Why the Right Still Hates Clinton

"Why do they hate Clinton so much?" A friend asked me that at a dinner recently. He, too, was outraged by the sleazy last-minute pardons and the prospect that Bill Clinton had permitted people close to him peddle get-out-of-jail-for-a-fee cards. But as this friend observed, there's always been a mean edge to much of the rightwing opposition to the Clintons.

I had witnessed that a few days earlier. At a gathering of 3000 conservative activists and leaders in Washington in mid-February, Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, assailed Clinton for having compromised "virtually every secret of our nuclear arsenal." (Virtually every one? What was in his water?)

Leftist-turned-rightist commentator/agitator David Horowitz pleaded with the group to refer to Hillary Clinton and likeminded Democrats as not "liberals" but "totalitarians." (That should enhance bipartisanship.) One rightwing group handed out a report "revealing" that Hillary has a secret agenda to take over the UN and use it to impose socialism and world-government upon the United States.

Days after this confab, The National Review's Web site posted an ugly rant against Chelsea Clinton that jokingly noted that in the past the children of "objectionable citizens" were executed. (Paging the Secret Service!)

There is something that motivates the Clinton crazies beyond opposition to Clinton policies and beyond a self-proclaimed desire for probity in public office. As my friend, a Clinton-suspicious progressive, noted, Clinton enacted welfare reform, passed a crime bill that expanded capital punishment, embraced balanced budgets, increased military spending, nominated mostly centrist judges, and sided with corporate America against labor on the NAFTA accord and trade with China. From a Republican perspective, that's not bad for a Democrat.

So what accounts for the profound detestation? It's not merely the Monica mess. This deep animus predated the point when the nation learned the President spilled his seed upon an intern's dress.

My hunch: the right resents Clinton on two counts. He stole their issues and made them work for him (crime, welfare, budgets). And conservatives see him and Hillary as representatives of the big enemy: a libertine (literally and figuratively) elite that scoffs at old-fashioned Middle America cultural and political values, that believes it knows what's best for the rest, and that wishes to impose its oh-so-correct views upon others. In crass terms, it's the hip (or ex-hippies) against the squares. (Certainly, it's difficult to consider Hillary hip, but many conservaives have long suffered from an inferiority complex that causes them to identify liberalism with cool.)

What's worse for conservatives is that even when the various lies of Bill and Hillary have been exposed, the pair have been able to fool the American people and retain public support. "Then," my friend said, "what you're saying is, they're really upset because we've won the culture war. And that I should be happy."

In a way, yes. Clinton's survival -- as tenuous as it may seem at the moment -- was an indication that the cultural right is deep in the hole. These cons may grasp George W. Bush's win as a millennial sign of hope. But, of course, Bush didn't win a majority of votes.

Moreover, his inner circle includes people who might fit uneasily among the more diehard conservative culture warriors. His wife, Laura, has acknowledged she leans toward favoring abortion rights. Since the anti-abortion movement -- which occupies a key flank of the culture war -- equates abortion with murder, what does this say about President Bush? He professes anti-abortion sentiments but shares a bed with a woman who would allow this sort of murder.

By yanking federal funds from family planning groups that advocate or counsel abortion, Bush has shown he is amenable to enacting portions of the anti-abortion agenda. How far, though, is he willing to go? The anti-abortion movement is based on an absolutistic principle -- abortion is killing. By co-habitating with a person who disagrees with this premise, Bush, unwittingly, demonstrates he sees abortion as a relativistic matter upon which people of good faith can differ. Such a view does not help the conservative fundamentalists.

Let's turn to the Cheneys now. It's well-known that their daughter Mary is gay. She attended the inauguration with her partner. Until last year, she worked at Coors, conducting outreach to the gay community. How might she and her partner feel had they strolled through that conference of conservatives and seen all the anti-gay propaganda being disseminated? A "special report" entitled, "Homosexuals Attack The Institution of Marriage." (It declares that homosexuals "are determined to overturn the natural order of things" and declares, "Don't Mess with God's Order.") A newsletter that reports, "The Radical Homosexual Lobby" is "encouraged by George Bush" and that the civil union law of Vermont is part of a "war" against America. A banner that exclaimed, "Never to Gay Rights." And how might Dick and Lynne Cheney have felt, had they escorted Mary and their partner-in-law through this gathering?

Vice President Cheney did receive rousing applause when he addressed the attendees. But does he believe that people like his daughter deserve to be demonized? That they threaten "God's order"? I'm guessing, no.

And in the midst of the fuss over Eminem's Grammy appearance, The Second Lady, a renown culture warrior, discussed the rapper with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. She whacked him for, among other things, penning lyrics that advocate "violence against gay people." Then she noted she was dismayed that Elton John had agreed to perform a duet with Eminem, remarking, "Elton John has been so good in the past at speaking out on issues of equality for gay people." Hmmm, so is Cheney now a champion of gay rights?

Let's recap: the President lives with a woman who backs abortion rights; the Vice-President lives with a woman who praises the Liberace of pop for advocating gay rights. The culture war is not going as well as it could be for conservatives.

For years, they have attempted to use the Clintons to rally the troops and recruit the masses -- with more success at the former than the latter. As the pardon-scandal worsens for Bill and Hillary, there's plenty of new reasons for the old chase to continue. Indeed, inquiry is warranted. (Too bad, Representative Dan Burton, the most bumbling conspiracy theorist of the House Republicans, is once more leading the charge; the Clintons have been blessed by their enemies.)

Now, the conservative get-Clinton gang has been citing the pardon hijinks as proof they have been correct about the Clintons all along. See? We told you so. Well, they were right -- in a limited sense. Clinton was (is? will again be?) an untrustworthy politician, as are so many within both parties. The conservatives may end up persuading the public Clinton's a no-goodnik. That's becoming less and less a tough task. But, at this point, finally winning that battle will not contribute much to their overall war effort.

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