WASHINGTON--It was a remarkable moment: A young, free-thinking presidential hopeful named Bill Clinton sat down with reporters and editors at The Washington Post in October 1991 and started saying things most Democrats wouldn't allow to pass their lips.
Ronald Reagan, Clinton said, deserved credit for winning the Cold War. He praised Reagan's "rhetoric in defense of freedom" and his role in "advancing the idea that communism could be rolled back."
"The idea that we were going to stand firm and reaffirm our containment strategy, and the fact that we forced them to spend even more when they were already producing a Cadillac defense system and a dinosaur economy, I think it hastened their undoing," Clinton declared.
Clinton was careful to add that the Reagan military program included "a lot of wasted money and unnecessary expenditure," but the signal had been sent: Clinton was willing to move beyond "the brain-dead politics in both parties," as he so often put it.
His apostasy was widely noticed. The Memphis Commercial Appeal praised Clinton two days later for daring to "set himself apart from the pack of contenders for the Democratic nomination by saying something nice about Ronald Reagan." Clinton's "readiness to defy his party's prevailing Reaganphobia and admit it," the paper wrote, "is one reason he's a candidate to watch."
I have been thinking about that episode ever since Hillary Clinton's campaign started unloading on Barack Obama for making statements about Reagan that were, if anything, more measured than Bill Clinton's 1991 comments. Obama simply acknowledged Reagan's long-term impact on politics, and the fact that conservatives once constituted the camp producing new ideas, flawed though they were.
Obama's not particularly original insight was a central premise of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Clinton argued over and over that Democrats could not win without new ideas of their own. To reread Clinton's "New Covenant" speeches from back then is to be reminded of how electrifying it was to hear a politician who was willing to break new ground.
That's why the Clintons' assault on Obama is so depressing. In many ways, Obama is running the 2008 version of the 1992 Clinton campaign. You have the feeling that if Bill Clinton did not have another candidate in this contest, he'd be advising Obama and cheering him on.
Let's grant the Clintons their claims: The press is tougher on Hillary Clinton than it is on Barack Obama; the old, irrational Clinton hatred is alive and well in certain parts of the media; Hillary Clinton gets hit harder when she criticizes Obama than Obama does when he goes after her.
Let's further stipulate that Obama's formulation--he said Reagan "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not"--was guaranteed to enrage the former president. In Democratic circles, associating someone with Nixon is akin to a Roman comparing an emperor with Caligula.
None of it justifies the counterproductive behavior. Does anyone doubt that if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, she will need the votes of the young people and African-Americans who have rallied to Obama--and that what she's doing now will make it harder to energize them? Doesn't calling in Bill Clinton as the lead attacker merely underscore Obama's central theme, that it's time to "turn the page" on our Bush-Clinton-Bush political past?
And with both Clintons on record saying kind things about Reagan, why go after Obama on the point? Honestly: If Obama is a Reaganite, then I am a salamander.
Yet there was Hillary Clinton's campaign, unveiling a radio ad on Wednesday implying that Obama bought into such ideas as "refusing to raise the minimum wage." Come on, guys.
The worst thing about all this is what both Clintons are doing to their own legacy as pioneers of an approach that rejected, as Bill Clinton said in a 1991 speech, "the stale orthodoxies of left and right." The great asset shared by both Clintons is their willingness to bring fresh thinking to old problems.
"Our new choice plainly rejects the old categories and false alternatives they impose," Bill Clinton added in that 1991 address in which he offered a long list of new ideas. "Is what I just said to you liberal or conservative? The truth is, it is both, and it is different. It rejects the Republicans' attacks and the Democrats' previous unwillingness to consider new alternatives."
Pretty good stuff, still. Why should either Clinton attack Obama for facing some of the same truths that both of them taught their party so long ago?
By E.J. Dionne Jr.