Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ken Starr

Bill Clinton’s Double Standard on Rhetoric

The Big Dog has slipped his leash again.

Bill Clinton began a concerted attack on the Tea Party movement in the New York Times late last week:

With the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing approaching, former President Bill Clinton… drew parallels between the antigovernment tone that preceded that devastating attack and the political tumult of today, saying government critics must be mindful that angry words can stir violent actions…  “There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do,” Mr. Clinton said in an interview, saying that Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, and those who assisted him, “were profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant antigovernment line.”

“Because of the Internet, there is this vast echo chamber and our advocacy reaches into corners that never would have been possible before,” said Mr. Clinton, who said political messages are now able to reach those who are both “serious and seriously disturbed.”… Mr. Clinton said his intent was not to stifle debate or muzzle critics of the government but to encourage them to consider what repercussions could follow. He acknowledged that drawing the line between acceptable discourse and that which goes too far is difficult but that lawmakers and other officials should try.

“Have at it,” he said. “You can attack the politics. Criticize their policies. Don’t demonize them, and don’t say things that will encourage violent opposition.”

Then, at an event for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, he said this:

What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold — but that the words we use really do matter, because there’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.

As you would expect from Mr. Clinton, his words are both sophisticated and slick. There is even some truth to them. Words have meaning, and context matters. Public officials in particular should be careful not to exploit passions that can become harmful. There’s no rulebook that tells us which slang phrases and locutions are clever and which are inflammatory. Things that may be fine in one context might not be so in another. We have to rely on common sense and good judgment.

The problem for Mr. Clinton is that his concern about the dangers of incendiary rhetoric seems to have taken flight during the two terms of the Bush presidency, as well as during his own. Regarding the former, there was, for starters, the 2006 film, The Death of a President, on the assassination of President Bush. Mr. Clinton did not, to my knowledge, condemn the movie in a front-page story in the New York Times or in a major speech.

Moreover, George W. Bush was, during his two terms in office, routinely called a war criminal, an international terrorist, and compared to Hitler [see a photo gallery here and here]. Signs with bullet holes in Bush’s forehead, with blood running down his face, were all part of the fun and games. The president was accused of moral cowardice by Al Gore, of being a liar and the anti-Christ, and of being a totalitarian and dictatorial leader. Members of Congress such as Keith Ellison compared the attacks on September 11 to the Reichstag fire.

This was all pretty common fare during the Bush presidency. Yet Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, remained silent, apparently unconcerned that such words would fall on the serious and the delirious, the connected and the unhinged, at the same time. And many of Mr. Clinton’s fellow Democrats, including his vice president, said words that encouraged the worst elements and instincts of the haters and the loons.

The Tea Party protests, in terms of the level of hate speech and the placards and signs used, don’t hold a candle to the anti-war protests we witnessed during the Bush years. Yet for some inexplicable reason — inexplicable because we all know the press and the political class are fantastically free of bias — the hate directed against Bush didn’t receive anything like the scrutiny the Tea Party is receiving.

It’s also worth recalling that the Clinton administration organized, coordinated, and participated in some of the ugliest rhetoric we have seen in recent American politics. I have in mind, for example, the campaign against Judge Ken Starr, who was the independent counsel during the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation. The Clinton team said Starr was a “spineless, gutless weasel” and “engaged in anti-constitutional destructiveness.” He was a “thug” and a “Grand Inquisitor for life.” His tactics were “frightening,” “vicious,” and “lawless.” His investigation was an “inquisition,” “smacks of Gestapo,” and “outstrips McCarthyism.” He was acting “irresponsibility, illegally.” Starr was “undermining the very integrity of the criminal-justice system.” The office of independent counsel was filled with “a crew of prosecutorial pirates” and Starr was using “instruments of intimidation and smear without restraint.”

And now Mr. Clinton is preaching to us about not demonizing our opponents and about the importance of not crossing rhetorical lines. Can a Clinton sermon on the importance of fidelity and the gift of celibacy be far behind?

