By ten o'clock this morning, by the time I left for the train station, I had already received a flood of email about last night's post about the parallels between Bush-hating and Clinton-hating.
Of course, the response was shaped by the fact that the TPM audience leans Democratic --- though probably not as much as most people think. And many of those responses could be summarized as follows: animus toward President Bush simply doesn't compare to that against President Clinton --- whether in the sheer degree of rage, the organized nature of it, or simply its mania. Emailers also noted two other distinctions: One was that animus toward President Bush isn't nearly as tied to the president as a person, as it was in Clinton's case. The other was that intense opposition to President Bush is, quite simply, far more justified.
Now, this is a conversation that has so many moving parts that it's difficult to know quite where to start. Let me begin with this: by and large, I agree with those points stated above. But before getting into this more deeply, I think it's important --- both in terms of intellectual honesty and of crafting responses --- for us to understand the structure and function of these two phenomena as clearly as we can.
Now, let's take that last point first: Bush has done more to deserve it. True or not, this is obviously not the kind of judgment you're ever going to get agreement on across the partisan or ideological aisle. What I think you can say is this: opposition to President Clinton was more personal, aggrieved and intense. And this is all the more striking considering his presidency was fairly centrist in its orientation and quite non-ideological. The same certainly can't be said about the Bush White House, which has been quite conservative and quite ideological.
You could certainly find some hacks and liars who would challenge that essential characterization. But this analysis is as close to objective truth as the highly subjective terrain of political analysis can ever hope to be. In fact, the testimony of conservatives demonstrates the fact. Remember, of course, that one of the prime Republican charges against President Clinton was that he was 'stealing our issues.' A fair translation of this charge is that he repositioned the Democrats out of positions and policies and imagery that made it easy for Republicans to pillory and defeat them. One would even hear this line in a more frustrated form when partisan Republicans lashed out at Clinton for masking his true liberal desires with all manner of centrist-sounding policies.
Today, to demonstrate the conservative line President Bush has taken, one need only look at the quiescence of the Republican right, their basic satisfaction with him on virtually every issue. That is because he has faithfully satisfied their essential wants on almost every issue: tax cuts, conservative judicial appointments, business-friendly regulatory policies, no compromise on bright-line 'morality' issues like gay-marriage, stem-cell research and the like.
I think a much more maximal argument could be made on both of these points --- both about Clinton and Bush. But for the moment I want to stick to arguments that are, I believe, undeniable. And so I think you can say that opposition, even intense opposition to President Bush is at least more explicable in conventional political terms than was the opposition, animus and rage directed toward President Clinton.
Another point worth making is that opposition to President Bush isn't nearly as personalized as it was to President Clinton. And, to be frank, it's nowhere near as frenzied. There is simply no equivalent to the talk of 'body counts,' conspiracy theories about the deaths of Vince Foster and Ron Brown, the numerous intensely politicized investigations leading to nothing, the Impeachment jihad, or the lot of it (much of it cynically trafficked in by supposedly respectable commentators and politicians). 'Wingers will frequently try to jump on the Richard Hofstadter bandwagon. But this sort of zeal and political hysteria, as Hofstadter understood, has almost always been the province of the right in this country or if not the right, per se, than political groupings currently aligned with the right.
There are more than a few sorta liberal commentators who've tried to imply or predict that Democratic antipathy towards Bush has become or would become as intense as the Clinton variant, predicting in one case that it would become as violent as hard-right activism sometimes did in the 1990s. This was, is and I'm pretty confident always will be a stretch, a facile attempt to find a symmetry that isn't there.
(The new faddish attention to Bush-hating among many DC types is an example of the town's collective amnesia and, on a deeper level, failure to really come to grips with what happened in the middle and late 1990s.
Now, I want to say more about this. And I'll try to pick up some of these threads in a subsequent posts.
But let me conclude on this point. It's always a mistake to let the rights and wrongs of a situation obscure its dynamics. For some time now I've been working on a review of Sidney Blumenthal's book, The Clinton Wars. It's a long book. And I think a very good book. And, though I've read a number of reviews of it with different reactions, I think it's actually a fairly straightforward book, straightforward, that is, in its essential point.
The conceit of official Washington is that the 'Clinton wars' were an inane time-wasting battle between a president with no morals and outlandish partisans with unhinged brains. It was, in this view, as though politics had simply stopped for half a dozen years or skidded off the rails into something that was utterly alien to politics, in the sense that politics has anything to do with issues and governance and so forth. Let's call this view, for the lack of a better word, Quinn-Broderism. Blumenthal's point is that the entire episode was deeply political, precisely about politics and concrete political issues, an effort on the part of one side to go outside the conventional political system and engage in a sort of political guerilla warfare. Defending Clinton, which many people have seen as the central aim of Blumenthal's book is, I think, actually quite secondary to sustaining that larger point.
I'll leave the rest of my take on Blumenthal's book to my review. But I think that this new phenomenon grows very much out of that earlier period. And, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, I think the dynamics involved are quite important for Democrats to understand.
More on this soon.