Posted by: Chris | January 21, 2010

Nobody Gives a Shit About the Clintons

Throughout the Democratic primaries, one of the strongest themes was that Hillary Clinton and her husband were intensely divisive figures that drew people to irrational rage or adoration but little in between (see the Time cover above for example), while Barack Obama, as a fresh face with little history on the national stage, would face less reflexive opposition and would have an easier time uniting the country around the message of bipartisanship and lollipops.  I have always believed this to be exactly wrong and I think, one year into the Obama presidency, that facts have borne me out.

I posit that the dichotomy that Time and others propose was certainly true at one point, but had basically exhausted itself by the time the Democratic primaries started up.  In 1994 or even 2000, the Clintons certainly engendered a lot of loathing and gushing, but by 2008 they had been on the national stage for sixteen years and plain and simple no one can sustain such intense emotion opinions about political figures for that long.  Most commenters dropped the idea that Hillary created much enthusiasm amongst diehard liberals fairly quickly into the primaries, as facts very clearly did not cohere to that supposition.  But the idea that she and her husband still generated opprobrium on the right lingered (or rather lingers) despite strong evidence to the contrary.  Read the Corner archives from the primaries for example, and you’ll find mostly unenthusiastic tropism or even tepid praise (Rich Lowry calls Hillary “the only adult in the room” after one debate) with most of the venom conserved for Obama.

Of course, that leads me to my next point.  The idea that a fresh face without all the history of the past ten years would somehow be able to push through all the partisan sniping and forge some sort of broad coalition (put forward with the most blinkered naivety by Andrew) seems almost quaint now.  That Obama would be more amenable to the right than Clinton looks especially ridiculous considering how thoroughly fears about Obama and his agenda have completely consumed and rejuvenated the conservative movement over the past year.  As just one small example, I am reading Glenn Beck’s Arguing with Idiots right now (published only nine months into the Obama administration), and one of the most surprising things to me is how completely suffused it is with random allusions to Obama and his family and advisors.  Just nine months in and Obama as an idea completely dominates the landscape of liberal villans.  I think Timothy Geithner gets more mentions than fellow Cabinet member Hillary Clinton.

As this is the one year anniversary of the Obama administration, some people are wondering why the Obama administration has generated so much opposition on the right, considering its modest goals and commitment to consensus seeking and centrism.  I think part of the explanation is exactly that Obama is/was a fresh face, which makes him incredibly interesting both to love and to hate.  It presents a candidate with an unprobed past (is he Kenyan? Marxist? And just who is this William Ayers character?) murky goals and intentions (what’s he really up to?), and a still rubbery popular image (elitist snob? aloof know-it-all? dyed-red communist?), which excites the conservative base now that he is in power.  There is still plenty of juice left in the fruit of his villany (if you will excuse the awful metaphor).  The Clintons’, however, is just about dried up.

I think one of the best examples of this (and the prompt to the title of this post) is the various reactions to the recent gossipy book Game Change, which alleges, amongst other things, that Bill Clinton was having another affair during the 2008 campaign.  Despite this exact issue having precipitated the second presidential impeachment ever ten years earlier, no one seems to have batted an eye.  Few conservatives have tried to make this an issue and even fewer liberals have spoken up to rebut the charges.  It’s not like the Clintons have faded into the mist either: she is the Secretary of State and he is not only a former president but also the official envoy to Haiti.  Take away the personalities and imagine if random former President was found to be having an affair or the spouse of random Secretary of State was found to have been doing the same.  There would be a significant kerfuffle for sure.  But nobody cares.  The same goes for the rest of the allegations in Game Change; the authors threw some really heavy stuff at both Clintons, but everyone seems to have latched onto one choice quote by Harry Reid about Obama.

Contrary to the pronouncements of Time et al., it seems like strong animosities towards the Clintons have faded, even as they remain major players in American politics.  There was a stat bandied about a while ago (which I cannot find now) that politicians seeking the presidency have basically ten years until they “expire” and are no longer interesting enough to build the necessary support to win the presidency.  I wonder if a corollary could be appended that, after ten years, candidates are no longer interesting enough to sustain an enthused opposition either.  Its not that people no longer think that he is a lying, philandering slickster and she an icy Lady MacBeth, they have simply exhausted the potential that lies in those stereotypes.  There is only so long one can ruminate on who killed Vince Foster or “It Takes a Village” or Monica, Gennifer and the gang before these things grate.  And thus the various pre-primary conservative Clinton books and the failed Clinton movie flopped while post-primary Obama books soared and allegations of infidelity get a “Yeah, so?” while the manner our President greets other leaders gets endlessly analyzed.

