The Clinton Puzzle: Why Do Liberals Love Him So?
In advance of Bill Clinton’s visit to Princeton University yesterday, the campus newspaper agreed to publish an opinion piece by jurisprudence professor Robert P. George that was critical of the president. When conference planners learned of the agreement, they prevailed upon the editors of the Daily Princetonian not to publish his piece on the day of the visit. We are pleased to print it here.
By Robert P. George. Mr. George is a professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.
Liberals love Bill Clinton; conservatives loathe him. No surprise there, some might say. Yet if one considers any number of things Mr. Clinton has done over the past decade, something of a puzzle emerges.
After all, Mr. Clinton brought Trent Lott’s political consultant, Dick Morris, into the White House and faithfully executed his strategy of “triangulation.” The result was the marginalization and demoralization of liberal Democrats in Congress. The president declared the end of “big government” and signed legislation ending the federal welfare entitlement. He joined Republicans in pushing through both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Mr. Clinton retained the Republican-appointed Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve. He successfully pressed for trade policies with China that were favored by U.S. business interests and bitterly opposed by labor and human-rights activists. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, proposed a victims’ rights amendment to the Constitution and promoted school uniforms. He aggressively supported the death penalty, even staging a high-profile return to Arkansas in the middle of the 1992 New Hampshire primary to sign a warrant to execute Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged death-row inmate.
Yet, despite all these actions, Mr. Clinton can go to Hollywood, or come to Princeton, and count on being cheered by adoring crowds of liberals. Meanwhile, the dislike and distrust of conservatives seems not to be softened in the least by his embrace of welfare reform, free trade and other Republican policies, not to mention the economic prosperity of the past eight years.
What is going on here?
I put the question to myself. Why do I, a conservative academic, think so ill of Bill Clinton? (Perhaps the answer will explain why liberals like him so much.) Why don’t I adopt the attitude that this guy hasn’t been all that bad, and that liberals are fools to imagine that he is their champion?
The answer is that I disapprove of Mr. Clinton, and I suspect other conservatives do too, because he is an unprincipled and deeply dishonorable man.
The long list of Mr. Clinton’s knavery links matters of policy to questions of character. At the top of the list is partial-birth abortion. The president twice vetoed acts of Congress that would have prohibited abortionists from killing babies that are partially delivered from their mothers’ bodies. Then he shamelessly lied about the alleged medical necessity of this heinous procedure.
And his lying was entirely in character. Many politicians lie, but few match Bill Clinton (though Al Gore seems to be giving it the old college try) in the frequency or audacity of his lies. He is truly a master of prevarication — an “unusually good” liar, as Democratic Sen. Bob Kerry famously put it.
Even as a young man, Mr. Clinton was able to lie his way out of military service and then lie his way out of paying a political price for this in the conservative state of Arkansas. But even “good” liars sometimes get caught. And he was caught lying under oath in an effort to ward off the disgrace of a tawdry affair with a White House intern in the precincts of the Oval Office. The result was his impeachment and an unprecedented — and uncontested — citation for contempt of court.
Of course, the Clinton spin is that impeachment was the illegitimate fruit of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” But even people who entertain the fantasy that Kenneth Starr was a mere tool in the hands of Richard Mellon Scaife know that without Mr. Clinton’s manifest perjury and obstruction of justice impeachment could not have happened.
Both Mr. Clinton’s impeachment and his fine for contempt of court were for crimes against the administration of justice, not (as the Clinton spin would have it) for his private misbehavior. But, as Joseph Lieberman remarked long before the substance and scope of Mr. Clinton’s mendacity became clear, his reckless sexual immorality was itself a betrayal of the public trust.
Take, for example, Mr. Clinton’s mistreatment of the many women who were the objects of his interest. Are Gennifer Flowers, Dolly Kyle Browning and Elizabeth Ward Gracen all liars, as Mr. Clinton would have us believe? His supporters say that these women consented to affairs with Mr. Clinton and that he has a right to impugn them to protect himself from their “kissing and telling.” But what about Paula Jones? There was nothing consensual in her relationship with Mr. Clinton. She’s “trailer park trash,” they say. But then what about Kathleen Willey? She never lived in a mobile home.
And then there is Juanita Broaddrick. Her allegation against the president is truly shocking. She has consistently maintained (first privately and then — in response to the White House’s propaganda onslaught against other women — publicly) that Mr. Clinton, while attorney general of Arkansas, raped her. David Kendall, Mr. Clinton’s lawyer, says this isn’t true. (The president himself refuses to make a statement.)
But why should we believe that Bill Clinton is the innocent victim and Juanita Broaddrick is guilty of malicious defamation? She has no established reputation for lying. She has no record of perjury. Why, incidentally, should we not apply the presumptions and standards of proof that Mr. Clinton himself applied in the case of Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas? Anyone applying those presumptions and standards cannot but conclude, “I believe Juanita.”
Yet, if all of this explains why conservatives abhor the president, why do liberals like him? Why do so many feminists, of all people, treat him as a hero? Even if one chooses to disbelieve Ms. Broaddrick, we are left with a trail of betrayal and dishonorable treatment of women. But far from condemning Mr. Clinton, most liberals, and even feminists, adulate him. During impeachment, Gloria Steinem was reduced to the absurdity of defending the president by way of a theory that would give powerful predatory men, as a critic put it, “one free grope.”
To account for Mr. Clinton’s standing among feminists and liberals generally, we need to go back to partial-birth abortion, indeed to abortion in general, and, even more fundamentally to the ideology of “lifestyle freedom” that abortion crucially underwrites. As one Clinton supporter in the media put it in commenting on the Lewinsky affair: “I would gladly give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.”
Many feminists and other liberals perceive their entire worldview, in which elective abortion and sexual freedom figure centrally, to be at risk from conservatives. At some level, they know that Mr. Clinton is a knave, but they think of him as “our knave.” In terms of sexual liberation he is “fully with the program.” If “our Bill” occasionally finds it necessary to throw a bone to the right wing dogs to keep them at bay (by, for example, signing the Defense of Marriage Act), most liberals understand — and forgive. They perceive him, after all, as a bulwark, standing between them and the “ayatollahs” of the religious right.
Indeed, the more deeply conservatives loathe Mr. Clinton, the more thoroughly persuaded liberals are that he is their soulmate and protector. The enemy of their enemy must, they suppose, be their friend. That a man of Mr. Clinton’s bad character would sell them out in an instant if it would serve his ambitions or his appetites — this never seems to cross their minds, not even when he does sell them out. But they can at least have confidence that Mr. Clinton’s ambitions and appetites, in the end, will line up pretty well with the matters they care about most passionately.