Liberal commentators could barely contain their scorn this week after hearing Mitt Romney make some unfavorable comparisons between President Obama and Bill Clinton. They do have a point. For Democrats listening to the Republican candidate praise Clinton, albeit only by contrasting him to Obama, less than two decades after the man from Hope engendered such rage on the part of conservatives, must be insufferable. The retrospective GOP affection for Clinton is as phony as the respect now given Ronald Reagan on the part of many Democrats. It is a time-honored political tradition to blast your opponents as being unworthy to be the successors of their party’s former leaders even if you happened to hate the objects of praise while they were in office. Anyone doubting this theme need only notice that even George W. Bush — a president so despised on the left that he inspired a syndrome that could only be described as derangement — is starting to get a little love from liberals because he was more civil than the current crop of Republicans.
But just because Romney’s praise of Clinton is insincere doesn’t mean he hasn’t honed in on one of the president’s problems. President Obama won in 2008 largely on the basis of the historic nature of his candidacy as the first African-American to be nominated by a major party as well as by a successful attempt to position himself as a post-partisan centrist. Though many voters may still feel the weight of history when contemplating rejecting Obama’s bid for re-election, ObamaCare, the stimulus and now his stance on gay marriage mean his pose as a moderate has been exploded. That is why the contrast between the incumbent and Clinton’s “New Democrat” efforts to distance his administration from many traditional liberal positions is helpful to Romney. Though Democrats may complain this is a bogus tactic, it helps to define Obama as a doctrinaire politician who is out of step with many centrist and independent voters.
Part of the Clinton-Obama contrast is one of tone. Clinton deliberately sought to persuade Americans that his approach was a departure from traditional liberalism. Indeed, it was his ability to persuade so many that he was a pragmatic centrist that drove conservatives — who saw him as the embodiment of the self-indulgent liberal Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s — so crazy. Clinton went out of his way to show that he was not in thrall to left-wingers. while Obama’s administration has alienated moderates.
But Romney’s not entirely wrong to point out the differences between the last two Democrats elected to the presidency.
Veterans of the Clinton administration are quick to point out that Clinton was no conservative and embraced many measures such as tax increases that Romney opposed then and now. But Clinton was also the man who told the country that “the era of big government is over,” presided over balanced budgets and signed the welfare reform bill while Obama is the quintessential big government Democrat. Though many of Clinton’s achievements were more a case of him co-opting Republican positions and taking credit for things that would have been impossible without the election of a GOP Congress (such as the balanced budget and welfare reform), they also reflected a willingness to move to the center rather than govern from the left. If Clinton had succeeded in passing his wife Hillary’s health care bill, perhaps we wouldn’t think of him as a centrist, but in contrast to Obama, the 42nd president ultimately learned that ramming such a measure down the throats of an unwilling people was a mistake and moved on to more productive matters. Most of all, Romney can contrast the relative prosperity of the 1990s to the dismal economy of 2012.
Democrats are right that the problem with Romney’s stratagem is that Clinton will be campaigning for Obama this year. But while his appeal to party loyalists is still strong, it isn’t likely that many voters believe there is any real affinity between the two Democratic presidents. Many suspect that Clinton is merely setting the stage for another try for the presidency by his wife.
Romney isn’t the only American to notice that Barack Obama is the most liberal president since Jimmy Carter and represents a different kind of Democrat than Clinton was. It may be hypocritical for Republicans to sound this theme, but it also reflects the fact that Obama doesn’t have the same appeal to moderates and independents that Clinton had. And that’s something that can make a big difference in November.