme
Obama praises (Bill) Clinton, and buries him

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