The level of concern and consternation that is being directed at the Tea Party movement is hard to take seriously given the blinding double standard at play. When Bush was president and greater hate was directed at him than is today directed at Obama, the narrative was that this was a sign of Bush’s divisiveness. In those days dissent was the highest form of patriotism. Today, with Obama as president, everything is reversed. Obama is the victim, not the divider; dissent is viewed as sedition.

I have no problem at all condemning the Tea Party movement if it crosses lines of civility and reason. But the hypocrisy at play here is discrediting.

In a deeper sense, the impulse on display here is, despite what Clinton says, illiberal. The end game for many Tea Party critics isn’t to silence a few nuts in a movement comprising millions of people; it is to discredit the movement itself. It is to silence the overwhelming number of decent people who comprise the Tea Party movement by attaching them to the hip with haters and kooks.

This tactic will, I think, backfire. We are seeing a huge, lawful, civic uprising against the Obama agenda — and to slander people as clones of Timothy McVeigh will only add kindling wood and kerosene to this bonfire.

Liberals and the Democratic Party are losing virtually every substantive debate on the issues. It is blowing their circuits. And so they are left to resort to libel, to portray Tea Party participants as Timothy McVeighs in waiting. There will be a high price to pay for this ugly and petty tactic, beginning with the first Tuesday in November.

The Big Dog has slipped his leash again.

Bill Clinton began a concerted attack on the Tea Party movement in the New York Times late last week:

With the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing approaching, former President Bill Clinton… drew parallels between the antigovernment tone that preceded that devastating attack and the political tumult of today, saying government critics must be mindful that angry words can stir violent actions…  “There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do,” Mr. Clinton said in an interview, saying that Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, and those who assisted him, “were profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant antigovernment line.”

“Because of the Internet, there is this vast echo chamber and our advocacy reaches into corners that never would have been possible before,” said Mr. Clinton, who said political messages are now able to reach those who are both “serious and seriously disturbed.”… Mr. Clinton said his intent was not to stifle debate or muzzle critics of the government but to encourage them to consider what repercussions could follow. He acknowledged that drawing the line between acceptable discourse and that which goes too far is difficult but that lawmakers and other officials should try.

“Have at it,” he said. “You can attack the politics. Criticize their policies. Don’t demonize them, and don’t say things that will encourage violent opposition.”

Then, at an event for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, he said this:

What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold — but that the words we use really do matter, because there’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.

As you would expect from Mr. Clinton, his words are both sophisticated and slick. There is even some truth to them. Words have meaning, and context matters. Public officials in particular should be careful not to exploit passions that can become harmful. There’s no rulebook that tells us which slang phrases and locutions are clever and which are inflammatory. Things that may be fine in one context might not be so in another. We have to rely on common sense and good judgment.

The problem for Mr. Clinton is that his concern about the dangers of incendiary rhetoric seems to have taken flight during the two terms of the Bush presidency, as well as during his own. Regarding the former, there was, for starters, the 2006 film, The Death of a President, on the assassination of President Bush. Mr. Clinton did not, to my knowledge, condemn the movie in a front-page story in the New York Times or in a major speech.

Moreover, George W. Bush was, during his two terms in office, routinely called a war criminal, an international terrorist, and compared to Hitler [see a photo gallery here and here]. Signs with bullet holes in Bush’s forehead, with blood running down his face, were all part of the fun and games. The president was accused of moral cowardice by Al Gore, of being a liar and the anti-Christ, and of being a totalitarian and dictatorial leader. Members of Congress such as Keith Ellison compared the attacks on September 11 to the Reichstag fire.

This was all pretty common fare during the Bush presidency. Yet Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, remained silent, apparently unconcerned that such words would fall on the serious and the delirious, the connected and the unhinged, at the same time. And many of Mr. Clinton’s fellow Democrats, including his vice president, said words that encouraged the worst elements and instincts of the haters and the loons.

The Tea Party protests, in terms of the level of hate speech and the placards and signs used, don’t hold a candle to the anti-war protests we witnessed during the Bush years. Yet for some inexplicable reason — inexplicable because we all know the press and the political class are fantastically free of bias — the hate directed against Bush didn’t receive anything like the scrutiny the Tea Party is receiving.