Thus, I think the pre-primary pronouncements by people like Time and Andrew were dead wrong.  Fresh faces are what brings out the enthusiasts and the haters, not familiar ones.  And, if the old-timers can grind their way through the system for long enough, like the Daleys in Chicago and Jerry Brown in California, people really don’t care enough to oppose you.  One wonders if Clinton was successful in using institutional advantages and the strong environment for Democrats to slingshot her way into the White House and supported a similar first year agenda as Obama, would there really be all this commotion?  Would there be tea parties and talk of impending Marxism?  Or would things be like they are now, and people wouldn’t really give a shit about the Clintons?



  1. I agree that new blood doesn’t get a free pass, but I don’t see any reason to think old blood does. More likely is that the blood’s age is irrelevant. You get hounded if hounding is practicable and politically expedient; you don’t if it isn’t. Moreover, it seems pretty clear that hounding the Clintons is practicable but, at this point, not politically expedient (because the Clintons don’t have a hand in any touchy initiatives right now).

    Put another way: don’t you think Clinton – and her husband – would be actively reviled by the usual suspects if she were President right now?

    Also, I take issue with this: “It’s not like the Clintons have faded into the mist either…he is not only a former president but also the official envoy to Haiti.” Isn’t assuming a humanitarian sinecure the definition of fading into the mist?

  2. Here’s an alternative explanation which I’m more inclined to accept…
    New figures get some benefits initially – while opponents often will throw out a half-dozen accusations while they cast around to figure out what they can make stick, it’s the sticky charges that cause real damage. But although being a “fresh face” can provide benefits, but doesn’t last as long as one might think, nor long enough to be useful for any practical legislative purpose.

  3. Miles,

    While, yes, I agree that if she were president, I think people would probably more actively hate her more if she were president than current circumstances (I don’t think my theory fully explains the phenomena outlined above), but I think the revulsion would be much more muted than it is now. As evidence, I submit the attitude of the “usual suspects” during the 2006-late 2007 period, when conventional wisdom was that Hillary was a lock for the presidency and books like “Can She Be Stopped?” were being published (and failing miserably in the sales). The conservative base seemed almost resigned to the inevitable prospect of a second Clinton presidency (and all that would entail) and really didn’t muster much energy pushing back against it. It took the rise of Obama during early 2008 and especially his ascendency to the White House to really reinvigorate the usual suspects.

    RE: Clinton’s position
    1. He’s had it since the administration came into office, so its hardly a humanitarian sinecure.
    2. Where else is a former president going to go? Clinton has been by far the most political active former president since probably Teddy and Taft, and he is legally forbiden from following either one of their paths (running for President again and serving in the Supreme Court). I mean, when was the last time a former president served in an official capacity in a successor’s administration?

    Your accounting may partially explain why Obama has generated so much heat, despite Andrew’s hopes to the contrary. But it really doesn’t account for a) the complete transformation of the conventional wisdom re: the Clintons and b) why Obama’s fortunes flipped so fast.

  4. “As evidence, I submit the attitude of the “usual suspects” during the 2006-late 2007 period, when conventional wisdom was that Hillary was a lock for the presidency and books like “Can She Be Stopped?” were being published (and failing miserably in the sales). The conservative base seemed almost resigned to the inevitable prospect of a second Clinton presidency (and all that would entail) and really didn’t muster much energy pushing back against it.”

    Pretty weak. I’d have needed to see what would have happened when conservatives were in full campaign mode (and, given how dead in the water conservatives knew they were this go round, beyond as well).

    Re: your “RE: Clinton’s position” – I could respond to your points ((1)its a sinecure, then, not a humanitarian sinecure and (2) agreed, that’s why former presidents are not political targets), but the juster reply is: are you seriously suggesting that special envoy to Haiti is something special? What is WRONG with you?

    PS Any page hits we’ve had in the past two days are mine.

  5. Miles, you can freaking sign in under captainfalcon from other computers. Or maybe I should make captainfalconinabsentia a poster as well.

  6. […] the resident Clinton apologist here (and elsewhere), I suspect this should come as no surprise, but I have been reflecting a bit […]

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