Campaign 2008: Claiming the Questionable Past to Remake the Future, Part II

(This is the second part of a commentary by Laura Snedeker. To see the first part, please go here.)

The Republicans do not have a monopoly on the past, although the Democrats have avoided the battle over one legacy by choosing two separate party icons.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has enlisted the aid of her husband, who at times seemed to threaten her campaign with his attacks on Sen. Barack Obama, but whose presence is also a reminder of the magnificent Clinton Era. Americans uncomfortable with dynastic succession may be persuaded by the promise of a return to prosperity.

Of course, former President Bill Clinton also has his own explaining to do, or he would if the last eight years had not substantially lowered Americans’ expectations. In 2001, the BBC noted that while Clinton presided over the “largest budget surplus in history” and the lowest unemployment numbers, that he also helped facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs to low-wage countries. President George W. Bush’s much-criticized Central American Free Trade Agreement was merely the natural progression from Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On the international front, the poor response to the Rwandan genocide (blame Bill Clinton must share with the rest of the world) serves as a powerful reminder of the meaninglessness of “never again.”

Obama’s claim to the throne of John F. Kennedy, by virtue of his endorsement by the Kennedys and his powerful message of hope and optimism, is oddly naive. While professing to look toward the future, he evokes an idealistic vision of the past, one devoid of all the nuance and political intrigue. Not just the past before Bush, but the past before Watergate, before the Vietnam War, before all the cynicism that followed. We cannot go back to that past, any more than we can raise the dead.

And we should not try. References to the past are expected, but over-reliance on an idealized and mythologized past is suspicious. It is one thing for the media to note the similarities between past and present candidates, it is quite another to allow them to declare themselves heir to the legacy of a past president, without questioning either the candidate or the popular myth relied upon. Any presidential candidate who deserves to be taken seriously must live in the present with an eye towards the lessons of the past and the possibilities of the future, not as a shadow of things that once were.

(To read this commentary from the beginning, please go here.)

For more background on the election campaign, please see these archival posts:

(Political graphic by The Heretik, who offers graphics for use via Photobucket. To see a segment of the online animated cartoon The Hillary Show, featuring a caricature of President Bill Clinton, please check below. The Hillary Show is produced by the website StopHerNow.org.)

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