It’s also worth recalling that the Clinton administration organized, coordinated, and participated in some of the ugliest rhetoric we have seen in recent American politics. I have in mind, for example, the campaign against Judge Ken Starr, who was the independent counsel during the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation. The Clinton team said Starr was a “spineless, gutless weasel” and “engaged in anti-constitutional destructiveness.” He was a “thug” and a “Grand Inquisitor for life.” His tactics were “frightening,” “vicious,” and “lawless.” His investigation was an “inquisition,” “smacks of Gestapo,” and “outstrips McCarthyism.” He was acting “irresponsibility, illegally.” Starr was “undermining the very integrity of the criminal-justice system.” The office of independent counsel was filled with “a crew of prosecutorial pirates” and Starr was using “instruments of intimidation and smear without restraint.”

And now Mr. Clinton is preaching to us about not demonizing our opponents and about the importance of not crossing rhetorical lines. Can a Clinton sermon on the importance of fidelity and the gift of celibacy be far behind?

The level of concern and consternation that is being directed at the Tea Party movement is hard to take seriously given the blinding double standard at play. When Bush was president and greater hate was directed at him than is today directed at Obama, the narrative was that this was a sign of Bush’s divisiveness. In those days dissent was the highest form of patriotism. Today, with Obama as president, everything is reversed. Obama is the victim, not the divider; dissent is viewed as sedition.

I have no problem at all condemning the Tea Party movement if it crosses lines of civility and reason. But the hypocrisy at play here is discrediting.

In a deeper sense, the impulse on display here is, despite what Clinton says, illiberal. The end game for many Tea Party critics isn’t to silence a few nuts in a movement comprising millions of people; it is to discredit the movement itself. It is to silence the overwhelming number of decent people who comprise the Tea Party movement by attaching them to the hip with haters and kooks.

This tactic will, I think, backfire. We are seeing a huge, lawful, civic uprising against the Obama agenda — and to slander people as clones of Timothy McVeigh will only add kindling wood and kerosene to this bonfire.

Liberals and the Democratic Party are losing virtually every substantive debate on the issues. It is blowing their circuits. And so they are left to resort to libel, to portray Tea Party participants as Timothy McVeighs in waiting. There will be a high price to pay for this ugly and petty tactic, beginning with the first Tuesday in November.

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Obama the Uniter?

It’s getting mighty ugly mighty fast in the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday Howard Wolfson, in response to the Obama campaign pushing for the release of Clinton’s tax returns, said, “I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for President.” For those who inhabit HillaryLand, to be compared to Ken Starr is slightly worse than to be compared to Charles Manson or Lucifer.

Returning serve, yesterday we learned that Samantha Power, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, apologized for describing Hillary Clinton as a “monster” during an interview with a Scottish newspaper. She added this: “You just look at her and think: ergh . . . The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.”

Welcome to a race against the Clintons, where the politics of hope quickly gives way to top aides calling her a “monster” and of being deceitful.

One might have some sympathy for Obama. After all, he is by all accounts a decent man who is running against a ruthless political operation. Obama’s problem, though, is that he has portrayed himself as a figure who will unify America, who will “turn the page” on the ugliness of the last decade, and who will not use negative attacks against his opponents. That is an admirable sentiment, and it has an appeal. But what do you do if your opponent has promised, publicly, to “throw the kitchen sink” at you? How long can you ignore the attacks? At what point do you shift from simply taking punches to throwing them? And when do you make the character of an opponent like Hillary Clinton an issue?

The young Illinois senator is learning what every major political figure eventually does: politics is a contact sport, not a garden party, and it has been since the founding of this Republic. Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history. According to one expert, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

These words shouldn’t be held up as a model for political discourse. Politics, after all, should be at its core a debate about issues and political ideology and the future of the country. Politicians should be judged by the manner in which they, and their aides, conduct themselves. There are tough things that are appropriate to say–and lines you should not cross over.

