It took me awhile to warm up to Bill Clinton in 1992. During the primaries that year I was a Paul Tsongas supporter. Ironically, I didn’t agree with Tsongas on fiscal/economic policy but sensed he was an intelligent and decent man with an authentic core. Compared to Bill Clinton, Tsongas seemed to be a beacon of rectitude.
Bill Clinton, remember had executed a retarded inmate on death row to enhance his credentials as a tough on crime “New Democrat” presidential candidate. So while I didn’t agree with Tsongas’s position on the capital gains tax cut I couldn’t ever imagine him gratuitously executing anyone.
Yet Clinton also stood stall in front of a factory in New Hampshire during tough economic times and admitted no president could magically restore the jobs they had lost. I thought of that when Mitt Romney pandered to economically distressed voters in Michigan recently. Instead, Clinton became the first American politician to effectively articulate an economic transition strategy for a high-tech inter-connected world. When the right-wing conspiracy and tabloid media went after him, Bill Clinton relentlessly promoted his “Putting People First” agenda. While George Herbert Walker Bush and Ross Perot tossed rhetorical grenades at each other, Bill Clinton talked about investing in human capital.
And Clinton was tough. The still fresh traumatic memory of the Mike Dukakis ’88 campaign was a toxic poison ravaging my guts. I had canvassed for Dukakis while attending college. One curmudgeon accused me of campaigning for someone who sympathized with rapists and communists. The evil slander machine of James Baker, Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes didn’t just savage Dukakis personally. You see, they also successfully demonized liberals like me as unpatriotic, indecent people to be ridiculed as unworthy participants of the American mosaic.
Dukakis, was a good man. Sadly though, he didn’t just fail to stand up for himself. He didn’t stand up for people like me who believed in economic and social justice, human rights and a cleaner planet. Speaking of a cleaner planet, how the hell did the Bush Crime Family that earned a fortune through oil ever get away with portraying Dukakis as a polluter? To this day that blows my mind.
None of that stuff worked on Bill Clinton. He could take a punch and throw some elbows in return. At the time I found the Clinton “War Room” refreshing. At last Democrats were kicking back. Today, I detest James Carville but at the time I considered him and George Stephanopolous heroes. Bill Clinton was winning me over with his toughness, resiliency and yes I believed there was something to the empathy. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton impressed me as a smart, tough, advocate for the progressive cause. The “two for one” pitch made Bill Clinton more appealing to me.
Once Clinton selected Al Gore as his running in 1992, I believed the stars were aligned for a season of hope. I was twenty-three, idealistic yet also cynically hardened by twelve Reagan-Bush years of division, wedge issues, welfare-Cadillac queens, racism, social intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia, flag burning/pledge of allegiance propaganda and Christian fundamentalist ascendancy. I wanted to feel inspired by a movement of national unity around a new progressive paradigm.
That year I wrote a letter to college friends living out west (remember when we wrote actual letters?) that Clinton’s success “depended on building bridges all Americans can walk upon. Republicans want to blow a few bridges up and convince the white middle class the blacks did it.”
After the Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden I bought a Fleetwood-Mac greatest hits tape and played “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” at least once a day. I wanted to believe so badly. Clinton effectively conveyed my sentiments in his 1993 inaugural when he spoke about “forcing the spring.” I wanted to believe the country was ready.
We all know what happened from there. Clinton scandals combined with a vicious right-wing counterattack resulted in an era of triangulation and the ascendancy of predatory reactionaries. Some things were accomplished: expansion of the earned income tax credit for the working poor, sound monetary policy which gave a boost to the bond market and kicked the economy, two decent Supreme Court justices, peace in Ireland and a decade of relative peace and prosperity to name but a few. We could’ve done a lot worse and if the 2000 election wasn't stolen from Al Gore I'm convinced 9/11 would never have happened.
Sadly, the “Big Dog” as he’s been affectionately known in the progressive blogosphere has rabies now. As anyone who has read my blog writing knows (all five of you!), I have expressed misgivings about Barack Obama. My preferred candidate is John Edwards. But I sure as hell give Obama credit for trying to stitch a progressive diverse movement together across ethnic, gender and age demographics. It’s not so easy communicating the same message across the divide of race and class. Bobby Kennedy was on the cusp of doing just that when he was gunned down in 1968.
Could it be that a moment of possibility has arrived again? Bill Clinton doesn’t want you to believe it. He shamefully exploited racial divisions to deny the politics of hope for his own self-aggrandizement and hunger for restoration with his wife as proxy. Any residual affection I ever had for him is gone. When a dog contracts rabies, even if it’s a beloved family dog, the family has no choice but to put that dog down for the good of the community. My fellow Democrats, it’s up to us to put the Big Dog down.