This week, former President George Herbert Walker Bush celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday with much fanfare. In the past months, many journalists have pointed out that the Republican Party is the most conservative than any other incarnation in the past century. This has been a large sticking point for President Obama, who awarded the Elder Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. As a result, George H.W Bush, whose conservative credentials were always seen as spurious to the point that he was primaried by Pat Buchanan, is enjoying a revival, including among liberals mourn the fact that the GOP has seemingly purged anyone with an iota of centrist leanings.
Similarly, President Bill Clinton is enjoying a renaissance of his own for the past three years. He famously went to North Korea to retrieve two journalists who were sentenced to labor by Kim Jong Il, and gave a notoriously awkward press conference with President Obama endorsing the extension of the George W. Bush Tax Cuts. In addition, Clinton with his 2011 book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, in which he lays out the need for government action in order to revive the economy, as well give some not-so-subtle nudges to President Obama about how to steer his policy and attack Republicans. In addition, Clinton has served as a campaign surrogate for the President, holding a fundraiser last month and sending him to Wisconsin for the recall election.
Yet, while both men did have significant accomplishments, it also important that they not be beatified to the point that either their supporters in their own party or those in the opposition who use their statements as fodder for their own agenda put their records beyond reproach. While President George H.W. Bush may have had a more civil tone to him than today's average Tea Party Patriot, liberals should also remember that he was far from being civil with his opponents. A client of Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, he was more than willing to engage in smear tactics against Michael Dukakis and Roger Ailes to portray him as somehow less American, a charge often hurled by conservative pundits on Ailes' own Fox News. While not necessarily pandering to evangelicals in the same way as Senator Rick Santorum, he did say that he did not think atheists should be considered American Citizens. In addition, far from the gentlemanly image that H.W. portrays now about refraining from partisan bickering, he was an ardent critic of the Clinton Administration.
Similarly, the left must also take caution when praising a former President in their own party. Much of Clinton's resurgence is a result of President Obama's reservations about going on the offensive against Republicans in Congress. Indeed, when President Obama's at times naivete prevents him from achieving truly progressive goals and his attempts to bring Republicans into the fold lead him to passing piecemeal legislation, it is easy to want someone willing to be pugnacious against the GOP. However, what is important to realize with Clinton, is that while Clinton did indeed willing to publicly shame Republicans, his Presidency was not one of remarkable Progressive accomplishments. He failed to pass healthcare reform in 1993-1994, hired economic champions of deregulation and Wall Street knows-best mentality like Robert Rubin, Jack Lew, and Larry Summers as his closest advisers and in his 1996 State of the Union Address, remarked "The Era of Big Government is Over." At times, Clinton was more than willing to sacrifice a true policy win in order to secure a victory in the political realm, most infamously with adviser Susan Rice's wariness on using the word Genocide to describe the atrocities in Rwanda before an election.
None of this is to say that neither of these men deserve to be admired for their accomplishments. Indeed, President George H.W. Bush's even-handedness on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is something to be admired, as is his handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and his management of the Persian Gulf War. Similarly, President Clinton's work towards balancing the budget, and make the Democratic Party viable again after twelve years in the wilderness are works of political brilliance. However, to hail either man as vanguards for the left to hold up as a standard to be admired is as ridiculous as completely disregarding their legacies.