The Civility Delusion

I’ve recently had a number of conversations with Obama supporters – not fanboys, but smart, high-information voters – who think that one net positive for an Obama administration over a Clinton administration is that Obama can enter office without the yoke of 1992-2000’s animus towards Bill and Hillary Clinton. The argument goes that we can expect Hillary Clinton to be crippled by the constant replay of narratives and attacks written during Bill Clinton’s administration, brought back out by the Republicans to shut down what could otherwise be a productive Democratic administration. By contrast, Obama doesn’t carry this baggage and he will enter office on a platform of unity that will prime the pump for a better atmosphere conducive to work.

This tells me that these people are engaging in wishful thinking that goes right past optimism into Delusion Land.

At some level, those engaging in the Obama civility delusion are premising their analysis on the notion that the Republican efforts to shut down the first Clinton administration say more about Bill Clinton than who the Republicans are. In this logic, you can imagine the case being made that had Bob Kerrey or Tom Harkin or Jerry Brown been President instead of Bill Clinton, the GOP wouldn’t have aimed to destroy the Democrat in the White House. This is flat wrong.

The modern Republican Party defined their strategy and tactics during the Clinton administration. They recognized the value in throwing everything, no matter how absurd or unsupported, at the Democrat in the Oval Office. Though they never succeeded in making Bill Clinton an unpopular president, they did make him operate in a hostile media environment, which in turn made accomplishing his domestic agenda more challenging. This strategy worked on Bill Clinton and it has been replicated against the Democratic Party on whole since then, from rampant obstructionism in Congress to Rovian ad campaigns.

Most importantly, we should expect the GOP to continue their destructive attacks on whoever the next Democratic president is. No one gets a pass.

Paul Krugman’s column today makes a similar argument.

Has everyone forgotten what happened after the 1992 election?

Let’s review the sad tale, starting with the politics.

Whatever hopes people might have had that Mr. Clinton would usher in a new era of national unity were quickly dashed. Within just a few months the country was wracked by the bitter partisanship Mr. Obama has decried.

This bitter partisanship wasn’t the result of anything the Clintons did. Instead, from Day 1 they faced an all-out assault from conservatives determined to use any means at hand to discredit a Democratic president. …

First, those who don’t want to nominate Hillary Clinton because they don’t want to return to the nastiness of the 1990s — a sizable group, at least in the punditocracy — are deluding themselves. Any Democrat who makes it to the White House can expect the same treatment: an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can’t bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false (at least not on Page 1).

The point is that while there are valid reasons one might support Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton, the desire to avoid unpleasantness isn’t one of them.

I think Krugman is spot on. It wasn’t about Bill Clinton in 1992. It was about the Republican desire to destroy a the first Democratic administration in twelve years. As Krugman notes, Clinton had also run on unity, though with it somewhat less central to his candidacy than Obama.
I can concede that a Hillary Clinton presidency will start off with baggage from her husband’s administration, as far as GOP attack rhetoric goes. But it’s criminally naive to think that Obama would be immune from Republican attacks. And I’m sure the thought of “how will we shut down an Obama administration?” has already crossed the minds of top strategists at the RNC.

It gives me no pleasure in saying this, but the belief that Obama’s post-partisan unity language will insulate him from GOP attacks will likely be proved to be the Maginot Line of political prophylactics. People who think otherwise will be rudely awakened to that fact in early 2009, if Obama is elected President.

So while there are many good reasons to support Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, immunity or at least a structural advantage when it comes to Republican attacks post-inauguration cannot be one of them.

7 thoughts on “The Civility Delusion

  1. It’s a mistake to think that the Clintons are not a special GOP target. You’re correct that the GOP’s tactics are the root problem but you wrongly minimize the Clintons as fodder. You also change the argument that an Obama administration would be better into an argument that Obama would be immune.

    1) “Clinton” is shorthand in wingnut-speak for a whole host of things. Before Iowa right wing talk didn’t refer to the specter of “universal” health care but rather “Hillary Care.” No further explanation was required to undermine the underlying policy.

    2) The reason shorthand Clinton bashing works so well is that the Clintons inspire a zeal in wingnuts. This is an election issue more than an administration issue, but we should be wary of giving the GOP more red meat than we have to.

