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Jonathan Weiler

Jonathan Weiler

Posted: October 8, 2010 05:30 PM

The New York Times began an extraordinary front-screen political memo yesterday with the following:

Many Republicans with a deep animus for President Obama find their hearts aflutter with the memory of a former leader. He was a compassionate conservative, a guy who cared about free trade, a man who reached across the aisle.

Of course, the memo is referring to Bill Clinton.

The Times devotes much of the article to explaining that Clinton's "moderate" policy record is a key reason that the GOP feels such nostalgia for him and represents a sharp contrast with the presumably orthodox liberal Obama.

But consider:

1. The article makes much of Clinton's support for "free" trade and NAFTA, in particular. But notwithstanding a campaign controversy concerning Obama's position on "free" trade, the evidence strongly suggests that Obama has adopted the standard US position on trade over the past two decades, broadly supportive of trade agreements. More specifically, like Clinton, Obama generally supports trade pacts as long as they are accompanied by "side" agreements that address labor and environmental concerns (whether these agreements have teeth is a separate matter).

2. Significant health care reform passed on Obama's watch. But Clinton tried to do something very similar. That he failed is no indication that he differed significantly in intent on this matter from Obama.

3. Obama's position on the death penalty is, in essence, the same as Clinton's.

4. Obama named Clinton's final Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers, as his top economic policy adviser. Like Clinton's, Obama's economic team has been influenced heavily by individuals with strong ties to Goldman Sachs and the financial sector more broadly.

5. To put it mildly, there is nothing in Obama's record so far that could be construed as less inclined to perpetuate US militarism than was the case under Clinton.

6. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, is quoted in the memo as saying that, were it not for Monica Lewinsky, Social Security would be "straightened out" by now (by which he means "cut"). This may be true. But Obama's bi-partisan deficit commission, scheduled to issue recommendations to be voted on in Congress after the mid-terms, may well end up "straightening out" the program in similar terms.

7. Clinton's nominees to the Supreme Court are ideologically very similar to Obama's. In fact, one could certainly argue that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is generally more liberal than Sotomayor or Kagan.

Of course, it's an obvious absurdity to hear Republicans lamenting a lack of bi-partisanship and a nostalgia for a president whose character they assassinated in the most vicious terms possible (remember -- he and his wife were murderers).

But what's truly amazing about this article is not the way it tries to sell obviously overstated policy differences between Clinton and Obama. Instead, it's the author's failure to consider, for even a single, solitary moment, that the GOP's nostalgia for Clinton might have something do with factors unrelated to those obviously overstated differences.

At one point in the piece, Trent Lott is quoted as saying: You know with Clinton the chemistry was right. He was a good old boy from Arkansas, I was a good old boy from Mississippi, and Newt, he was from Georgia. So he knew what I was about, and I knew where he was coming from.

Is it simply out-of-bounds to contemplate whether the GOP's animus toward Obama and, therefore, its new-found fondness for a man it absolutely loathed during the 1990s is, at least in part, a consequence of the fact that Bill Clinton has at least one significant, redeeming feature lacking in Obama? Or, I should say, that Obama carries with him one significant feature that makes him immediately suspect -- a feature that Clinton lacks?

"Chemistry," indeed.

 
 
 

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