Clinton revisionism will cost the right

Using Bill and Hillary to try to win this year’s election could cost the GOP dearly in the next one

Published August 16, 2012 12:26PM (EDT)

The controversy over the “chains” metaphor that Joe Biden used in a speech earlier this week has given Republicans another excuse to engage in one of their favorite Obama-era past-times: Talking up the Clintons.

In this case, it’s Hillary who is the subject of their rhetorical largesse, with several Republicans claiming that Biden’s comment should prompt President Obama to make a running-mate switch.

Sarah Palin, for instance, branded Biden’s remark “disgusting” during a Fox News appearance Tuesday night and said, "If that's not the nail in the coffin, really, the strategists there in the Obama campaign have got to look at a diplomatic way of replacing Joe Biden on the ticket with Hillary.” Fox’s Neil Cavuto was then able to refer back to this in a Wednesday interview with John McCain, who gamely played along by saying that it “might be wise” for Obama to swap Clinton in for Biden.

“But that’s not going to happen,” McCain quickly added, “for a whole variety of reasons.”

He’s right about that, it should go without saying. But the Palin and McCain comments, and the eagerness of Fox News, the leading opinion-shaping organ on the Republican side, to promote them, is the latest example of how Barack Obama’s 2008 victory altered the right’s relationship with the Clintons.

As I’ve written before, you can almost pinpoint the moment Bill and Hillary stopped serving as villains in conservative storytelling. For 16 years, starting with Bill’s rise in 1992 and extending well into the 2008 campaign, the right regarded the Clintons as the faces of the national Democratic Party and treated them accordingly – an almost never-ending stream of attacks designed first to strip them of power and then to prevent them from reclaiming it. But when it became apparent in the spring of ’08 that Obama would be supplanting them as the Democrats’ leader, they revised history almost overnight: Suddenly, the Clintons embodied a bygone spirit of bipartisanship and political moderation that the radical, far-left Obama was intent on destroying.

This has been a politically useful framing for Republicans these past few years. It’s added a whiff of reasonableness to their relentless criticisms of Obama. See, we’re not against all Democrats – we actually think Bill was a good president, and that Hillary would be a lot better than Obama! Accordingly, Bill and Hillary have featured prominently in Mitt Romney’s speeches and ads and in general Republican talking points.

But there’s a flip-side to all of this: Republicans could be setting themselves up for trouble in the post-Obama era. Just consider the effect that GOP’s decision to treat the Clintons as friends has had on their political standing. A recent poll gave Bill his highest personal popularity since his presidential honeymoon in early 1993. It’s the same story for Hillary who, but for a brief period during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, has never enjoyed favorable scores like she’s had for the last three years. Look closely at Hillary’s popularity trendlines, in fact, and you can see that the favorable and unfavorable lines begin their dramatic divergence in the middle of ’08 – almost exactly when the right’s revisionism began.

This could come back to bite Republicans in a few weeks, when Bill delivers a primetime speech at the Democratic convention. Republicans have helped to make him one of the country’s most well-liked public figures, which will give his endorsement of Obama and any accompanying criticisms of Romney more weight.

But the real problem for the GOP is longer-term. Whether Obama wins or loses this fall, the Democratic nomination will be open in 2016. And with the popularity and respect she’s gained the past few years, Hillary will loom over that race as the overwhelming favorite – much more so than she did in the run-up to ’08, when many Democrats were concerned she’d be too polarizing.

Yes, if and when the Clintons return to day to day politics, the right will stop treating them nicely and the attacks will pick up again. Those record-setting favorable scores won’t last long. But that will be the result of Republican voters turning moving away from them, at least at first. But with middle-of-the-road voters, who have been encouraged by both parties to fall back in love with the Clintons these past few years, it could be a different story. In other words, using the Clintons to try to win this year’s election could make it harder for Republicans to prevail in the next one.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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