At the same time, it’s not surprising that in a fiercely contested race which might well decide who will become leader of the most important nation on earth, passions get stoked, harsh words get thrown about, and nasty things are said. High-mindedness can easily give way to a hyper-aggressive effort to set the record straight. And simply to assume, as Obama apparently did, that he would swoop in and magically do away with the “old politics” and the old divisions was both arrogant and naïve.

It turns out being a unifying figure in American politics isn’t as easy as Obama thought. Right now he can’t even unify his own party. And just think: the pounding has only begun. It’s five weeks until the Pennsylvania primary and five months until the Democratic convention. At this pace, Obama and Clinton may match Jefferson and Adams in their level of civility and good manners.

Somewhere, John McCain must be smiling.

It’s getting mighty ugly mighty fast in the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday Howard Wolfson, in response to the Obama campaign pushing for the release of Clinton’s tax returns, said, “I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for President.” For those who inhabit HillaryLand, to be compared to Ken Starr is slightly worse than to be compared to Charles Manson or Lucifer.

Returning serve, yesterday we learned that Samantha Power, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, apologized for describing Hillary Clinton as a “monster” during an interview with a Scottish newspaper. She added this: “You just look at her and think: ergh . . . The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.”

Welcome to a race against the Clintons, where the politics of hope quickly gives way to top aides calling her a “monster” and of being deceitful.

One might have some sympathy for Obama. After all, he is by all accounts a decent man who is running against a ruthless political operation. Obama’s problem, though, is that he has portrayed himself as a figure who will unify America, who will “turn the page” on the ugliness of the last decade, and who will not use negative attacks against his opponents. That is an admirable sentiment, and it has an appeal. But what do you do if your opponent has promised, publicly, to “throw the kitchen sink” at you? How long can you ignore the attacks? At what point do you shift from simply taking punches to throwing them? And when do you make the character of an opponent like Hillary Clinton an issue?

The young Illinois senator is learning what every major political figure eventually does: politics is a contact sport, not a garden party, and it has been since the founding of this Republic. Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history. According to one expert, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

These words shouldn’t be held up as a model for political discourse. Politics, after all, should be at its core a debate about issues and political ideology and the future of the country. Politicians should be judged by the manner in which they, and their aides, conduct themselves. There are tough things that are appropriate to say–and lines you should not cross over.

At the same time, it’s not surprising that in a fiercely contested race which might well decide who will become leader of the most important nation on earth, passions get stoked, harsh words get thrown about, and nasty things are said. High-mindedness can easily give way to a hyper-aggressive effort to set the record straight. And simply to assume, as Obama apparently did, that he would swoop in and magically do away with the “old politics” and the old divisions was both arrogant and naïve.

It turns out being a unifying figure in American politics isn’t as easy as Obama thought. Right now he can’t even unify his own party. And just think: the pounding has only begun. It’s five weeks until the Pennsylvania primary and five months until the Democratic convention. At this pace, Obama and Clinton may match Jefferson and Adams in their level of civility and good manners.

Somewhere, John McCain must be smiling.

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Politics of Unity?

For more than a year the two leading Democratic candidates for President, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have chided President Bush for being a “divider instead of a uniter.” The President is, it is said, a “polarizing” figure. Clinton and Obama promise to bring an end to all that. Obama in particular has made the cornerstone of his campaign a kind of tonal argument. He will, he has said, turn the page on the bitterness of the past and transcend the usual partisan sniping. He seems to be arguing that by the force and charisma of his personality he will, like Isaiah the prophet, bring us together so we can reason together.

Before bringing his healing balm to the country, however, we’ll see if Senator Obama can bring it to the Democratic Party.
The emerging battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is getting very personal very fast – with the toxic issue of race now being added to the mix in the last few days. Ugly charges and counter-charges are being made at an almost hourly rate. By the time this competition is done, there may be a lot of scorched earth left in its aftermath.

If Obama had won in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign would have been badly, and perhaps mortally, wounded, and the attacks we are now seeing would look desperate and graceless. But having prevailed in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton re-set the dynamics of the race. And so Senator Obama will now be on the receiving end of a ferocious attack machine, one that over the years has left its critics and opponents shattered and their reputations shredded. Ken Starr, it’s worth recalling, was a well-respected figure before he began his investigation into the Clinton scandals; when he was done, he was portrayed by the Clinton team as a sex-obsessed independent counsel, “Captain Ahab,” a “spineless, gutless weasel” who was the leader of an “inquisition.”

