The early stages of the presidential campaign are unfolding as expected. Jeb Bush is irritating his party’s right wing by periodically praising President Obama. Otherwise he remains as elusive as possible, in view of the gantlet of Red State primaries he must run to receive the Republican nomination. Then he can run to the center in the general election.
To make this point last week, Washington Post campaign correspondent Ed O’Keefe reached back to an interview that Bush gave Charlie Rose in 2012:
“I don’t have to play the game of being 100,000 percent against President Obama,” he said at the time. “I’ve got a long list of things that I think he’s done wrong and with civility and respect I will point those out if I’m asked. But on the things I think he’s done a good job on, I’m not just going to say no.”
In the same interview, Bush alleged that Obama was repeatedly blaming his brother for his own missteps and suggested it would be nice to hear Obama give “just a small acknowledgment that the guy you replaced isn’t the source of every problem and the excuse of why you’re not being successful.”
Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton is bogged down amidst increasing scrutiny of the philanthropic foundation her husband founded after leaving office.
Are the stories fair? In New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s view, there is reason to be skeptical. He wrote last week on his blog, “If you are old enough to remember the 1990s, you remember the endless parade of alleged scandals, Whitewater above all — all of them fomented by right-wing operatives, all eagerly hyped by mainstream news outlets, none of which actually turned out to involve wrongdoing.”
In fact the Clintons manifested a fair amount of slippery behavior once they got to in Washington, most of it involving a series of appointments of cronies to sensitive positions in the Treasury and Justice Departments, including that of his wife and of his old friend Ira Magaziner to head a Task Force on National Health Care Reform. Little of the initial concern was fomented by “right-wing operators.”
But instead of simply monitoring the president’s behavior in office, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, under editor Robert Bartley, launched a campaign to, in effect, overturn the result of the election, by conducting an extensive investigation of the couple’s Arkansas years.
The result was the Whitewater craze —the name stems from a vacation development in the Ozark Mountains in which the Clintons had an interest. Bartley’s inquisition found relatively little smoke and much less fire. Typical was the discovery of a futures trade, arranged by a favor-seeker, from which Hillary had benefitted in 1978, having put very little money at risk – at a moment in which her marriage hung in in the balance. Afterwards she backed away from the broker.
Mrs. Clinton’s healthcare reform initiative collapsed in 1994, amid heavy criticism of its approach (employers required to provide coverage to all employees) and its lack of transparency. Later that year Rep. Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.) led the Republicans to control of the House of Representatives. The struggle for power became more intense.
It reached a crescendo when impeachment proceedings failed to convict the president of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for having lied about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Democrats gained seats in the House after that.
Clinton served out his time in the White House with only one more memorable scandal – his pardon of Glencore commodities founder Marc Rich on charges of trading with Iran and tax evasion.
The case against Bill Clinton was sunk by the consistently unfair and ultimately deplorable way in which it was brought. But Hillary Clinton’s problems with the Clinton Foundation – possible conflicts of interest while serving as secretary of state, her husband’s lavish speaking fees – are there for all to see, 18 months before the election. Politico’s Jack Shafer compares the scheme to the concept of “honest graft,” as enunciated long ago by George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
Shafer writes, “The Times story contains no smoking gun. As far as I can tell, the pistol isn’t even loaded. Hell, I’m not sure I even see a firearm.” But then Plunkitt never ran for president.
So it seems likely the next president will be Jeb Bush. He would be the third member of the family to serve. Is that a bad thing?
Not in my reading of it. Jeb Bush more nearly resembles his realist father than his idealistic brother. The net effect of a Bush victory would be the marginalization of the populist wing of the GOP – and their fellow travelers at the WSJ ed page. Remember, the editorialists there played a significant role in bringing about the defeat of the first Bush. Furious at him for having raised taxes slightly to finance the first Gulf War, they systematically forced Bush to the right. Pat Buchanan gave the keynote address to the Republican convention in Houston, H. Ross Perot split the GOP vote and Clinton was elected with 43 percent of the popular vote. .
Rupert Murdoch bought the WSJ in 2007. Since then I have detected a gradual slight moderation of its editorial views (if not those of its more fiery columnists (Bret Stephens, Daniel Henninger, Kimberly Strassel). In 2014, Club of Growth founder Stephen Moore left the editorial board for the Tea Party’s Heritage Foundation, taking with him the portfolio of crackpot economics. Due next for an overhaul is the page’s stubborn denial of climate change.
The WSJ editorial page and the Clintons have shaped each other to an astonishing extent over the past 25 years. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Disclosure: I worked on the famously fair-minded news side of the WSJ for a short sweet time many years ago. In the name of fairness, I have to say that an awful lot of wise opinion and shrewd editorial writing appears on its editorial pages. .
WSJ reporters are still remarkably straight. I have the feeling that the disdain among them for the wilder enthusiasms of their editorial colleagues hasn’t changed any more than mine in all that time.
David Warsh is a Somerville, Mass.-based based economic historian, long-time financial journalist and proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this essay first appeared.