Romney's Bill Clinton gambit

He's praising the former president to paint Obama as a liberal – and to court his devotees. Why it won't work

Published May 16, 2012 11:00AM (EDT)

         (Reuters/Jim Young)
(Reuters/Jim Young)

Desperate Mitt Romney is not only taking credit for the auto bailout he opposed, and pretending to be a "job creator" rather than a Bain Capital job destroyer. Now he's regularly praising former President Bill Clinton as a centrist whose legacy has been betrayed by the "liberal" President Obama. Actual liberals laugh, but can Romney's gambit work?

Of course not, but Mitt's not giving up.

In Lansing, Mich., last week, Romney derided Obama as an "old school liberal" compared to Clinton, whom he called a "new Democrat." Where Clinton "said the era of big government was over, President Obama brought it back with a vengeance," Romney told a crowd of college students. A campaign official told CNN that Obama "really turned his back" on Clinton's policies, including welfare reform and middle-class tax cuts.

Huh? Of course Obama cut taxes for the middle class in the 2009 Recovery Act, which Republicans consistently lie about, and Clinton controversially raised taxes on high earners (Romney would lower them) to cut the deficit in 1993. Meanwhile, Obama has left President Clinton's welfare reform alone, despite rising rates of poverty and unemployment in the recession.

On Tuesday Romney took his attack up a notch, suggesting that "a personal beef" between the two men accounts for Obama allegedly rejecting Clinton's centrism.

According to Romney, Clinton understood that "Democrats should no longer try to govern by proposing a new program for every problem. President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship. It’s enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons ... but really it runs much deeper."

There he is again, mean ol' Mitt, trying to hype reports of personal tension between the last two Democratic presidents. It's silly. Nobody denies there was trouble on the 2008 campaign trail during the Democratic primary, when the former president smarted at Obama camp charges that his overenthusiastic support for his wife's candidacy, and diminishing of Obama's, smacked of racism. And today, nobody suggests that the two guys are sneaking off to basketball games together or planning their next joint family trips. But whatever personal strain may persist, they put their problems behind them a long time ago.

Clinton stumped enthusiastically for Obama in 2008, and on behalf of the president and beleaguered Democrats in the 2010 midterms. Who can forget the current president calling on the past president to help him sell the idea of a compromise on the Bush tax cuts (to liberals, by the way) in December 2010 – and then walking away and leaving Clinton by himself at the lectern happily holding forth with the White House press corps (as Obama reportedly went off and did some Christmas shopping)? Currently Clinton is, of course, working hard to help Obama beat Romney. He recently attacked the presumptive Republican nominee for backing failed Bush policies "on steroids."

As to the notion that Clinton was a centrist and Obama is a liberal: I think they're both politicians with liberal hearts and centrist political instincts, working to make life better for the non-wealthy in an age when Republicans have become strident, extremist servants of the super-rich. President Clinton raised taxes on the rich. He signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, belatedly letting parents take time off after the birth of a child or when needed by a sick family member.  He let Newt Gingrich's GOP shut down the government rather than agree to Medicare cuts; on that point, he might be more traditionally liberal than Obama, who entertained the idea of Medicare cuts while trying to get a "grand bargain" on the deficit last summer. (Since then, though, Clinton himself has come out in support of Simpson-Bowles, which would trim Medicare.)

Clinton vastly expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is one main reason why low-income people don't pay any federal withholding taxes – a scandal (according to all the GOP presidential contenders) that Romney's tax plan would remedy by imposing taxes on low-wage earners. The EITC is the absolute best proof that it's Romney who's moved away from the appealing mainstream ideas of his party's past, not Obama. The low-wage tax credit Clinton and Obama expanded was originally a Republican notion (inspired by Milton Friedman) to make poorly paying jobs an alternative to welfare. Signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford, it was expanded by George H.W. Bush, and also supported by George W. Bush.

It's true that Clinton tried to pioneer a "Third Way" attempt at Democratic centrism, balancing the budget and ending "welfare as we know it." He thought if he met increasingly radical Republicans halfway, the country might make progress. He thought wrong. Instead Romney's party attacked the man Romney now purports to admire; attacked him viciously, from Day One, culminating in a nihilistic effort at impeachment for sexual indiscretions that are common in Washington, D.C.

What Romney is really trying to do now, of course, is cause trouble with the segment of the electorate that admired Hillary Clinton but took a while to warm up to Barack Obama in 2008, particularly the white working class, as well as white female Democrats and independents. I don't see it working. I'm on record saying repeatedly that dismissing Clinton's support with working-class whites as merely racism was mistaken and divisive when Democrats did it four years ago. Working-class voters had valid reasons to doubt the charismatic newcomer whose economic platform was marginally less progressive than Clinton's, and who talked riskily – and naively, as it turned out – of a post-partisan rapprochement with Republicans.

But that doesn't make those voters easy targets for Romney. His record as Bain Capital job destroyer combined with his enduring prep-school entitlement should make him less simpatico than Obama to those voters. Romney lacks Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" empathy for working-class folks; he comes across as the guy who's more likely to cause them pain.

Oh, and Romney, by the way, wasn't always such a Clinton admirer. In his book "Turnaround," he tells the story of visiting the White House in 1999, while Clinton was president (h/t Andrew Kaczynski):

When we got through the Secret Service checkpoint for clearance at the West Wing, the agent handed each of us a badge to wear around our necks. Mine had a big, red A. I turned to Cindy and, in front of the agents, said, “Why do I have to wear this?” Thinking I was confused, she tried to explain that all visitors to the White House had to wear a badge. “I know that,” I responded, “I’m asking why I have to wear the red A around my neck. I’m not the one that cheated on my wife. He should be wearing the scarlet A- not me.” I grumbled all the way up the drive and into the West Wing lobby. The look on Cindy’s face was priceless.

What a jokester! What a hypocrite.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections Bill Clinton Mitt Romney