It should be of no surprise that a couple of weeks ago, President Clinton came to President Bush’s defense with respect to the flap over whether or not Iraq attempted to purchase uranium (search) from the African country of Niger (search).
Newsweek reported that the current president’s advisers carefully added language attributing the uranium accusations to the British, thereby enabling the president to make a statement that was true on its face, but that would lead those of us listening to draw false conclusions.
It was the kind of word-parsing we had become familiar with hearing from our former president, so it’s really not surprising that Clinton would come forth with some begrudging respect for his successor.
It was also not surprising because our current president and our former president are beginning to show some striking similarities.
A recent poll by the New York Times (search) shows that while President Bush still enjoys generally popular support on the whole, there is a deep, seething hatred for him among the far left. This isn’t mere disagreement or a divergence of viewpoints on policy; it’s acidic, and it’s personal. In fact, it’s the very same kind of deep-seeded loathing that the far right had -- and still has -- for President Clinton.
Clinton was hated by the far right (search) because they found him morally unfit for the office of the presidency. A common refrain among conservatives was that President Ronald Reagan (search) so respected the honor of the presidency that he never removed his suit jacket while in the Oval Office. Clinton, we all know, removed far more than his jacket. The right thought Clinton a moral midget, and so developed an unrelenting, gnawing disdain for the man, and for the idea that he could have somehow found his way to Washington.
Similarly, Bush is hated by the far left (search) because they find him intellectually unfit for the office of the presidency. We heard throughout the campaign how he lacked the intellectual curiosity we should all be looking for in our policy makers. We have since seen Bush's malapropisms (search) and mis-turns of phrase regularly rehashed and replayed on late night television. The left thinks Bush an intellectual midget, and so has developed an unrelenting, gnawing disdain for this man, and for the idea that he could have somehow found his way to Washington.
The similarities go on.
Both former President Clinton and our current president also present a kind of philosophical paradox.
Each man commands huge support among his respective base. President Bush can count on strong support from conservatives in the election ahead, just as President Clinton didn’t need to worry about strays from the left in 1996 (unlike Al Gore (search), who lost disgruntled leftists to Ralph Nader (search)). Likewise, each man knows that about 15-20 percent of the electorate positively loathes him.
And yet neither really embraces policies that should inspire such vehement feelings from either side. President Clinton was a “triangulator.” (search) He chose his policies carefully, so as not to upset the fat part of the philosophical bell curve. When his proposal for universal health care grew unpopular, he dropped it. He offended his gay supporters when he embraced “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He took on Sister Souljah (search).
President Bush, while promising not to “govern with polls” in the campaign, has done precisely that. Much as he is despised by the left, it is President Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove (search) who prevents him from straying too far rightward. Consequently, the president has decided to postpone any serious discussion about Social Security reform (search) until his second term. Rather than veto a wasteful, gargantuan prescription drug benefit (search) that pretty much everyone in Washington knows is doomed to failure, President Bush knows that seniors vote in droves, and so he has promised to sign it.
In fact, you could make a convincing case that President Clinton was in fact more conservative than President Bush has been so far, which makes the intense loyalists and detractors of each all the more perplexing.
On free trade, President Clinton wooed union leaders and union members while simultaneously opening huge new channels of free trade (through NAFTA (search) and GAT (search)), which unions vehemently opposed. President Bush talked free trade up in his campaign, but has largely been a disappointment, having signed a disastrous farm subsidies bill (search), and upheld protectionist tariffs (search) on steel, lumber, catfish and computer chips.
In his first two years in office, President Bush has increased federal spending (search) considerably more than President Clinton did in his first two years, even after adjusting for defense and homeland security.
President Bush talked much in his campaign about education choice (search), but in the end, signed an education bill President Clinton would have been proud of -- one that increases, not decreases, federal involvement in primary and secondary schooling.
On civil liberties (search), President Bush has certainly upheld his conservative credentials. But even here, it’s hard to see where he’s been that different than President Clinton. One can’t imagine former Attorney General Janet Reno (search) -- architect of the Waco (search) disaster -- showing any more post-Sept. 11 deference to the Bill of Rights (search) than Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) has.
Foreign policy? Both men dropped bombs on Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush is about to send a “humanitarian” military mission into Liberia (search). President Clinton sent one into Somalia (search). Both were/are interventionists (search).
When President Bush’s father first ran for president in 1988, Democrat Ann Richards (search) delivered a famous (if borrowed) line at the convention of his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (search). Addressing feminist issues, Richards said, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels.”
You might say that today, President Bush is doing many of the same things President Clinton did, only backwards, and in cowboy boots.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a Weblog at www.theagitator.com.