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For more than a year the two leading Democratic candidates for President, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have chided President Bush for being a “divider instead of a uniter.” The President is, it is said, a “polarizing” figure. Clinton and Obama promise to bring an end to all that. Obama in particular has made the cornerstone of his campaign a kind of tonal argument. He will, he has said, turn the page on the bitterness of the past and transcend the usual partisan sniping. He seems to be arguing that by the force and charisma of his personality he will, like Isaiah the prophet, bring us together so we can reason together.

Before bringing his healing balm to the country, however, we’ll see if Senator Obama can bring it to the Democratic Party.
The emerging battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is getting very personal very fast – with the toxic issue of race now being added to the mix in the last few days. Ugly charges and counter-charges are being made at an almost hourly rate. By the time this competition is done, there may be a lot of scorched earth left in its aftermath.

If Obama had won in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign would have been badly, and perhaps mortally, wounded, and the attacks we are now seeing would look desperate and graceless. But having prevailed in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton re-set the dynamics of the race. And so Senator Obama will now be on the receiving end of a ferocious attack machine, one that over the years has left its critics and opponents shattered and their reputations shredded. Ken Starr, it’s worth recalling, was a well-respected figure before he began his investigation into the Clinton scandals; when he was done, he was portrayed by the Clinton team as a sex-obsessed independent counsel, “Captain Ahab,” a “spineless, gutless weasel” who was the leader of an “inquisition.”

For a preview of things to come, see this, from Ryan Lizza’s article in The New Yorker:

On the morning after Clinton’s victory [in New Hampshire], I talked to Sergio Bendixen, one of her pollsters, who specializes in the Hispanic vote. “In all honesty, the Hispanic vote is extremely important to the Clinton campaign, and the polls have shown—and today is not a great day to cite polls—that even though she was slipping with women in Iowa and blacks in South Carolina, she was not slipping with Hispanics,” he said. “The fire wall doesn’t apply now, because she is in good shape, but before last night the Hispanic vote was going to be the most important part of her fire wall on February 5th.” The implications of that strategy are not necessarily uplifting. When I asked Bendixen about the source of Clinton’s strength in the Hispanic community, he mentioned her support for health care, and Hispanic voters’ affinity for the Clinton era. “It’s one group where going back to the past really works,” he said. “All you need to say in focus groups is ‘Let’s go back to the nineties.’ ” But he was also frank about the fact that the Clintons, long beloved in the black community, are now dependent on a less edifying political dynamic: “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Obama’s “politics of hope” responds to those who have perfected the Politics of Personal Destruction. Will he be able to respond persuasively and aggressively without getting himself filthy in the process? Will he be able to turn the chapter on the divisive politics of the past–or will he merely add to what we have seen before?

Regardless of the results, after this nomination process it may be a lot harder for either Clinton or Obama to put forward the argument that they are figures who can bring America together, especially if they succeed in driving various constituencies within the Democratic Party apart. The politics of unity aren’t, apparently, as easy as people think.

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A Star Is Worn

Hillary Clinton’s sending her husband on the stump has long been thought of as a no-brainer. Where she fights each potentially incriminating syllable as it escapes her lips, Bill glides through every exchange with a kind of post-moral ease.

So what happened yesterday? At an Iowa campaign stop, Bill Clinton claimed he “opposed Iraq from the beginning. . .”

Never mind that Clinton practically birthed “the beginning” with the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The bald lie is nothing new. But his failure to finesse the gaffe is.

The New York Times reports:

Advisers to Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he did oppose the war, but that it would have been inappropriate at the time for him, a former president, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting president’s military decision.

Ohhh, so he didn’t lie yesterday: he lied four years ago when it mattered.

