Balkinization  

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Why Did The Right Hate Clinton?

JB

Max Boot wonders:

The mystery of Clinton is that he was an essentially conservative president -- perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the White House since Grover Cleveland -- and yet he was loathed by conservatives. So much so that he was accused of all sorts of awful things he didn't actually do, from murdering Vince Foster to being in cahoots with the Chinese. I don't blame Clinton for getting a tad upset about the nutty accusations tossed his way and for not being able to figure out what a good ole boy with a saxophone and a smile had ever done to justify such venom.

Max thinks the answer is character. Kevin Drum thinks it's the culture wars. I have a different theory. Clinton was hated not simply because of who he was but because of the structure of political forces that brought him into power and defined his presidency.

Boot points out that "Clinton's presidency ("The era of big government is over!") essentially ratified the huge transformations wrought by Ronald Reagan." Put more correctly, Clinton understood that the Democrats could get back in the White House if they appealed to parts of the coalition of voters that had elected Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. And so he set out consciously to do that. He fractured the existing winning coalition by producing a combination of economic policies designed to appeal to middle class voters while accepting certain elements of the values agenda that had played so well for the Republicans. He focused on issues like crime and welfare, emphasized his populist roots and religious sensibilities, while at the same time maintaining strong ties to secularism, feminism, and civil rights. In this way Clinton threatened to create a new winning coalition by borrowing the rhetoric of his political opponents and becoming a more "Republican version" of a Democrat.

You might think that Republicans would welcome such a candidate. Well, many independent and moderate republican voters did. But Republican politicians, and the conservative base of the party did not. They believed that Clinton was a Democrat who stole their ideas and rhetoric, and was secretly committed to promoting a liberal secular agenda. He was trying to put one over on the American public. Moreover, Clinton gained the White House at a time when Republicans believed that theirs was the "natural party of government," to use a phrase sometimes associated with the British Conservative Party. They had put together an effective coalition of interests that had dominated Presidential politics for some time. Who was this upstart to keep them out of the White House? So for many members of the Republican base, Clinton was easy to hate. He was a liberal wolf in sheep's clothing and he had no right to take the Presidency from the party it rightfully belonged to.

Clinton is not the first President of this type. In fact, there have been at least three in our nation's history: They are Clinton, Grover Cleveland, and Richard Nixon. Cleveland co-opted economic elements from the Republican Party and became the first Democrat to win the White House since the Civil War, taking the Presidency from the natural party of government since Reconstruction, that is, the Republicans. Cleveland actually won the popluar vote three times, but was denied the presidency the second time because he lost the electoral college. Nixon also co-opted wide swaths of the Democratic liberal domestic agenda while forming a new coalition that split apart traditional Democratic constituencies. Just as conservatives did not trust Clinton, liberals did not trust what was then called the "New" Nixon. He was a conservative wolf in sheep's clothing, who had stolen the White House from the party that had dominated it since 1932. (I'll get to Eisenhower in a moment, don't worry).

When a President does what Clinton, Nixon, or Cleveland does, break apart an older winning political coalition by coopting elements of that coalition's message, party regulars on the other side cannot easily fight back on the issues. That is because the President is by nature a straddler-- he is skimming off the most popular elements of the party's platform and leaving them with the less popular elements. So there is only one thing to do: stoke up public resentment against the co-opting or straddling President by undermining his legitimacy and destroying trust and confidence in his ability to govern.

The way this is done is through scandal.

What Nixon, Clinton, and Cleveland all have in common is that all three presidencies were littered with either scandals or attempts at proving scandals. There are other scandal plagued presidencies, to be sure, but my point is that the threat to coalitions produced by a co-opting President is likely to lead to an Administration where his political foes try to take him down through scandals and assaults on his character (Tricky Dick, Slick Willie, "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa" Cleveland) rather than through a direct confrontation on the issues. Such Presidents tend to generate enormous hatred from party regulars on the other side, precisely because they believe that he is illegitimate and morally bankrupt.

Let me close by considering how I think this analysis applies to two other presidents who might be seen as co-opters. One is Dwight Eisenhower. The other is George W. Bush.

