Clinton vs. Bush: A foolish fight for the GOP to pick

Bill Clinton is still one of the most admired political figures in the country.

Published September 27, 2006 4:55PM (EDT)

There is a disturbingly strong willingness on the part of many Bush supporters to refuse to recognize even indisputable facts if those facts undermine their desire to believe that something is true. That is how, to cite just a few examples, they continue to believe that things are going well in Iraq, that Saddam Hussein really did have WMD, and that their unpopular views on war and terrorism are shared by a majority of Americans. But it is difficult to recall anything that more vividly illustrates this fact-denying dynamic than the reaction of Bush supporters to Bill Clinton's now-famous interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace.

One right-wing pundit after the next has claimed that the prominent reemergence of Bill Clinton into our nation's political debates is somehow harmful to Democrats generally, and to Hillary specifically, because it reminds Americans of Clinton's deficiencies as president. But that view is premised on a belief that is the opposite of reality. In stark contrast to George W. Bush and Republicans generally, Bill Clinton is highly popular among a wide cross section of Americans, without question one of the most admired living political figures in the country.

A July 2006 Time poll asked Americans: "Based on what you remember from President Clinton's administration, do you approve or disapprove of the job Bill Clinton did in handling his job as president?" Seventy percent said they approved, while a mere 27 percent disapproved. Clinton was a very popular while in office and has become even more popular since. How could a rational person argue that the reemergence of such a popular Democratic figure could be harmful to Democrats and helpful to Republicans?

Republicans appear to have gravely miscalculated in provoking Bill Clinton into the debate over the Bush administration's terrorism policies. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, most Democrats have refrained from aggressively blaming the administration for the attacks, blame that could easily be assigned by exploiting two simple facts -- 1) the 9/11 attacks happened while Bush, not Clinton, was president and 2) Bush received the Aug. 6 presidential daily briefing embarrassingly titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" and apparently did nothing in response. With some scattered exceptions, both parties seemed content more or less to maintain a truce with regard to casting blame for the 9/11 attacks by agreeing that few people in either party recognized the magnitude of this threat until those attacks happened.

But ABC's broadcast of the right-wing propaganda film "Path to 9/11" forced into the public discourse a comparison of Bush vs. Clinton on the question of terrorism. And the subsequent attempts by right-wing pundits and "journalists" to heap the blame for terrorism on the Clinton administration left Clinton with no choice but defending himself aggressively. Following the Wallace interview, Condoleezza Rice accused Clinton of making statements about the Bush administration's pre-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts (or lack thereof), which Rice said were "flatly false," comments that in turn prompted an aggressive response from Hillary Clinton.

As Peter Baker put it in this morning's Washington Post: "The election year debate has triggered a full-blown spat between the camps of President Bush and former president Bill Clinton as the two sides trade barbs over who was more responsible for failing to disrupt al-Qaeda before it could attack the United States on Sept. 11, 2001." But it seems foolish on its face for Republicans to pit their highly unpopular president against a highly popular Democratic ex-president, particularly when it comes to assigning blame for attacks that occurred on the Republicans' watch. And polling data is beginning to illustrate just how foolish of a fight this was for the GOP to pick.

A new Gallup poll, released today, reveals that a solid majority of "the American public [53-36 percent] puts the primary blame on Bush rather than Clinton for the fact that [Osama] bin Laden has not been captured." And while Democrats and Republicans predictably split on this question along partisan lines, independents overwhelmingly blame Bush over Clinton (58-31 percent).

Not only is Clinton the most popular Democratic politician, he is also one of the smartest, shrewdest and most articulate. The last thing Republicans ought to want to do is force him into the public arena, particularly on the question of whether the Bush administration's anti-terrorism credentials -- its only perceived strength -- really are as sterling as the media generally depicts them to be. But it seems likely they will pay a substantial price for that decision.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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