comscore Some Republicans find soft spot for Bill Clinton

Some Republicans find soft spot for Bill Clinton

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WASHINGTON » Many Republicans with a deep animus for President Barack Obama find their hearts aflutter with the memory of a former leader. He was a compassionate conservative, a guy who cared about free trade, a man who reached across the aisle.

He is the husband of the secretary of state.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch recently said that former President Bill Clinton "will go down in history as a better president" than the sitting one. Sean Hannity of Fox News, who has verbally abused Clinton for years, recently referred to him as "good old Bill." Republicans in Congress have begun speaking of him with respect, even pining.

"I enjoy Bill Clinton," Rep. Paul D. Ryan, a six-term Republican from Wisconsin, said in an interview, echoing several colleagues. "The first two years of his term were one thing, but the rest of his presidency was tempered with moderation, and the nation benefited."

Um, there was that whole impeachment thing.

"Yeah, I don’t think about that too much," Ryan said, adding, "If it were not for Monica Lewinsky, I think we would have Social Security straightened out now."

In many ways, Republican nostalgia for Clinton is a brew of selective memory, convenient disregard for the bitter partisan battles that marked his tenure and longing for a time when major bipartisan legislation, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, was possible.

The wistfulness, however revisionist, for Clinton’s presidency raises interesting questions about how Obama would manage his legislative and political agenda should the Republicans take back the House next month.

Would he take a page from Clinton’s triangulation of his base to accomplish major legislation like welfare reform, trade agreements and tax policy? Or are the circumstances of each man’s original victory, true political proclivities and respective relationship to his supporters too disparate to find parallel outcomes?

"Barack Obama was nominated after a difficult primary process and won by rallying the left end of the base," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. "Clinton was quite consistent to who he was going to be. If Obama moves to the center it may be practical, but his base won’t like it. The $64,000 question is what is in his heart."

In some ways, Republicans are glomming on to Clinton, whose spokeswoman said he was traveling to Haiti and could not comment, at a high point in his post-presidency. Despite concerns that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s cabinet appointment would hinder his charitable foundation, it has continued to grow. At the United Nations last month, Clinton’s conference was the hottest ticket in town.

What is more, his recent description of Sarah Palin as "somebody to be reckoned with" earned him some kind words from Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, the right-of-center television host. (No small matter: Clinton beat relentlessly — some critics argued he went out of bounds — on Obama during the 2008 primary campaign.)

Even if what Republicans really hope for is to see Obama fail, they also speak with longing for a president who was able to toss aside his party’s orthodoxies, although they are often unwilling to do the same.

The circumstances are quite different now from the Clinton years, however. Clinton was an early and strong believer in welfare reform and free trade, for instance, and did not need Republicans to prod him on those matters. In contrast, Obama framed his agenda largely through the concept of "a new foundation," as he frequently said, which Republicans see as code for government expansion.

"President Clinton campaigned promising to be a different kind of Democrat," said William A. Galston, a former Clinton policy adviser. "I think it is fair to say that candidate Obama campaigned and won as the champion of the Democratic Party as a whole, and not a reformer within the Democratic Party."

And large budget surpluses in some Clinton years meant that every constituency could find something under its pillow: tax cuts for Republicans, entitlement expansions for Democrats and a balanced budget for America.

"Two things are much worse now," Galston said. "The state of the economy and the employment market and condition of the budget."

Politics and policy aside, there may also be a larger cultural division between the current president and his opposition, sometimes cast in code language.

"You know with Clinton the chemistry was right," said Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader. "He was a good old boy from Arkansas, I was a good old boy from Mississippi, and Newt, he was from Georgia. So he knew what I was about, and I knew where he was coming from."

Should Republicans retake the House, the two parties might find common ground. Policy experts and administration officials — who do not wish to publicly acknowledge the possibility of a Republican takeover — agree there could be deals on education, tax policy and even energy, absent a discussion of climate change.

"The big issue is the debt and how to deal with it," said John C. Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said, "We can give the president the excuse to do some of the things he wanted to do or realize have to be done."

Whether that would be palatable, or even possible, for Obama, is another question.

"Well," Lott said, "we’re fixing to find out."


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