News flash: Progressives discover hypocrisy in their own ranks

Quite a while back, I wrote about the sudden conservative infatuation with the War Powers Resolution, a deep constitutional concern that didn’t seem to bother the Right when George W. Bush was invading Iraq, but was all the rage once it was that liberal Harvard-trained lawyer in the White House jumping on the “bomb Libya” bandwagon. I will now smugly congratulate myself on my own consistency here, and note that I have always been against any use of the War Powers Resolution — and so advised Senator John Heinz during the 1991 Gulf War — both because I think it is unconstitutional and because I think it’s a dangerously stupid law.

In the first post I ever put up on this blog, I defended the Libyan operation as something that transcended — or should have transcended — partisanship. It was the right thing to do; and I believed then, as now, that the War Powers flap was just a smokescreen. The raising of the WPR by some Congressional Republicans during the Libyan operation was deeply hypocritical, especially considering that conservatives, in general, have been supportive of pretty broad executive power when it comes to military operations.

Anyway, that’s old news. Now it’s the liberals’ turn.

They are shocked — shocked — to discover such startling hypocrisy in their own ranks. And the Schadenfreude, after years of hearing them fume over how the war on terrorists was conducted under W, is overwhelming.

Excuse me while I wag.

Writing in Salon last weekGlenn Greenwald(whose views no one could ever mistake for being remotely close to mine) unleashed some serious and righteous progressive rage against his fellow liberals. As it turns out, many of the same people who screamed “abuse of power” when Bush 43 tried to — well, do anything — are now born-again ass-kickers who see no problem with drone-striking the living crap out of people, American citizens or otherwise, if they’ve ended up on that mystical document known as the President’s kill list. A majority of self-identified liberal Democrats are also in favor of keeping Guantanamo open, but the drone war is what’s really scraping Greenwald’s carrot:

Repulsive liberal hypocrisy extends far beyond the issue of Guantanamo. A core plank in the Democratic critique of the Bush/Cheney civil liberties assault was the notion that the President could do whatever he wants, in secret and with no checks, to anyone he accuses without trial of being a Terrorist – even including eavesdropping on their communications or detaining them without due process. But President Obama has not only done the same thing, but has gone much farther than mere eavesdropping or detention: he has asserted the power even to kill citizens without due process. As Bush’s own CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden said this week about the Awlaki assassination: “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on him but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?” That is indeed “something,” as is the fact that Bush’s mere due-process-free eavesdropping on and detention of American citizens caused such liberal outrage, while Obama’s due-process-free execution of them has not. [emphases and links original]

I can’t tell what’s more wince-inducing: the fact that self-identified liberals are throwing off their own principles like a taffeta dress on prom night, or that hard-core progressive like Greenwald are stunned by it. This kind of double-standard has been the hallmark of mainstream liberalism, and especially of the U.S. news media, for a long time. Conservatives have shouted themselves hoarse trying to get this noticed, and I can only say to Greenwald what John McClane said in Die Hard:

On the other hand, I have to admire Greenwald for getting right in the face of his fellow progressives (although I note that this latest round of outrage is coming well after what Newsweek, in its fair-and-balanced way, called “the second coming” of Barack Obama).

Still, Greenwald’s a scrappy guy, and he didn’t mince words:

Obama has used drones to kill Muslim children and innocent adults by the hundreds. He has refused to disclose his legal arguments for why he can do this or to justify the attacks in any way. He has even had rescuers and funeral mourners deliberately targeted. As [former CIA director Michael] Hayden said: ”Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.” But that is all perfectly fine with most American liberals now that their Party’s Leader is doing it….

The Democratic Party owes a sincere apology to George Bush, Dick Cheney and company for enthusiastically embracing many of the very Terrorism policies which caused them to hurl such vehement invective at the GOP for all those years. And progressives who support the views of the majority as expressed by this poll should never be listened to again the next time they want to pretend to oppose civilian slaughter and civil liberties assaults when perpetrated by the next Republican President.