With advisers like that, who needs Ken Starr? Watching the old Clinton machine go through the motions yesterday was a bit like watching a first season episode of Saturday Night Live: one’s forced to admit it hasn’t aged well. Charm, like humor, depends on context. The post 9/11 universe is a more serious place than the, um, “full-throated” Clinton 90’s. With the advent of consequence, fool’s paradises tend to vanish. As Senator Clinton’s numbers continue to drop she’ll find herself in the real world, and the old no-brainers may not be so consequence-free anymore.

Hillary Clinton’s sending her husband on the stump has long been thought of as a no-brainer. Where she fights each potentially incriminating syllable as it escapes her lips, Bill glides through every exchange with a kind of post-moral ease.

So what happened yesterday? At an Iowa campaign stop, Bill Clinton claimed he “opposed Iraq from the beginning. . .”

Never mind that Clinton practically birthed “the beginning” with the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The bald lie is nothing new. But his failure to finesse the gaffe is.

The New York Times reports:

Advisers to Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he did oppose the war, but that it would have been inappropriate at the time for him, a former president, to oppose—in a direct, full-throated manner—the sitting president’s military decision.

Ohhh, so he didn’t lie yesterday: he lied four years ago when it mattered.

With advisers like that, who needs Ken Starr? Watching the old Clinton machine go through the motions yesterday was a bit like watching a first season episode of Saturday Night Live: one’s forced to admit it hasn’t aged well. Charm, like humor, depends on context. The post 9/11 universe is a more serious place than the, um, “full-throated” Clinton 90’s. With the advent of consequence, fool’s paradises tend to vanish. As Senator Clinton’s numbers continue to drop she’ll find herself in the real world, and the old no-brainers may not be so consequence-free anymore.

		

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Rudy’s Bank Shot

As mayor, Rudy Giuliani endeared himself to conservatives around the country, as much for his enemies as for his accomplishments. When Giuliani attacked big-spending, culturally elitist, Al Sharpton-allied Democrats, he scored big with hordes of GOP primary voters. Now, in defending General David Petraeus, he is using the same tactic against the McCarthy-like attacks of the Moveon.orgers, widely loathed by conservatives and disdained by moderates. But in attacking Senator Clinton—the likely Democratic nominee—for refusing to disavow Moveon.org, Giuliani has also pulled off a two-cushion bank shot for both himself and the leading Democrat.

His criticisms not only allow Giuliani to define himself, once again, by who his enemies are: it does the same for Hillary. The ranters on DailyKos and the Moveon.orgers have, as Matt Bai’s recent book The Argument points out, little in the way of a positive agenda. Like the Islamists they try so hard to ignore, their strongest suit is unyielding hostility. And Clinton has long been one of the objects of their hostility: they despise her for her middle-of-the-road position on Iraq and for the moderate politics of her husband’s presidency.

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As mayor, Rudy Giuliani endeared himself to conservatives around the country, as much for his enemies as for his accomplishments. When Giuliani attacked big-spending, culturally elitist, Al Sharpton-allied Democrats, he scored big with hordes of GOP primary voters. Now, in defending General David Petraeus, he is using the same tactic against the McCarthy-like attacks of the Moveon.orgers, widely loathed by conservatives and disdained by moderates. But in attacking Senator Clinton—the likely Democratic nominee—for refusing to disavow Moveon.org, Giuliani has also pulled off a two-cushion bank shot for both himself and the leading Democrat.

His criticisms not only allow Giuliani to define himself, once again, by who his enemies are: it does the same for Hillary. The ranters on DailyKos and the Moveon.orgers have, as Matt Bai’s recent book The Argument points out, little in the way of a positive agenda. Like the Islamists they try so hard to ignore, their strongest suit is unyielding hostility. And Clinton has long been one of the objects of their hostility: they despise her for her middle-of-the-road position on Iraq and for the moderate politics of her husband’s presidency.

Giuliani has, essentially, recreated the dynamic of the 1990’s, the dynamic that made Hillary a darling of the Left even as she disavowed some of its policies. Then, the Clintons fought Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr and the GOP’s foolish attempts to impeach Bill, forcing left-wing Democrats to come to their defense. Now, Giuliani, by attacking Hillary as anti-military, has given her ammunition against critics and candidates to her left. As Eli Lake points out in the New York Sun:

For a Democratic candidate who not only voted to authorize the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but scolded the earnest protesters at Code Pink when they questioned her vote, what could be better than having a pro-victory Republican say she was too tough on the military?

