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Clinton, Reagan took their half in the middle

September 09, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

You wonder how Ken Starr and the House managers felt this week.

Seeing the man they so desperately tried to drive from office swagger onstage at the Democratic National Convention sporting a 70 percent approval rating, grinning like the cat that ate the canary and giving a speech that some feared “set the bar too high” for President Obama the following night.

The Republican convention had no such superstar it could trot out on stage as the country swooned — although it would have had Reagan still been around. Instead, a couple of  GOP rising stars by all appearances tried to distance themselves from their party’s convention because some of the party’s extreme positions are considered to be toxic for any young gun with national aspirations. (Ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell how much he wished he’d never heard the words “transvaginal probe.”

So Bill Clinton came on-stage and did what he was always able to do as president — grab a big chunk of the middle. Contrary to popular opinion, that’s what Reagan did as well, if anyone can still recall the electoral force known as the “Reagan Democrats.”

Can you imagine if there were any such thing as “Romney Democrats?” The GOP as it currently exists would consider this a matter of consorting with the enemy, punishable by being run out of the party on a rail. Today, Reagan the man is still revered, but his policies would have gotten him branded as a “closet moderate,” which has somehow become a pejorative.

You would think that the GOP would understand that the electoral map this fall is tough enough as it is, without declaring war on moderates. The “evil moderate” tack is just stunning on its face.

So, to be honest, was Clinton’s line that “politics does not have to be a blood sport” and the time that he spent in office was one of compromise and accord.

If he says so.

Others might remember it differently. It’s fascinating that politics have sunk to such depths that we look back on the Clinton era of government shutdowns, impeachment hearings, Linda Tripp, curled-lip denials, witch hunts and daily broadsides of seething accusations as a time of relative Kumbaya.

Clinton’s genius (a genius that Obama does not share) is that he knew how to bait a trap. More than anything, the ’90s resembled a Warner Bros. cartoon, with that wascally wabbit Bill Clinton goading Elmer Fudd Gingrich into failed attempts at making rabbit stew — and wrapping Congress around a tree in the process.

Whether shutting down the federal government or overreaching into Clinton’s well-traveled underpants, the arrows Republicans intended for the president always wound up doing a 180 and plugging they themselves between the eyes.

And there would be Bill, munching on a carrot and asking what was up.

The difference between that Congress and the current Congress is that a decade and a half ago, Congress at least had the sense to back away from the cliff when it discerned that it was in a precarious situation in the eyes of the American voters.

Compromise was not the evil word that it is today.

A government shutdown seems quaint by today’s willingness on the part of the House to, among other things, chuck the world economy into the furnace in the name of ideological purity.

Of course, the right wing would say that it is only forcing sour medicine down our throats because that’s what it will take to set our finances straight. Maybe that’s true. But as many have pointed out, the argument would be far more believable had today’s firebrands not ignored skyrocketing deficits and sweeping medical plans when a Republican was in the White House. Deficit hawkism would appear to be a religion of convenience.

Be that as it may, both sides this fall will have gotten what they wanted: a clear choice for the American people to make. This isn’t Ford-Carter or Clinton-Dole where, ideologically speaking, there wasn’t a hat’s worth of difference between the two.

By the end of Clinton’s second term, the Republicans in Congress had concluded that after all the rhetoric had been spent, it was wise to cross the aisle in the name of moving the nation, and their own political interests, forward. The public rewarded them with eight years of the presidency.

Now the question is whether the public will be equally generous in its applause of those who believe their views are so important that the erath must be scorched if they do not get their way.

November will tell, but there was Bill/Bugs this week saying: “Let’s face it Doc. I’ve read the script and I already know how it turns out.”

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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