Wow. Well, okay. I’m not going to disagree on that last part, although I suspect I’ll be typing this blog on a block of ice in Hell before the DNC gets that apology out to the Bush ranch.

Now, Greenwald blames all this on blind leader-worship, which he thinks is a poison in our body politic. He has a point, especially among twits like Touré (the young writer whose one-word French name is, erm, how you say, tres prétentieuse) who clearly has no idea whether he supports drone strikes or doesn’t, and probably can’t pick which earth-friendly sweetener to use in his [insert trendy drink of the moment here] without asking for notes from the White House. It’s one thing to admire and support a political figure, it’s another to be a mindless fan-boy. (Hey, remember how some people hated it when Republicans wanted to name everything bigger than a toaster after Ronald Reagan? Yeah, like that.)

But I think there’s more to it, and my villain in all this isn’t Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan or even St. John Kennedy. No, the guy I think we have to blame here is Bill Clinton.

Wait, Clinton? I can hear it already: Come on, Tom, leave Bubba out of this. He’s the best ex-President since Jimmy Carter. (Low bar to clear, but okay.)

The reason I think Clinton deserves a lot of the blame for the collapse of any standards among liberals is because he, more than any figure in the modern era of American politics, institutionalized the idea that winning is more important than principle.

That’s not to say he was the first who tried: Richard Nixon made the most frightening run at the “win-at-all-costs” model of the presidency, but he lacked the charm and solid partisan support Clinton could command. (Let’s remember that when it came time to step down, it was a group of Republicans who came to Nixon and told him he was cooked.) And although Nixon returned to public life in the 1980s, he was never again welcomed in polite GOP company.

Clinton, by contrast, shredded every principle the Democrats held dear. This is the guy who told off Sister Souljah, who took a break during the 1992 campaign to approve the execution of a mentally retarded prisoner in Arkansas, who backtracked on a campaign promise to allow Haitian refugees to come to America before he was even sworn in, who as President worked with his partner, Newt Gingrich, to dump Aid For Dependent Children and “end welfare as we know it,” who made a mockery of feminism by hiding behind the skirts of his wife and his female Cabinet members when he was caught sexually exploiting the staff, and who told the United Nations to get lost when he and Tony Blair led NATO to war in Kosovo.

Don’t get me wrong: except for his disgusting personal behavior, I had no problem with most of Clinton’s policies, especially his cooperation with a GOP Congress on the budget and his willingness to engage in preventive force against a genocidal regime in Europe. I was especially relieved once he dropped the Cone of Silence over Al Gore and took Hillary’s heath care task force behind the barn and shot it. Back during the 1996 election, one of my most liberal colleagues at Dartmouth — a good friend, actually, with whom I did Election Night radio commentary for the student network — was teasing me about how easily Clinton was going to roll to re-election. My answer was to say that a moderate Republican was going to win the 1996 election, it was just a matter of which one. My friend, in anguish, said: “Goddamn it, I know.”

Clinton knew exactly what he wanted out of politics: to get re-elected. And if that meant selling out his friends on the left…well, he was from Arkansas, and they’d just have to understand. Republicans do it too: Reagan talked a good game to the right-wing evangelicals in 1980, and by 1984 they were furious that he hadn’t turned America into a tent meeting. (As one of Reagan’s advisors was rumored to have said: “What are they gonna do? Vote for Mondale?”)

But on most issues, especially on his core commitment to anti-communism, Reagan was virtually unshakeable. He’s the one that kept putting “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” into his 1987 Berlin speech; it was his staff, including Colin Powell, who kept taking it out. (Powell’s Nerf-like political principles are on display in all their cheap glory these days as Powell has now discovered racism in the same GOP that made him the first African-American Secretary of State.)