Lake describes the dynamic set in motion by the two as a process of “Mutually Assured Nomination.”

All of this, it should be noted, eludes New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. For her, Giuliani’s ad against Hillary places him in the same category as Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards in their criticism of the former first lady. She accuses him of ignoring

her attempts to be New Hillary, a senator who loves men in uniform, who is not afraid to use military power, and who is tough enough to deal with bin Laden. He recasts her as Old Hillary, a Code Pink pinko first lady and opportunist from a White House that had a reputation for having a flower-child distaste for the military . . . .

Maybe. But what could be better at the moment for Hillary’s candidacy than having more firepower to fend off challenges coming entirely from her left?

Giuliani and Clinton are leading their respective packs because in the wake of the many failings of the Bush presidency, they are the most competent, most experienced candidates of their respective parties. Each will campaign as the only real alternative to the other—and each will be right. It’s a mutually beneficial antagonism.

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Be A Divider, Not A Uniter

Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that Senator Barack Obama claims he can move the country out of “ideological gridlock” and bring the country together more effectively than can Senator Hillary Clinton. This declaration is consistent with Obama’s broader claim, which is that he will put an end to “polarizing politics.”

Obama is attempting to tap into something real, which is the reluctance on the part of many Americans to be drawn back into the psychodramas of the Clinton years: Ken Starr and Kathleen Willey; private investigators hired to look into the private lives of women alleged to have had affairs with Bill Clinton; the (still-resonating) charge of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”; and the brass-knuckle tactics of James Carville, Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, and others. Most of us would like that chapter of American politics to stay closed.

At the same time, the claim that a divided America is somehow “bad” is itself intellectually sloppy. Most of us prefer social harmony to discord—but unity is not the only, or even the highest good in politics. Was there a more divisive and reviled president than Lincoln, who uprooted the centuries-old institution of slavery? The biographer Robert Jackson wrote that after Franklin Roosevelt had been in office for a brief period, “the lines began to separate between those in whom he inspired an all-out devotion and those in whom he aroused an implacable hatred.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was “the object of bitter hatred.” And in 1984 the pollster Lou Harris claimed that Ronald Reagan was polarizing the country more than any president since FDR.

“Conviction politicians” are often polarizing because they take ideas seriously and are willing to do battle on their behalf. And often the greatest advances in history come about only after contentious political debates led by brave and, yes, polarizing political leaders.

Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that Senator Barack Obama claims he can move the country out of “ideological gridlock” and bring the country together more effectively than can Senator Hillary Clinton. This declaration is consistent with Obama’s broader claim, which is that he will put an end to “polarizing politics.”

Obama is attempting to tap into something real, which is the reluctance on the part of many Americans to be drawn back into the psychodramas of the Clinton years: Ken Starr and Kathleen Willey; private investigators hired to look into the private lives of women alleged to have had affairs with Bill Clinton; the (still-resonating) charge of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”; and the brass-knuckle tactics of James Carville, Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, and others. Most of us would like that chapter of American politics to stay closed.

At the same time, the claim that a divided America is somehow “bad” is itself intellectually sloppy. Most of us prefer social harmony to discord—but unity is not the only, or even the highest good in politics. Was there a more divisive and reviled president than Lincoln, who uprooted the centuries-old institution of slavery? The biographer Robert Jackson wrote that after Franklin Roosevelt had been in office for a brief period, “the lines began to separate between those in whom he inspired an all-out devotion and those in whom he aroused an implacable hatred.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was “the object of bitter hatred.” And in 1984 the pollster Lou Harris claimed that Ronald Reagan was polarizing the country more than any president since FDR.

“Conviction politicians” are often polarizing because they take ideas seriously and are willing to do battle on their behalf. And often the greatest advances in history come about only after contentious political debates led by brave and, yes, polarizing political leaders.

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