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Where's the 'Beef'? Clinton's Answer to Romney Snark

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Friday, May 25, 2012

For Mitt Romney, the president's greatest vulnerability seems to be that Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton -- and he is seeking to exploit that perception in his public speeches attacking the incumbent. On Tuesday, the presumptive GOP nominee drew the contrast for an audience in Iowa, harking back to a famous Clinton speech in 1996.

"Almost a generation ago," said Romney, "Bill Clinton announced that the era of big government was over. Even a former George McGovern campaign worker, like President Clinton, was signaling to his own party that Democrats should no longer try to govern by proposing a new program for every problem. President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship."

It was boilerplate Republican rhetoric -- and didn't accurately reflect Clinton's record or views. He has spoken out strongly against austerity in recent months and wrote a book last year calling for more and smarter public investment that sharply criticized the tea party anti-government ideologues to whom Republicans like Romney constantly pander.

But then Romney took the snark a bit further, as Nia-Malika Henderson noted in The Washington Post, when he insinuated that the president is still feuding with his Democratic predecessor.

"It's enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons," said Romney. "Probably, it runs much deeper than that."

So far Clinton hasn't taken this bait, declining to respond directly even as he campaigns around the country in selected Democratic primaries. But a spokesman indicated that anyone wishing to understand the former president's attitude toward Obama -- and Romney -- might consult a speech he delivered more recently than 1996. Specifically, his remarks at an April 29 fundraiser for Obama hosted by close Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe at the former Democratic Party chair's home in McLean, Va., where he left no space for misinterpretation about his opinion of the man standing next to him:

"When you become president, your job is to explain where we are, say where you think we should go, have a strategy to get there and execute it," he began. "By that standard, Barack Obama deserves to be re-elected president of the United States. And I'm going to tell you the only reason we're even meeting here. I mean, this is crazy -- he's got an opponent who basically wants to do what they did before, on steroids (laughter) -- which will get you the same consequences you got before, on steroids (more laughter)."

Clinton went on to endorse Obama's "forward-looking" plans for economic renewal, first outlined in the presidential campaign four years ago, which were derailed by the financial crash in September 2008, "only seven weeks before the election." Historically, such collapses, noted Clinton, leave nations unable to achieve full economic recovery and job growth for as long as a decade -- so "he's beating the clock, not behind it."

A few moments later, Obama replied by lauding Clinton's "remarkable record" as president -- and especially his ability to persuade Democrats, "at a time when, let's face it, the Democratic Party was a little bit lost," to "refocus not on ideology, not on abstractions ... but on where people live, what they're going through day to day."

Whatever frictions were generated in 2008 by the bitter primary contest between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both she and her husband set them aside soon afterward to work hard electing Obama and then seeking to help him in every possible way.

Since leaving the White House, Bill Clinton has done his best to get along with Republicans as well as Democrats, in the interest of advancing his own broad goals for improving global health, reducing poverty and preserving a livable planet, among other things. But if he has a "beef" with anybody in this election year, that person assuredly is not Barack Obama.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.

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