Payback Is a Hound Dog

Some are trying to pass off Bill Clinton's seemingly pro-Romney comments on the campaign trail as a sign the 65 year old former president is is rusty and indeed that he might even be getting a bit senile.  (Funny how they never say that about the 87 year old Carter.)  Stephen Green at PJ Media isn't buying it.  The inventor of drunkblogging seems to be  enjoying his beloved adult beverages as he watches Clinton do to Obama what he did to Republicans for eight years.

When your enemy is angry, irritate him.
-Sun Tzu

There are differing versions, even different attributions, of that dictum, probably because of its timeless truth. An angry enemy makes mistakes. An annoyed and angry enemy will flip out. And nobody was better at annoying the angry than Bill Clinton -- even if he had to first make them angry himself. While president, Clinton thrived on making conservatives and Republicans angry. Red-faced, spittle-covered mad. Clinton, written off for dead at the end of '94, coasted to reelection just two years later, thanks in no small part to his ability to irritate the Right.

I watched him do it to the GOP -- to me! -- almost daily for eight years. I knew exactly what he was doing, and why. And yet I still fell for it. Every time. Almost all of us did. You gotta bow to the master.

You can imagine then that the West Wing must be reeling this week, after a series of irritating little shivs Clinton slid into their backs over the last few days.

So why Clinton is behaving this way?  Green and others offer overlapping reasons.  I think one is certainly professional pride.  Clinton was the first Democrat president to be reelected in 52 years.  Clinton also spent the 1980s and 90s trying to keep the Democrats a center left party that could appeal to the small town populists found in his native Arkansas, Louisiana and across Appalachia, as well as to the urban interest groups. 

While many voters didn't like Clinton's personal habits, his strategy of triangulation on key issues helped convince many middle of the road voters that it was again safe to elect a Democrat president.  In 2006 the Democrats reversed 12 years of Republican control of Congress largely by recruiting Congressional candidates who appealed to suburban and small town values that iconic Clinton era  group, the Democratic Leadership Council, supported. 

Obama is a creature of the urban far left, that strange brew of academics, image makers and the urban underclasses that mostly hold suburban and small town values in contempt.   Not only was Obama to the left of Clinton when he was elected, unlike Clinton, Obama has not shifted to the center in respond to a tsunami of signals that the electorate is unhappy with how he is governing.  The Permanent Democrat majority the Obama forces bragged about shortly after his inauguration didn't survive the backlash from the Stimulus Bill and the passage of Obama-care. The Democratic Leadership Council died with it.    Clinton worked hard to help build that majority and has to loath how it quickly and amateurishly it is being squandered.

Then there is the personal.  In 2008 Obama accused Clinton of racism.   That was both personal for Clinton, who had been raised in a state were legal segregation was in still in practice and another sign of an amateur politician out to usurp the Clintons' position as the leaders of the Democratic Party.  As Green puts it

My personal take is that this was the moment the Race Card lost its trump. Playing it on Clinton, our "first black president"? Dumb move, Barack.

And now comes the payback.

Obama attacked Mitt Romney's record at Bain. Clinton said his record there was "sterling." Oh, Clinton said it ostensibly in the course of explaining why Romney shouldn't become president -- but the real message was heard loud and clear.

Obama wants us to believe that the economy is improving, that we're on track, that we must move "forward." So Clinton said we're already back in a recession.

Obama wants the Bush tax rates for the wealthy to expire. Clinton wants to extend all the Bush rates for a year. He later "clarified" and explained he only wanted to keep the Bush tax rates for everyone but the wealthy -- but the clarification never carries as much weight as the original statement. And Bill Clinton doesn't make a whole lot of misstatements during an election fight.

After all that, Clinton is brash enough to claim ignorance. About that "sterling" comment, he had the chutzpah to tell Judy Woodruff, "I didn't have any idea, when I was giving that answer, that I was wading into some controversy in the campaign, because I haven't seen the ads, and I'm not following it, and I'm not really part of it." The man who rivals Michael Barone for the breadth and depth of his up-to-the-minute knowledge of politics and policy doesn't know of Obama's main line of attack?


As for Bill consciously positioning Hillary for 2016 after Obama shattered her 2008 hopes, it's possible but I think unlikely.  Last month there was a flurry of stories about her grooming not being up to standards.   This is not about aesthetics.  Good grooming is a tool.  It helps establishes physical boundaries and non verbal clues about how you expect others to behave in your presence. Hillary will be 69 in 2016 and she will look every bit her age both physically and in terms of political style.   Bill knows that.  Even if she returns to a her most put together look, the iconic feminist baby boomer in her pantsuit will look as dated against the newest generation of Republican women like Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez as John McCain did against Barack Obama in 2008.

Personally I suspect a more visceral personal dynamic is at work here.   Clinton and Obama come from similar family dynamics but the milieus they were raised in were poles apart.   First the similarities.  Neither had a relationship with their birth father, unhappy relationships with step fathers and mothers who were highly ambitious for them but let their own mothers do much of the actual child rearing.  Now the differences. Clinton was raised in the mob controlled Hot Springs of Owney Madden  amid a gothic mix of criminal sleaze, political corruption, Southern populism and born again salvation.  His mother's motto seemed to be How much hell raising can I get away with, still have a good life and go to heaven.  Obama was raised among leftist intellectuals.  His grandparents appears to have been from that branch of the American family tree where the original Calvinist piety morphed into one of two modern secular variations:  The workaholic ethos of Silicon Valley where  the proprietor's prosperity is seen as every bit the sign of virtue is was in Calvin's Geneva without the connotation of eternal salvation and the grim Collectivism of the Fellow Travelers. Among the fellow travelers it is ok to drink, do dope or have illicit sex because that trangresses the capitalist norm and will eventually lead to the new social order.  It is not ok to do those things just because it's fun.  Given this combination of similarities, differences and pure ego it may simply be that Clinton hates Obama's guts -- and vice versa. 

Whatever the reason, it should be fun to watch.