this scenario: The Democratic Party presidential candidate is an
ex-radical from the 1960s, who had taken a sharp turn to the left
during college, who denounced the Vietnam War as an undergraduate, who
went on to Yale Law School to earn a degree, who taught law in
Arkansas, who got involved in politics as a 30-something in the 1970s.
Decades later, the candidate, named Clinton, runs for president of the
United States. Clinton seeks distance from that radical past, trying to
appear not as a far-left Democrat but a sensible, more moderate one.
Clinton understands that the radical past will look bad compared to the
Republican Party’s (older) presidential nominee, who did not protest
the war that defined his generation but, instead, eagerly joined the
cause, only to be shot down, wounded in combat, emerging as a genuine
war hero. Clinton—as well as the Democratic Party generally—knows that
such a Republican opponent is no push over, personally or politically.
Can Clinton win that contest?
The answer: Yes. Bill Clinton won those contests in both 1992 and 1996. Hillary Clinton hopes to repeat the performance in 2008.
In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton challenged
Republican President George H. W. Bush. Conservatives wasted no time
framing the showdown as an assault on our sense of right and wrong. How
dare this 60s radical, this war protester, challenge a legitimate war
As a young man, Bill Clinton saw college not
simply as an educational opportunity but a way to avoid military
service during wartime. That had not been the case for George Herbert
Walker Bush, even when a similar thought was planted in his ear by
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. In a commencement address to Bush’s
1942 prep school class, Stimson had advised Bush and his classmates to
finish their education—to go to college—before considering military
service. No, said Bush. Instead, he enlisted, postponing college to
become the youngest Navy pilot commissioned in the war, where he was
soon flying fighter planes, and subsequently became one of the youngest
servicemen ever shot down in combat. He was pulled out of the water,
rescued at sea.
Those differences between the Democratic and
Republican presidential nominees were equally clear in 1996, when
Senator Bob Dole was nominated by the GOP. Dole’s wartime story, which
I will not revisit here, was even more remarkable. Dole’s survival was
the stuff of legends.
This is worth considering now because of the
belief by conservatives that Hillary Clinton, when stacked up against
John McCain’s background, will be found sorely lacking—a major
liability for Clinton. Of course, many conservatives want Hillary to
defeat Barack Obama so McCain can run against Hillary, who
conservatives see as easier to beat than Obama. While Obama definitely
has some skeletons in his closet—as his pastor has made clear—his 1960s
are decidedly unlike Hillary’s, and actually are fairly inspirational.
For the record, I agree with conservatives who
prefer to run against Hillary instead of Obama. The Hillary-McCain
contrast works to McCain’s advantage in many ways. Nonetheless, what we
learned in 1992 and 1996 is that the Republican candidate’s bona fides
as a war hero will not be nearly enough to carry the day against the
Sure, conservatives can point out that while
John McCain was strapped to a wall and flogged by Vietnamese communists
at the Hanoi Hilton in the summer of 1971, Hillary was interning for
the American communists Robert Treuhaft and Jessica “Decca” Mitford in
Oakland, California. While American intelligence abroad was trying to
find out what it could about McCain’s captors, American intelligence at
home—namely, the FBI—was trying to find out what it could about
Hillary’s bosses, two former CPUSA members who for years were denied
passports and investigated by government officials.
While John McCain was being tortured by
communists in Hanoi, Hillary Clinton was not only working for
communists but learning Constitutional Law from one of them—Professor
Thomas Emerson—at Yale. As McCain was learning survival tactics
firsthand at the end of a bamboo stick by the Vietcong, Hillary was
learning organizing tactics from veteran radical Saul Alinsky.
If Hillary Clinton somehow manages to get the
Democratic nomination, conservatives will underscore these striking
contrasts. The contrasts, however, have their limits. The first Bush
lost to the first Clinton by eight percentage points, and many more
Electoral College ballots. Likewise, the margin between the first
Clinton and Bob Dole was wide. Neither hero came close to Clinton.
In 2008, the Republican war hero will need to
defeat the Clinton—assuming this Clinton survives the primaries—first
and foremost on substance and on the campaign trail. The war record
matters, but it is only part of a much deeper arsenal that the
Republican will need to win.