RALEIGH – It felt like the battering of tropical winds at the time. But in retrospect, it proved to be the eye of the storm.
I’m not referring to Hurricane Katrina, of course, that horrible name that will live in infamy. I’m thinking of Hurricane Clinton, the political storm of not-so-many years ago. Or, I guess I should say, it just seemed like a political hurricane: haircuts on the tarmac, Republican Revolution, a blue dress, an aspirin factory, a Republican Javert, missing White House china, and an unconscionable pardon.
The Clinton years were, for many conservatives and Republicans, a combination of excruciating frustration and laugh lines. For many left-liberals, there was no laughter. It was just frustration. They saw a Democratic president sign bills reforming welfare and cutting the capital-gains tax after failing to enact a national health-care plan. They saw Republicans take power in Washington and state capitals. While the GOP did try and fail to “get” President Clinton on his personal behavior, liberals saw the Republican agenda as mostly ascendant.
But the years have been, in a political sense, kinder to the Clinton Democrats – who offered a fleeting glimpse of social-policy moderation, fiscal responsibility, and rationality on trade policy – than they have been to the MoveOn.org crowd. The latter group, with its ironic name derived from defending Clinton, has dragged the Democratic Party into the fever swamps of paranoia, conspiratorial fantasy, military defeatism, and grotesque invective. Bush is a chimp. He is David Duke. He is Hitler. He is an all-powerful dictator. He is an incompetent boob.
And even after a summer of difficulty in Iraq, rising gas prices, and major communications gaffes at the very least in the administration’s response to Katrina, President Bush retains a middling approval rating in most polls. I am really very surprised that it is not below 40 percent. Other presidents, recent ones, have certainly sunk that low on the basis of far-less-grave headlines in the news. Indeed, in an ABC News poll, Americans did express dissatisfaction with federal preparedness for Katrina, but they were significantly more critical of state and local preparedness – which, based on the evidence I’ve seen, has been the major source of disarray and near-criminal malfeasance, not the federal government. And by a 55 percent to 44 percent margin, they did not blame Bush for a slow response to the crisis.
On Monday, both former President Bill Clinton and would-be future President Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in on the Katrina controversy for the first time in a big way. The Clintons, demonstrating both judgment borne of relevant experience and the political savvy most fellow Democratic leaders lack, declined to go after President Bush. The former president, teamed up with Bush senior to raise private funds for Katrina relief, said that it was far, far too early to start assigning partisan blame. “I think there should be an analysis of what happened,” he said. “The time to do that is after some time passes.” It’s hard to disagree with that. For her part, Sen. Clinton emphasized the need to assess future infrastructure needs in light of the disaster, again a reasonable approach.
My guess is that a sober examination later on of last week’s disaster-relief problems will assign more culpability to New Orleans and Baton Rouge than to Washington. Even if I’m wrong, however, the Clintons’ approach would still be the better one for Democrats to choose.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.