Clinton’s Low-Key Dissing of Bush
Bill Clinton is perhaps the most gifted political orator of our generation, so it is worth considering how he dealt with Bush and the Iraq War issue in his speech Monday evening to the Democratic National Convention.
He and the other Democrats went out of their way to avoid appearing angry. They were full of regret at missed opportunities and wrong-headed policies, but they were not angry. They had hope, and a vision of an alternative future, which they implied was a much more comforting one than the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western into which W. has plunged us.
Clinton avoided looking as though they he was lukewarm in support of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He began by saying, “My friends, we are constantly being told that America is deeply divided. But all Americans value freedom and faith and family. We all honor the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world.”
So the message is, pro- US troops. Nobody brought up Abu Ghuraib or the brutal siege of Fallujah.
The critique of Bush’s Iraq war was made only subtly, with references to Clinton’s presidency as an era of “peace and prosperity” (Hillary), and Clinton’s own “We all want good jobs, good schools, health care, safe streets, a clean environment. We all want our children to grow up in a secure America leading the world toward a peaceful and prosperous future . . .”
The implication is that Bush is likely to lead us into more wars and further economic hard times. The Democratic Party in contrast is the party of peace and prosperity. (I.e., Clinton has cleverly once again stolen an old Republican line to use against the Republican Party).
What about the “turmoil in the Middle East,” as Clinton put it? He spoke of the future as full of “amazing opportunities” “for people all across the world and to create a world where we can celebrate our religious, our racial, our ethnic, our tribal differences because our common humanity matters most of all . . .”
Clinton’s message is that difference (race, religion, nation) need not be polarizing, that these sectional identities can be transcended by an appeal to common humanity. If Bush’s world is Manichaean, characterized by a division of human beings into Good and Evil, the Democrats’ world is organic, capable of being molded into a smoothly functioning whole. The Manichaean world-view implies warfare, the vision of organic unity allows for peace.
Clinton contrasted the cooperative and idealistic vision of the Democrats with what he depicted as a selfish and cynical opportunism among Republicans:
“We Democrats want to build a world and an America of shared responsibilities and shared benefits. We want a world with more global cooperation where we act alone only when we absolutely have to. We think the role of government should be to give people the tools to create the conditions to make the most of their own lives. And we think everybody should have that chance.
On the other hand, the Republicans in Washington believe that America should be run by the right people — their people — in a world in which America acts unilaterally when we can and cooperates when we have to . . .”
Clinton points to a moment of betrayal, when Bush failed to live up to the expectations of national unity and altruism raised by September 11:
“The president had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror. Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies, not only in attacking Iraq before the weapons inspectors had finished their work, but in withdrawing American support for the climate change treaty and for the international court on war criminals and for the anti-ballistic missile treaty and from the nuclear test ban treaty. Now, now at a time when we’re trying to get other people to give up nuclear and biological and chemical weapons, they are trying to develop two new nuclear weapons which they say we might use first.”
The attack on Bush is not that he went to war against Iraq. It is that he did so virtually unilaterally, “walking away from our allies.” This is a genteel way of saying that the Bush administration humiliated and demeaned France, Germany and later Spain, for not going along with the war or for later withdrawing from it in the case of Spain. Note that Clinton or his speech writer keep the focus on Bush, not foregrounding the allies (France is not popular). The crime is to “walk away” from old friends. Although complaints about this abandonment of old Europe would have had no resonance a year ago, by now it is obvious that it would be awfully nice to have a division each from France and Germany in Iraq, and that the Bush administration’s gratuitous insults made it highly unlikely that such help will be forthcoming.
Likewise, the timing of the war rather than the war itself is criticized. The Bush administration orchestrated a UN resolution that put the weapons inspectors back in Iraq, but then attacked “Iraq before the weapons inspectors had finished their work.” This impatient unilateralism also led, Clinton said, to the repudiation of Kyoto and other important international treaties. Bush is depicted as rash, hotheaded, impatient, and a dangerous loner.
Now Clinton ties the foreign misadventure to the domestic economy: “At home, the president and the Republican Congress have made equally fateful choices, which they also deeply believe in. For the first time when America was in a war footing in our whole history, they gave two huge tax cuts, nearly half of which went to the top 1 percent of us.”
Clinton is saying that you were cheated out of your fair share of the tax break, a tax break that probably shouldn’t have been given in the first place because of the extra demands of the war that shouldn’t have been fought. The cumulative effect is to raise fears that a series of grave policy errors has been committed and that, worse, it has deleteriously affected you in the pocket book. It is one thing to have the US government mucking things up overseas. It is another for it to cheat you out of your fair share of a tax break.
I suspect that the Kerry-Edwards campaign will pick up on Clinton’s themes. Not the war but the rush to war and unilateralism will be critiqued. Not the troops but the Bush administration officials will be faulted. The criticism will be subtle rather than blunt, and the theme will be hope rather than fear.