POLITICS NOVEMBER 26, 2008
They don’t have political rallies to bring them together anymore, but it’s no secret that a lot of people out there don’t much like Barack Obama. The president-elect, according to his more fervent campaign-season detractors, has a raft of unforgivable faults: He’s a socialist, a Muslim, an actual love-child of Malcolm X. His birth certificate was missing, his book had been ghost-written by William Ayers, and his wife, "Mrs. Grievance," as a National Review cover dubber her, was perennially on the cusp of getting caught ranting against the white man. The only thing keeping the Illinois senator’s infamy from going public is the quiescence of the liberal media. Perhaps you remember.
Whatever its effectiveness ahead of Election Day, the right-wing hate campaign made for a nice exercise in nostalgia. For eight years, opposition politics have mainly involved attacking the president for, like, things he’s done or wanted to do in office----and not, say, secret religious view he holds or convoluted murders involving his wife. Now, after an administration in the wilderness, they were back--the conspiracy theorists, the paranoiacs, the fringe figures whose dubious relationships with the truth weren’t enough to disqualify them from star turns in the right-wing media. The last Democratic president had spent his White House years in perpetual battle against well-funded crackpots peddling far-fetched theories, and now this one would, too. So much for change.
The clean-up crews were probably still sweeping confetti from Grant Park, in fact, when the first wave of paranoiac Obama-reaction hit the press: A run on gun-shops by disaffected red-staters convinced that the 44th president would do to the Second Amendment what Bill Ayers tried to do to New York City Police Headquarters. "He wants to take our guns from us and create a socialist society policed by his own police force," Jim Pruett, a Houston-based radio-personality-turned-gun-dealer, told the New York Times.
Obama's political team may be trying to avoid another eight years of wrestling with presidential haters, but they’d be lucky if kooky, easily disproven charges like Pruett's come to represent his presidency's antagonists. The last Democratic president wasn't so fortunate. It’s hard to remember now, after all the trouble Clinton got himself into, but the similarly nutty campaign-trail hyperventilation directed at the Arkansas governor concerned things that didn’t go on to become major issues once he took office. Back in 1992, the sharpest of the Republican election-season barbs concerned Clinton's alleged draft-dodging, marijuana-inhaling, and, especially, his participation in anti-Vietnam protests while living in England as a Rhodes Scholar. Rumor spread that the Democrat had at one point sought to renounce his citizenship; a GOP political appointee at the State Department was later disciplined for improperly searching Clinton’s passport files in search of evidence.
The meme was also spread by the man at the top of the GOP food chain, Clinton’s opponent on that year's ballot. "I say level with the American people on the draft, whether you went to Moscow, how many demonstrations he led against his country from a foreign soil," President George H.W. Bush told Larry King weeks before the election, sounding more than a little like this year’s Republican candidate. "Level, tell the truth and then let the American voters decide."
Unfortunately for Clinton, that sort of self-parodic allegation didn’t follow him into the Oval Office. This reflects one basic drawback of the attacks: The most sensational charges were baseless. But it also reflects a bigger problem with the whole patriotism-and-cultural-radicalism shtick that is central to Republican campaign strategy: It works well when it comes to disqualifying a Democratic wanna-be from getting elected, but it doesn’t work so well against a sitting President of the United States. Once he was living in the White House and flying around on Air Force One, Clinton became a symbol of the country, for better or worse, and attacks on his love for America became a lot less credible. And for all his faults, he also became the rapidly graying man in a suit on TV every night rather than a bearded hippie whose (fake?) marijuana-smoking represented a Main Street worry.
The same thing will happen to President Obama. Once he’s the man at the lectern with the presidential seal--the real one--he's pretty hard to dismiss as a frightening outsider. Just last week, Al Qaeda put out a statement attacking the president-elect. Every attack like that further cements his place at the center of mainstream American identity. Dissing his patriotism isn’t a winning political recipe. In 1993, Clinton's detractors branched out into investigating the back-country of Arkansas, the bureaucracy of Washington, and especially the places where they intersected. In 2009, Obama’s will move elsewhere, too. But where?
The good news for Obama is that it’s unlikely that he--or, for that matter, any other human being--could be as much of an ally to his tormentors as Clinton was. Possibly even better news is that any organized anti-Obama efforts may have to make do without a sugar daddy. During the Clinton years, right-wing moneybags like Richard Mellon Scaife spent actual money on the investigative efforts that helped trip up the 42nd president, and that represented a prerequisite for getting the ensuing dirt into the conservative media slipstream. If right-wing 527s barely stepped up during the campaign, who’s going to shell over the bucks now?
The bad news for the president-elect is that things that required money back in 1993 now come very cheap. Why pay for duplicating and distributing Vince Foster murder videotapes when you can just post them on YouTube? Of course, some results are easier to find on the cheap than others. Finding alleged sexual-harassment victims takes some shoe-leather. Finding policy screw-ups by the president or his aides, on the other hand, has gotten easier, thanks to the Internet. Which suggests that, in the end, the Obama haters of the next four years may end up being less like Clinton's crazy--if sometimes accurate--wingnut detractors, and more like the folks who dedicated themselves to critiquing George W. Bush. Instead of focusing on, say, rumors of Bush’s drug abuse, Bush antagonists mainly set themselves at criticizing bungled wars and drowned cities. For Obama, that happy precedent would mean the only thing he has to do now is govern well.
Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming One Nation Under Dog.