Eisenhower acquiesced in the basic contours of the New Deal and provided a moderate Republicanism that co-opted many elements of Roosevelt's and Truman's policies. But he was not subject to the same degree of scandal mongering that greeted Richard Nixon. Why? One reason is that he arrived in the White House with an enormous reservoir of trust. He was a war hero and most Democrats thought he was an admirable fellow: indeed, many of them had wanted him to run as a Democrat.

Which brings us, at last, to George W. Bush. Does Bush fit the pattern of co-opting Presidents like Clinton, Nixon, and Cleveland? To a certain degree he does, although the circumstances of his Presidency different in many respects. He is more a follower and reviver of Reganism than a co-opter of Clintonism. Nevertheless, let's consider the factors in common: First, Bush is to some degree a co-opter of the rhetoric if not the exact policies of his political opponents-- that was the point of "compassionate conservatism." Second, in the eyes of many Democrats, he lacked legitimacy, due to the shenanigans in Florida and the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore. And many Democrats hated the fact that Bush gained enormous political legitimacy from 9-11, i.e., that he was given legitimacy not by the American electorate but by Osama bin Ladin. Note that this meshes with the co-optation in a unique way: For some time after 9-11, there was very little space between the views of Democrats and the President on foreign policy. Third, once in office, Bush quickly showed that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing-- compassionate conservatism was largely a matter of rhetoric; the reality was a strongly pro-business agenda.

All of these reasons suggest that George W. Bush's Presidency has structural features that are similar to those of Clinton's, Nixon's and Cleveland's Presidencies. That means that we should expect that his political opponents will hate him quite fiercely, and that they will attack him through scandals and attacks on his character.
Whether those attacks succeed (or, equally important, whether they should succeed) in any particular case depends on a whole host of factors, including, among others, whether the President really does have serious character flaws and whether he really does have something to hide. We should not assume that because all of these Presidents were hated that they were equally flawed and equally culpable. Rather, I'm trying to get a handle on the sturctural features of American politics that would produce this level of hatred and these sorts of attacks.


Comments:

Max Boot said: "At the risk of over-generalization, conservatives like character, liberals like cleverness."

Boot is right as far as he goes, but he's missing a critical piece of the difference: conservatives, I think, believe that personal virtue is a good proxy for public virtue. Clinton's presidency and policies must be immoral because Clinton is immoral. Ronald Reagan may have eviscerated important social-welfare programs, but he sent checks to individual poor people in need, which proves (to conservatives) that not only he but his policies were morally sound.

Liberals, as Boot suggests, seem disinclined to associate personal with public virtue, and acknowledge that rascals can make splendid Presidents whatever their private deficiencies.

I suspect that closer examination would reveal that libertarian conservatives are much less likely to demonize Clinton for his moral and cultural failings than are social conservatives who focus heavily on personal morality as a legitimate field of government interest . . . .
 

Boot's article is one of those typical masquerade-as-a-moderate Republican attack pieces. Republicans like character, Democrats like unethical "clever" types. Right. A very evenhanded perspective indeed. GW Bush has character?

Your theory is interesting, but I would not say that Bush is a triangulator in that sense. He pretended to be one, and then when he came into office he governed in many ways from the hard right. His tax, budget, environmental, defense, and foreign policies are genuinely and intensely right wing. More so than Reagans. Some form of Medicare prescription drug coverage was definitely going to happen; he did the most drug-company-friendly version he could. Probably No Child Left Behind was his only center/left policy, and some on the left think it was an opening wedge to school choice. I think you are trying to hard to jam him into your new theory.
 

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Yahoo News - Oct. 13, 2005


Yahoo Japan steps up mobile content distribution (Reuters via Yahoo! News)
Yahoo Japan Corp. said on Thursday it had launched a mobile content distribution service, in which cellphone users can buy games, ring tones, news and other entertainment and information from 59 content providers.


Microsoft, Yahoo to link instant messages (USATODAY.com via Yahoo! News)
Microsoft and Yahoo will make their instant-messaging programs work together, a partnership that could give the companies more power to compete against market leader America Online. The companies expect the service to start by June 2006.


Yahoo to Bar Minor-Adult Sex Chat Rooms (Washington Post)
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