Paul Waldman | October 14, 2008
Throughout his nearly two-year-long campaign for the White House, Barack Obama has talked about Americans' hunger for unity -- their ache for a government that will get past the petty divisions of recent decades, put aside partisanship, and come together to solve problems. From what we can tell, Obama's desire to provide that kind of presidency is sincere and stems from his own personality and history. Throughout his life, people have remarked on his ability to make those who disagree with him feel as though he has listened to their perspective and approached them with an open mind, even if he hasn't brought them around to agreeing with him.
But as we finally approach the end of this campaign, one has to wonder whether Obama knows quite what he's in for. Not what will happen over the next three weeks but what he'll face if he actually wins. Because for all his talk of bringing Americans together, a President Obama could face an opposition so consumed with disgust and anger and outright hate that it would make the 1990s look like a tea party.
That, of course, was what was supposed to happen if Hillary Clinton were the nominee. In fact, one of the arguments Obama supporters made early in the primary process was that if Clinton prevailed, the vast right-wing conspiracy would kick into high gear, besieging the woman they had hated so much for so long with an assault of unimagined viciousness. But now there is little doubt that that machinery of obsessive hostility was easily retrofitted for a new target.
Obama's apparently genuine desire for civility and inclusiveness shouldn't be mistaken for naiveté; as his opponents have discovered, he knows how to wield a shiv when necessary. In this race he has had to deal not only with the institutional efforts against him from his opponent and the Republican National Committee, but with a widely distributed campaign of smears and lies spread through viral e-mails and extremist Web sites. Unlike the McCain campaign, this broader effort will not fold up operations on Nov. 4. If Obama wins, the people now devoting their energies to seeing that he doesn't get elected will simply devote their energies to seeing that his presidency goes down in flames.
And the urgency of their cause (if not the despicable tactics they will no doubt use to advance it) will be thoroughly justified. Conservatives will quickly realize that the extraordinary challenges facing the government provide the opportunity for Obama to be either a spectacular failure or one of America's greatest presidents.
No president accomplishes all of his goals, but consider what Obama has before him. No matter what else he does, there are four large tasks on which his term in office will likely be judged. If he sees the country through the current economic crisis, brings the war in Iraq to an end, passes health-care reform that actually achieves something close to universal coverage, and sets the country on a course away from a reliance on fossil fuels, Obama would be considered the most important president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. If he succeeds, his presidency would be a mirror image of George W. Bush's, with accomplishments equal in grandeur to Bush's failures.
And that, of course, would be an unmitigated disaster for the GOP. It took 24 years after the death of the greatest Democratic president for an actual conservative (Richard Nixon) to win the White House, and Roosevelt's legacy was such that even Ronald Reagan's assaults on the New Deal and the Great Society were more rhetorical than substantive. Reagan may have hated Social Security and Medicare, but he wasn't going to risk his presidency in a futile attempt to dismantle them.
The danger for the GOP is that Obama's potential accomplishments could be just as lasting. If he does usher in a new energy paradigm, Republicans won't get anywhere advocating a return to the old one (and no matter what, it seems unlikely that we'll be hearing those weirdly gleeful chants of "Drill, baby drill!" after this election is over). If he guides us out of Iraq with a minimum of ensuing chaos, their foreign-policy and national security proposals will continue to be stained by the memory of conservative support for Bush's disastrous escapades. If Obama actually passes health-care reform, Americans will be grateful to Democrats for at least mitigating one of our most anxiety-provoking public-policy problems. And Republicans are already denying that they were ever really serious about the free-market fundamentalism that they championed for so long and that has proven so calamitous to the economy. If Obama sees us through to an economic revival, it will be almost impossible for them to explain why their ideas about the economy ought not be dismissed out of hand.
These are all best-case scenarios, of course -- a thousand different variables will determine whether any of these goals are achieved, much less all of four. But there is real potential for an Obama presidency to be truly transformative, which makes the stakes enormously high. Much higher than they were, certainly, when Bill Clinton was president.
Which is why it's worth remembering just how virulent the opposition to Clinton's presidency was. Republicans began plotting to impeach Clinton long before anyone had ever heard the name "Lewinsky," and many on the right simply refused to accept that he legitimately occupied the office he held. Then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, when talking to Democrats, used to refer to Clinton as "your president." Even Bob Dole admitted, "We had a pretty hard-right group in the party who were just never going to accept him." And Clinton didn't even steal an election.
The efforts ranged from those inside political institutions -- like the endless string of congressional hearings into trumped-up "scandals," culminating in impeachment -- to the independent and thoroughly unhinged. There were books charging that the Clintons were guilty of all manner of offenses against decency, like the one that claimed Hillary had decorated the White House Christmas tree with crack pipes. There was the obsession with Vincent Foster's suicide, a death that birthed more conspiracy theories than any since JFK's. Then there was "The Clinton Chronicles," a video that charged that not only was Bill Clinton the head of a cocaine-smuggling operation but that he had also arranged for the murder of dozens of his enemies and political opponents. It may sound like nothing more than lunatic ravings of the kind that today you'd find on the most obscure Web sites, but hundreds of thousands of copies were distributed thanks to the efforts of Jerry Falwell, a close friend of Republican presidents and politicians. Such was the burning fire of their hatred that some conservatives kept on writing books about how awful Clinton was even after he left office.
If Obama prevails, the forces now arguing that he is some kind of America-hating Manchurian Candidate will turn their attention and their funding to a sustained campaign to delegitimize and hamstring the Obama presidency, so that as much of the administration's time as possible is taken up with beating back one bogus charge after another. Without a doubt, the drones of the right-wing echo chamber will raise a new mountain of absurd charges, like termites constructing their mound from a mixture of twigs, dirt, and their own phlegm. And they will have help from Republicans in Congress, many if not most of whom can be counted on to make it their purpose in life to prevent Obama from accomplishing anything (though without the majority's subpoena power, they won't have nearly the ability to bedevil Obama that they had with Clinton).
There is some reason for hope, however. The outside groups arrayed against Obama have not exactly been models of competence and effectiveness this year (see Laura Rozen's piece in Mother Jones on how casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, thought to be the next Richard Mellon Scaife, disappointed conservatives). When it comes to assembling the dirt, John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay. Among all the insinuations that Obama might be a terrorist, furthermore, is a healthy does of red-baiting that is more silly than frightening (if you want a taste, go read some of Andy McCarthy's recent posts at National Review Online's The Corner). Saying Obama might be the next Alger Hiss doesn't have much impact when so few people remember who Alger Hiss was.
And just as the increasingly hateful tone of the crowds at John McCain's rallies (especially when Sarah Palin is there to egg on the thugs) is turning off moderate voters, the anti-Obama forces' worst enemy will be their own craziness. As Garrett Epps wrote in the Prospect in 2002, Bill Clinton didn't destroy his enemies; he drove them insane, and they destroyed themselves. We can only hope history will repeat itself.
Paul Waldman is Director of Special Projects and Senior Fellow with Media Matters Action Network. This column was originally published at The American Prospect. Paul Waldman's older columns may be found here.