After last night’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, it is quite clear that former president Bill Clinton is the contemporary Democrat’s answer to Ronald Reagan. It isn’t just that he’s the only living two-term Democrat there is–though this helps. Clinton reflects an era that most Democrats feel they can be proud of, much the way that Republicans reflect on the halcyon days of the Reagan administration. For the older voters in the audience (based on their faces, as the cameras scanned the crowds) Clinton seemed to evoke an appropriate nostalgia, while the younger conventioneers seemed to be looking at him as an elder statesmen–which he now is, hand tremors and all.
It also doesn’t hurt that both the facts and the talking points for the Clinton era–in terms of economic expansion, bi-partisan management of Social Security, welfare, and other “entitlement” programs, and tax policy–are in many ways better than those of the Reagan era. (Especially since Republicans like to forget the ways in which Ronald Reagan raised taxes, skipped pursuing anti-abortion legislation, and subtly abandoned other conservative dogmas in favor of bi-partisan cooperation to expand the military and, of course, “bring down” the Soviet Union.) Yes, Clinton’s speech was long. But he gave the crowd what they seemed to want: a smart, policy driven rationale for electing Obama and rebutting the thin arguments of the Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaign.
However, as impressed as I was by Clinton’s speech, it was difficult not to escape a certain kind of negative nostalgia, too. Every time Clinton sucked on his cheek in between making a point, every time he raised his hands and wagged his fingers, it recalled the worst moments of his presidency. It isn’t that I care especially whether Clinton had affairs while in (or out of) office; I don’t. Ultimately these are issues between Bill and Hillary Clinton. It isn’t even that he lied about them, since this isn’t an especially shocking response. The problem was the person with whom he had the affair–and the collective Democratic response, as led by Hillary Clinton.
Because there is no getting around it. First, Clinton had an affair with someone who worked for him, an affair that can only have been between unequals. Who on a president’s staff is his equal? Certainly not an intern, a star-struck post-college intern. If he wanted to have an affair with some wealthy supporter or other outside lady–perhaps equally star-struck, but less implicitly susceptible to coercion–that would have been a different story. But if you or I had an affair with an office intern, whatever might have been “consensual” would have been immediately considered irrelevant in the face of the workplace power dynamic, a dynamic that could only be worse in the White House. Bill Clinton should have known better and should have done better.
Second, once it became known, Hillary Clinton and a generation of likeminded women rallied around him to condemn every voice that sought to question Bill Clinton’s integrity. No, the Oval Office blow job was not an impeachable offense; but neither was it forgivable. For Hillary Clinton to throw over all the feminist principles to which she had dedicated her life–including the principle (is it a stretch to call it that?) that women in the workplace should be treated as colleagues, not as sex objects–must have hurt. But apparently it didn’t hurt so much that she wasn’t willing to do it.
All these years later it is clear that the Republicans who tried to impeach Bill Clinton overreached. They paid for it politically, too, as well they should have. But all these years later, the Democrats who continue to rally for and be rallied by Clinton would do well not to gloss over this history too readily. This is not about the issues in the Clinton’s marriage; most marriages are complicated and difficult to understand from the outside. This is about being clear-headed in the face of an alluring nostalgia, and about remembering what your principles are, why you believe in them, and not allowing them to be swept away by rhetorical flourishes.
After all, if you want an example of the dangers of lost principles, just look at the Republicans. If Bill Clinton’s stature is like Ronald Reagan’s, then George W. Bush’s is the opposite: the Republicans’ 21st century Herbert Hoover and clearly The Man Who Will Not Be Named By Republicans During This Campaign.