    3) Obama is not immune: consider “Hussein Obama” slurs. However, the anti-Obama machine is less developed, less steeped in established memes, less able to get Matthews, Dodd and the entirety of Fox News to parrot its talking points. Note well that this is a difference of degree. Note also that my belief is that an Obama campaign could capture a larger voting majority than a Clinton campaign, which I rely on hypothetical evidence that the GOP machine will have less sway with voters. I understand that this is speculative at best.

    4) The presence of Bill in the White House would create an extra lightening rod for attacks in a way that Michelle Obama would not necessarily.

    5) Clinton ain’t so great. If we agree that Obama and Clinton aren’t perfect, certainly not progressive, then it is permissible to draw other distinctions between them. One such distinction is that Clinton is better fodder for baseless attacks because the GOP has been working longer on her undoing.


  2. Austin I think you’re the one who’s guilty of transposing arguments here. Neither I nor Krugman was writing about electability, other than to the extent that the discussion of governance cuts against an Obama argument for his candidacy. I’m not particularly interested in electability in this post; my concern is governance and obstacles thrown up by Republicans to block successful governance by a Democratic administration.

    As a result, I think your points 1&2 are made relatively obsolete by both #3 and my refocusing of the argument to governance and not the election.

    I’ll concede #4 but do not think it makes a substantial difference as far as governance, given my premise that Republicans will do everything they can to stop a Democratic administration from being successful.

    The bottom line is this: the first Clinton administration taught us that the GOP will stop at nothing to paralyze a Democratic administration. I think that is a lesson about the GOP. You think that is unique to the Clintons.

    If you think that the GOP will not try to paralyze an Obama administration, I think you’re espousing a hopelessly naive position. If you think the GOP will try to stop an Obama administration’s agenda from moving forward with every ounce of their strength, then the points about their dislike of the Clintons is moot.

    In both cases they will throw the kitchen sink at our President. If neither is immune, the existing dislike of Bill Clinton and the existence of 16 year old talking points is not consequential. Moreover, if neither is immune, a major argument being espoused by Obama supporters (like your #5) for Obama’s candidacy is also undercut.


  3. I’ll add that I believe Obama ticket would lead to more Democrats being elected this year, which joins the issue of electability and governance.


  4. I agree with the author. Clinton can endure more of the same old Republican noise. I think that a lot of Republicans might vote for her if they took the time to ferret out the truth instead of listening to the rhetoric… she’s quite conservative as far as Democrats go.

    I don’t think Obama has the first clue as to how to run the country. He’s short on detail, tall on generalizations. I fear that another shadow gov’t, a la Karl Rove, could evolve in his administration, and that the key bureaucracies will run even more out of control than they are already. If he’s talking change, I want to know exactly where, and how deeply, this change will be manifest. And I just don’t see such data. I think that Hillary knows exactly what she is going to do. Of course, her corporate ties and advocacy, and her NAFTA support are way too strong for my liking, but she’s hinted at nuking NAFTA so…

    Americans need to stop electing presidents as if politics is a game (go team). We’ve been hurting for 25 years now because of the lack of clear thinking by the voters.

    “Some people need a deeper level of analysis” – Cornel West


  5. My feeling is that the arguing whose administration would be more vulnerable to attack is purely academic at this point in the game; isn’t the question of whose campaign is more vulnerable to attack the more important one facing democrats right now?
    In the upcoming months we are going to see an escalation of ugly campaign tactics from the GOP that will force the term “Swiftboating” to be renamed once again. I think that most of us expect Hillary to play the role of the pit bull, and Obama to try and rise above the fray. The question is which of these strategies will be more effective on the national stage, or taken from the opposite point of view what scares the heartland more, a happy black man, or an angry white woman?


  6. Aaron – I think you’re spot on with the need for a post-swiftboating term. I shudder to think what that may be.

    But I disagree about the notion that the question is “what scares the heartland more.” Having spent a lot of time traveling and campaigning in middle America, I can safely say that neither of them scare middle America. Though they may well scare Republican racists and misogynists…


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