How Low Will They Go? GOP Efforts to Thwart Obama and Clinton Sink to New Depths

Hillary Clinton had something to celebrate at the UN on Tuesday. Two decades ago, she was part of the frontline of a big change in global gender culture and politics. The 1995 U.N. Women’s Conference called for grassroots empowerment of women, not just more talk about seeking equality. The results were seen at the U.N. Population Conference two years later, when a largely white, western, old guard of men were told they could no longer push bad forms of birth control onto women in poor countries. Instead, women’s activists from across the globe demanded reproductive rights and healthcare, including abortion. Hillary, then First Lady, stood with them. The Vatican and American right-wingers were not pleased.


That heritage was what Clinton wanted to celebrate on Tuesday—until a ridiculous media feeding frenzy descended, demanding answers about her use of a private email account during her tenure as Secretary of State. The presidential campaign press corps can be vulture-like without being egged on by Republicans, who have widened their scorched-earth strategies from trying to sink Obama’s presidency to finding anything to attack about 2016’s leading Democrat.

Of course, this isn't new. Did Fox News cover the content of Obama’s best speech ever in Selma last weekend, on how the struggle for voting rights endures and is at the center of what it means to be American? No, instead it focused on George W. Bush’s presence there, saying he was cropped out of official White House photographs. Bush, the candidate whose minions stole the presidency in 2000. Mr. Voting Rights. Anyone remember Florida?

Presidential campaigns and presidential politics have always had dark and ugly sides. But what unfolded between Selma and New York City is an extraordinary snapshot of how dysfunctional U.S. politics now are: while leading Democrats spoke about the power of politics to lift lives, the GOP almost entirely boycotted Selma, and 47 Republican senators sent a letter to Iran to sabotage a White House nuclear deal.

Did campaign media focus on the GOP senators’ diplomatic mutiny? No. Instead, Clinton's emails somehow remained the most important issue in the world. Nobody playing pop psychologist in the UN press scrum asked whether the Senate Republicans’ letter to Iran was its way of outdoing the House GOP’s similarly treasonous sponsorship of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress last week. Both stunts were efforts to derail our President's foreign policy. Such GOP arrogance could hardly be a bigger example of political dysfunction. But it wasn’t center stage; the trivial email story was.

Clinton, through her forced smiles, went through the necessary motions, answering the same questions perhaps a dozen times. Of course, she wants to be president. No other person who is as serious as she  is would put up with such nonsense. But one can only wonder if this dynamic on display—the deliberate dumbing down of the presidency—is the bigger story here. 

Clearly, the White House occupant matters, or else the GOP would not be wanting to trash every Obama initiative. Clinton knows that politics makes a big difference; she started her UN remarks saying the world, despite all its problems, has never treated women and girls better. But what does this latest passing obsession with her emails say about what our country has become? What does it say about who we are as a people in this particular moment of time?

Obama, in case you missed it, answered these questions eloquently in Selma. After all these years being attacked and undermined by Republicans, it is a wonder Obama still tried to be hopeful. He shared the weary optimism of the civil rights struggle, and said that the story of progress in America really come down to two words: we versus me. Obama stood with the we—solutions that come when people join together. As in “We the People,” the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, he said, all the way to “We Shall Overcome,” the chorus of the great civil rights anthem and freedom song.

The best in American comes from efforts that stem from, and serve, the collective “we,” Obama said. It’s no small point. What’s small is serving the me-me-me, which is perhaps the simplest and best shorthand description of what the modern Republican Party has become. It is not just the party of no—no to Obamacare, no to immigration reform, no to lowering college loan interest rates, no to regulating Wall Street, no to birth control in federal health plans, no to prospective nuclear deals with Iran. The modern GOP has become the party of me—whatever I want, I deserve, I demand, I get, and screw you. What is at the center of the creed driving the far right? It’s every man for himself. Grab what you can before someone else does; he who dies with the most property wins. We versus me. Which party wants to expand Social Security or wants to cut payments? Which party wants to slow climate change or keep pocketing carbon profits? We vs. me.

If you add a gender dimension, you get he versus she. That takes us right back to the UN commemoration of women’s progress, Clinton, and the email nonsense.

To say that the GOP is full of it on this one is being restrained. But we live in an age when being a partisan hypocrite is seen as a political virtue. The GOP wants to know what was in Hillary’s emails. Tens of thousands of emails is ten of thousands of potential targets. If their lawyers could find one phrase in 1,000-plus pages of Obamacare bill and build a U.S. Supreme Court case to try to end healthcare premium subsidies for 8 million Americans, who knows what may be buried in Hillary’s mail. But let’s not forget which party is all about keeping secrets when it serves them.

Republicans have spent multi-millions sending election lawyers into courts across America to keep their campaign donors’ idenities secret. They have sent lawyers into court to argue that anonymous attack ads are protected free speech, and lying in a political campaign is a First Amendment right—when lying in a court, as a lawyer, is one of that profession’s most serious ethical lapses and a serious crime. They fight to hide and to lie in public, and the presidential campaign media takes their bait, demanding accountability for Clinton’s emails.

Her UN press conference is a sad preview not just of what the 2016 presidentail campaign is likely to bring. It is a giant reminder of how small the presidency has become in modern America. As the New Yorker's George Packer asked after Selma, would big ideas like the expectation that government could herald a real revolution in civil rights even be possible today? Maybe not. It goes back to Obama’s amazing shorthand that now defines the difference between progressives and right-wingers: we verses me. Which side are you on?

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