Love them or hate them, conservatives tend to be more consistent in their ideological views: in fact, I’d argue that the hardest attachment to conservative principle is actually what gets them in trouble or leads them to make dumb moves. Think of the scalding that Mitt Romney had to take during the GOP primaries for being a “moderate from Massachusetts,” as though that was like being a “Bolshevik from Ulan Bator” or something. From Bush 41′s “Read My Lips” pledge to Romney’s kamikaze “self-deportation” immigration policy, conservatives get into quicksand when they stick to what they think is right against all political possibility. (And when they try to reconcile principle and reality, we get the complete scramble of positions on abortion found throughout the GOP.)

Clinton was praised for being flexible, but in reality, he raised ideological flexibility beyond mere pragmatism, and systematically threw each principle and constituency under the bus as he saw fit to ensure his own political survival.

And it worked.

Today, Bubba could win a third term without breaking a sweat; Hillary is one of the most admired people in America, although I’d guess that most people can’t explain why they feel that way, and she has negatives that will always stick to her — rightly — in a way that Bill’s never had to worry about.

Once Clinton eviscerated the soul of the Democratic Party, all that was left was reflexive opposition to anything Republicans did, especially anything that came from W, whom the Left hates with a passion. (My theory is that they hate him largely because they know that he doesn’t care what intellectuals think about anything. Ignoring their opinion is the only thing Presidents can do that’s really insulting to members of the bloviating class like Paul Krugman, who’s convinced no one takes a pee at 1600 Pennsylvania without reading the Times op-eds first.)

That’s why the election of 2008 was remarkably content-free. No one really cared if Obama was going to shut down Gitmo; his supporters just wanted him to win, because winning feels great. Governing? Well, we’ll get to that, after the party!

I actually think it’s to the President’s everlasting credit that he decided to change course and blow those promises off once he got to the White House and found out that governing was a lot more complicated than it seems, and that maybe you shouldn’t follow through on things you said when you were just riling up the locals in some Wal-Mart parking lot in East Cupcake, Ohio.

Four years later, think about the election of 2012: Romney and Obama nearly burst every blood vessel in their heads trying to portray themselves as different, when in fact there wasn’t, if I may cop George Wallace’s phrase, a dime’s worth of difference between them. Greenwald, no doubt echoing the agony of a lot of progressives, gets it (although I said it first): American foreign policy has now settled into a right, or center-right, groove for the foreseeable future:

[P]olicies that enjoy the status of bipartisan consensus are removed from the realm of mainstream challenge. That’s what Barack Obama has done to these Bush/Cheney policies: he has, as Jack Goldsmith predicted he would back in 2009, shielded and entrenched them as standard U.S. policy for at least a generation, and (by leading his supporters to embrace these policies as their own) has done so with far more success than any GOP President ever could have dreamed of achieving.

Yep. But don’t blame Obama. This has been coming for a long time.

By the way, Clinton earned over $75 million in speaking fees in 2011. Good for him. Capitalism works. (Just ask Al Gore, who sold Current TV to oil-rich…oh, the hell with it. Who cares about Gore?) Liberal or not, Clinton understands the concept of self-interest in a way that should awe even hardened conservatives.

But if you’re a liberal who shudders every time a drone hits a U.S. citizen in a foreign country, don’t blame President Obama or even President Bush. You can blame an imperfect world, where rotten things happen and where rotten things have to be done. But you can also blame Bill Clinton, who took hypocrisy and turned it from a vice into a virtual art form, all in the name of winning.

In short, Obama’s foreign policy is to the right of George Bush’s. If you’re an honest liberal, and you hated this kind of military activity when Bush did it, then you should hate it now. (Likewise, if you’re an honest conservative, you should be grateful that Obama has chosen to continue a program that’s killing bad guys.) But if you’re a recent convert to “cruise-missile liberalism,” especially if you’re a journo…well, Glenn Greenwald has a message for you.

Now excuse me. I have to get back to wagging.

About the author