Matt Lewis

Back when conservatives hated Bill Clinton

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” yesterday, Howard Kurtz asked me (at around the 3:15 mark here): “What do you make of all these conservative pundits joining in the praise of Bill Clinton?”

“I used to sit on this program in 1998 and 1999,” he continued, “And the right hated this guy. Impeachment. Monica Lewinski. Fundraing scandals. Have you all just sort of mellowed?”

I think Kurtz might have been a tad surprised when I admitted that it was simply politically convenient for Republicans — having spent the decade of the 1990s attempting to cast Clinton as a radical — to now argue he was always just a moderate “new” Democrat. (After all, Clinton can do little harm these days — and praising him is a very sly way to criticize the Democrat who can do harm — Barack Obama.)

In fairness, this tactic is employed by both sides. Liberals who used to mock and denigrate Ronald Reagan, now use him as a cudgel to argue that today’s conservatives have strayed from Reaganism. Heck, in some media circles, Mitt Romney is already being unfavorably compared to George Romney and even George W. Bush!

It’s possible, of course, that some young conservative journalists (who weren’t covering politics in the 90s) do legitimately see Clinton differently, possibly because of the changing political landscape. But it is interesting to see some of the very same people who once argued that Clinton protested America abroad, dodged the draft, and possibly had Vince Foster killed, is a pretty swell guy.  And they are using many of the same techniques today that they used back then.

Just as Clinton’s belonging to the “flower power” “hippie” generation seemed to explain how he was different from every other liberal president in American history up until that time, Barack Obama’s “anti-colonial world view” helps explain why he is more dangerous than the run of the mill liberalism of, say, Jimmy Carter.

So why the flip-flop?

As you know, my gut is that this is politically convenient, but there are a few plausible scenarios…

First, it could be that Barack Obama really is so much more radical than Bill Clinton — as to make Clinton appear moderate in comparison. But that doesn’t ring true. Clinton really was associated with 1960s radicals. And he spent the first two years of his administration pushing gays in the military and Hillarycare. It was only after the 1994 midterms that he triangulated and moderated (in fairness, unlike the politically sagacious Clinton, Obama did not go to the center after the disastrous 2010 midterms — and this is one admitted difference between the men.) But the notion that Clinton was always a moderate seems revisionist.

Second, it is possible that conservatives only retroactively realized that Bill Clinton wasn’t the boogeyman they thought he was. This also doesn’t ring true, but let’s assume that it is the case. Supposing these conservatives were wrong about Clinton in the 1990s — isn’t it  fair to wonder if it they might also be wrong about Obama today? (Will this pattern continue? Is it absurd to think we might live to see the day when we are talking about how moderate President Obama was — and how this President Julian Castro is the real socialist?)

As I implied on “Reliable Sources,” the more likely scenario is that, while Bill Clinton was a liberal, many conservatives also engaged in demagoguery when Clinton was president.

That sort of conservative prestidigitation may work on people who have no memory of the 1990s. But it also raises some questions about the intellectual honesty of some conservative pundits.

But the problem with this sort of hyperbole is that it could one day be like the boy who cried wolf.