Jonathan Chait

Republican Clinton Nostalgia

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The New York Times has a piece today about Clinton nostalgia among Republicans:

Senator Orrin G. Hatch recently said that former President Bill Clinton “will go down in history as a better president” than the sitting one. Sean Hannity of Fox News, who has verbally abused Mr. Clinton for years, recently referred to him as “good old Bill.” Republicans in Congress have begun speaking of him with respect, even pining.

“I enjoy Bill Clinton,” Representative Paul D. Ryan, a six-term Republican from Wisconsin, said in an interview, echoing several colleagues. “The first two years of his term were one thing, but the rest of his presidency was tempered with moderation, and the nation benefited.”

What's hinted at in this article, but not detailed, is the way Republicans viewed Clinton's agenda at the time with the same apocolyptic hysteria that they now greet Obama's.

Benjy Sarlin recently wrote about Clinton scandal-meister David Bossie, also wallowing in Clinton nostalgia:

Bossie says he was driven at the time by his belief that Clinton was some kind of socialist sleeper agent. "When we looked at his background, we were worried he was a radical leftist who was in essence using that Southern governorship as a vehicle [to the White House]" he said. Today, Bossie freely admits he was wrong, and gives Clinton full credit for working with Republicans to balance the budget and reform welfare.

"I hark back for it," Bossie said of the Clinton years. "I think he was an undisciplined man on one front, but I think he was simply not as strident a leftist as we all thought he was when he came into power."

The kicker is that everything Bossie thought was true of Clinton before he now believes is true of Obama. Clinton was once a radical leftist, infiltrating the governemnt to impose a radical agenda of wealth confiscation. Today we realize that was silly! But now we're sure this is a good description of Obama.

Now, there is a general cross-partisan tendency to believe that opposing-party presidents are historically bad, and to minimize the flaws of their predecessors. Liberals are hardly immune. But that tendency among liberals exists alongside a secular trend of an increasingly radical Republican Party. There are any number of policies -- health care, taxes, environmental regulations -- where past GOP presidents would be utterly anathema in today's Republican Party.

So I'd argue that the liberal sense that Republicans keep getting crazier, while often exagerrated in the heat of the moment, is grounded in the reality of a long-term rightward lurch by the GOP. Whereas the analogous Republican belief is just paranoia. Dinesh D'Souza today bangs the drum about Obama's sinister, anti-colonialist wealth confiscation agenda. That agenda consists of restoring Clinton-era tax rates on the rich.

Conservative beliefs about Clinton and Obama roughly mirror their beliefs about various liberal social reforms. At the time of its enactment, Medicare was dangerous socialized medicine that would mark the first step toward the end of freedom in America. Today it's a cherished program that Republicans vow to save from Democratic cuts. Right-wingers villified John F. Kennedy; now they revere him. One day, Obama will play the same role in the Republican imagination that Clinton does today.

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