As Hillary Clinton herself might put it, it is frankly naïve to be surprised when convenient historical revisions come out of Bill Clinton’s mouth.
The latest retroactive adjustment is Bill’s claim at an Iowa event this week that he “approved of Afghanistan and opposed Iraq from the beginning”—a revelation to the many anti-war activists who received no public help from the former President back in 2002 and 2003 when they were pilloried and ridiculed for their views.
“What does it mean to oppose it if you don’t verbally say you are against the war?” a baffled Chris Matthews wondered on his MSNBC show on Wednesday.
It means that you’re dealing with Bill Clinton, the same guy who smoked marijuana without inhaling and who maneuvered his way out of Vietnam only to declare with a straight face, “I put myself into the draft. I didn’t take it out.”
Some of Mr. Clinton’s defenders have pointed to a few quotes from 2003 that, they insist, validate Mr. Clinton’s claim in its entirety. Of course, they ignore other quotes that suggest just the opposite, just as they ignore what is glaringly obvious to anyone whose memory extends back to the start of this decade: When the Bush White House was beating the drums for war, Bill Clinton was silent.
We’ve been down this road before.
The 1992 presidential race, you may recall, played out in the aftermath of the triumphant first Gulf War. Unlike the current Iraq war, which was rubber-stamped by a bipartisan majority (including, of course, Hillary Clinton), the Gulf War was a matter of fierce Congressional debate, with only 11 Senate Democrats voting to authorize it. (The resolution cleared on a 54-46 vote.)
When the Gulf War ended quickly and with few American casualties, it was deemed a rousing success. And, needless to say, Mr. Clinton was happy to proclaim to the country in the ’92 general election that he had been one of the few members of his party with the foresight and toughness to support the war from the beginning.
“I supported the Gulf War, and supported being firm with Saddam Hussein,” he boasted just after claiming the Democratic nomination in July 1992.
This posture helped immeasurably as he neutralized George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy advantage and changed the subject to the domestic economy, where the incumbent President was supremely vulnerable.
It was also blatantly disingenuous. As the Governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton—unlike a member of Congress—was under no obligation to take a position on the war before it began. And he didn’t. He made no public statements about the pending military action until January 14, 1991—after the Congressional vote and just as fighting was about to commence—when an Arkansas newspaper pinned him down and demanded comment.
“I guess I would have voted with the majority (in Congress), if it was a close vote,” he said. “But I agree with the arguments the minority made.”
It’s not unlike the saga of the 1993 Clinton budget, his first as President. Now, he hails it as one of the triumphs of his presidency, a principled victory for him from which the country reaped enormous dividends. But he didn’t feel nearly so strongly about it back in those days.
The story actually begins in 1992, when Mr. Clinton, the empathetic Arkansan began his presidential quest in New Hampshire, a state socked in the gut by the recession of the early ‘90s.
He traversed New Hampshire promising tax relief to any family making less than $80,000 a year and promising to pay for it all with a tax hike on only those making more than $200,000. When his chief opponent, Paul Tsongas, said that the plan was fiscally reckless—Presidents Reagan and Bush had spent the previous 12 years tacking more than $3 trillion onto the debt, after all—Mr. Clinton reacted angrily, defending his plan and using his opponent’s critique to justify an expensive series of attack ads against Tsongas.
But just weeks into his presidency, Mr. Clinton addressed the country to announce that an unanticipated deficit would prevent him from delivering the middle-class tax cut he had campaigned on—this after he’d savaged Tsongas and others for saying the deficit was too large for a sweeping tax cut. And he called for tax hikes that extended farther down the economic ladder than the ones he’d championed during the campaign.