If you're anywhere on the spectrum from left-of-center to full-throated liberal, chances are you felt warm fuzzies last night during Bill Clinton's speech, a meandering, brilliant, ad-libbed explainer of the Obama presidency and a Romney dystopian future. It was cathartic for those of us whose blood boiled at the outright lies told at the Republican National Convention. It was helpful for overwhelmed Americans who have been struggling with getting facts straight, and who've been in need of a charismatic professor's touch. Most of all, it reawakened our crush on that Southern philanderer, in the way a boozy, emotional party may unearth affection for an imperfect but magnetic ex-boyfriend and impulsively lead to a drunken "I miss you" text at 3:37 a.m.
But much how we sweep the ugliness and heartbreak of a fraught relationship under the rug during a late-night nostalgia-fest, last night many of us wanted to forget what Clinton's presidency was actually like.
If your political predilections lean toward the center, you were undoubtedly pleased when Clinton served up an indictment of GOP-driven partisan vitriol: "[T]hough I often disagree with Republicans," he said, "I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats... What works in the real world is cooperation, business and government, foundations and universities." Take this speech (and the GOP's recent extolling of nineties politics) at face value and its easy to pine for a Clinton-run era where Republicans and Democrats work together for the good of the country.
Sadly, this claim displayed just as much "brass" as Paul Ryan's kettle-black name-calling. As Jonathan Chait reminds us on nymag.com today, the Clinton presidency was undercut by just as many endless attacks and conspiracy theories from the rightwing as Obama's. Clinton was called a radical, a hippie, even a murderer and that's not counting all the nutcracker cracks about Hillary. The man got impeached, for god's sake. And in a remarkable instance of history repeating itself, he engaged in a painful push-and-pull over the deficit, during which zero Republicans supported him.
If, on the other hand, you lean more to the left, it was easy to forget last night that Clinton wasn't exactly a liberal hero. His administration was the one that disabled welfare as we know it, implemented NAFTA and the discriminatory Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, leading to unprecedented deregulation of Wall Street (and we know how that turned out). Ask many leftists during the nineties: Clinton betrayed them again and again.
Clinton may have been a moderate in many ways, but the Republicans certainly didn't see him that way at the time. These details get lost in the fervor of a high-stakes election and the muck of Clinton's world-famous charisma. So we should feel free to sneak in a fantasy or two, maybe indulge in some wistful adoration on Twitter or over stiff cocktails with our girlfriends. But let's just leave it at that, shall we?