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The GOP Strategy: Opponent Al and Nemesis Clinton

By Jacob Rowbottom - posted Saturday, 15 March 2003

With the primaries over Al Gore and George W. Bush are getting locked into what will be a long and hard fought presidential campaign. Putting the internal battles aside, people are now turning to see what issues are going to define the main race in the coming months. It has become clear that rather than focusing on the people seeking to enter the Oval Office, the GOP wants the agenda to center around the man leaving it.

Last week a friend received a letter from the Republican National Committee. The first sentence read:

"As you know, Bill Clinton is working non-stop to elect a hand-picked clone to succeed him in the Oval Office.

But we’re working to elect a president you don’t have to be ashamed of. A president who tells the truth. A president who will sign, not veto reform. A president with integrity."


The letter continues in the same vein, speaking about ‘eight low and shameful years’, of ‘eight years of Clinton-Gore gridlock’, and fearing the ‘Clinton-trained Democrat Party that will stop at nothing to win’. No Republican politician is referred to in the letter, but the word Clinton is mentioned seven times. What was the purpose of this high-minded letter? To persuade the reader to make a donation to the Republican National Committee – donations to be funneled into a soft money fund to help avoid the legal campaign finance restrictions.

Similar views about the President have been expressed throughout the 2000 campaign. In a TV ad John McCain claimed George W. Bush "twists the truth like Bill Clinton." An insult so grave in Republican circles that Bush had to respond with an ad of his own including the line: "You can disagree with me on issues but do not question my integrity and do not compare me to Bill Clinton." After every primary election victory Bush would declare that it marked the beginning of the end of the Clinton era (often followed by his trademark smug grin). While newspapers talk of voters suffering ‘Clinton fatigue’ – the syndrome has yet to affect the GOP, which seems more willing than ever to talk about him.

The rhetoric is surely a testament to Clinton’s remarkable skills as a politician. Even in an election where he isn’t a candidate, he has become a central focus for the campaign.

It’s funny that Bush is making Clinton a key part of his strategy. Nine months ago I remember commentators thinking that Bush was bound to win – because he reminded them of Bill Clinton. The view was that Bush had a similar relaxed charm that would make him stand out as the media friendly candidate. On the other hand, like Clinton, there was a fascination with Bush’s history – his fraternity days and rumors of cocaine use. In the intervening months he’s had quite a fall. With his apparent lack of grasp of the core issues and numerous gaffes, he is now closer to Dan Quayle than the President. At this stage his plea on television to "not compare me to Bill Clinton", seems like wishful thinking.

Under the GOP strategy, the attacks about Clinton are personal, focusing on individual characteristics like ‘integrity’. Surely these attacks shouldn’t hurt Al Gore, simply because he is not Bill Clinton. Such attacks would also be wasted given Gore’s image is whiter than white. But the GOP is not losing sight of their opponent. The goal of the Republican strategy is to re-construct Al Gore as inheriting Clinton’s perceived baggage. While the election should be about Al Gore, it is effectively to be turned into a referendum on Bill Clinton. The GOP essentially sees Al Gore as the opponent in the race, but Bill Clinton as the true enemy.

It is puzzling to think exactly what it is that makes the Republicans speak of Clinton with such malice. Political parties always have a bogeyman. For a Democrat, a jibe at Jesse Helms will always guarantee a round of applause. But often it tends to be the extremists that get attacked. Not pointing necessarily to the party leader but to a more radical figure within, and attempting to cast them as the true embodiment of the party. Yet this is not true of Clinton, a moderate whose stances often differ from Congressional Democrats. Wouldn’t it make more sense to attack Gore by arguing that he is in the pocket of the labor unions that have endorsed him, making an attack that at least pushes him to the margins on the left. Defining Gore alongside Clinton keeps the Vice-President in the center ground, exactly where Bush needs to position himself.


Also when George W. Bush talks of ‘ending the Clinton era’ what is it he is so keen to end? End the longest period of economic growth the country has ever seen? End the 21 million new jobs created while Clinton was President? If you look back eight years ago, and check all the indicators it looks like the Clinton era has produced good results. Despite the scandal, Clinton retains a very high approval rating for the job he has done.

Looking beyond the rosy picture of Americans never having had it so good, America still faces its challenges. There are 45 million people with no health insurance in the USA. There is still a huge increasing gap between rich and poor. While the country’s economy does well on paper, there are still too many people that don’t reap its benefits. But the current problems in America focus attention on Democrat issues like prescription drugs, raising the minimum wage, gun control, and so on. The GOP does not have a window to bring in its normal campaign battlecries. When the economy is doing so well, there is no mainstream belief that the tax rates are too high. Nor does there appear to be any real need to cut back on the scope of government activities.

In short, while America is by no means perfect, it is doing well on all the criteria that the GOP usually make the focus of a campaign. The Clinton Administration has been a success on the GOP’s own terms. Any remaining problems are merely good reasons for continuing the Democrat agenda.

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About the Author

Jacob Rowbottom is a lecturer in law at the University of Cambridge and author of Democracy Distorted (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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