The nineties came roaring back with a vengeance last week. No, I’m not talking about Nirvana, flannel shirts or Reality Bites. I’m referring to the lurid and preposterous “scandals” that marked so much of the Clinton era, making that decade’s politics feel more like a never-ending soap opera than an age of relative peace and prosperity.
Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton by rallying the country around the idea of a new kind of politics that explicitly repudiated the petty skirmishes of the Clinton years. "I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s," Obama said at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November 2007, one of the most important speeches he gave during the entire campaign. Obama was going to be about big ideas and bold policies, bringing the type of transformational change ushered in by Reagan, not Clinton.
Unfortunately, that’s not how Obama’s presidency has played out thus far. Sure, he’s successfully tackled some major undertakings—most notably healthcare reform—but during the past year and a half the right-wing noise machine has once again dominated the debate. Turns out Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh are as powerful as they ever were—and now have potent new allies in Andrew Breitbart, Glenn Beck and Fox News. Case in point: last week, in the midst of 9.5 percent unemployment, two wars and the passage of long-awaited financial regulatory reform legislation and the overdue extension of unemployment benefits, virtually the entire chattering class discussed only two stories: Shirley Sherrod and Journolist, both fueled almost entirely (and inaccurately) by the right-wing media.
Given the president’s stated distaste for the freak show nature of the nineties, one expected the Obama administration to aggressively combat the Breitbarts of the media. Instead, too often, Obama’s team has naïvely strengthened them. According to Politico’s Ben Smith, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina actually praised the “speed” of the administration’s disastrous response to the Sherrod fiasco, even though her swift firing was based solely on an incomplete and out of context video unearthed by Breitbart. If this is how Obama’s team plans to respond to future “scoops” peddled by Breitbart and Beck, then the president is facing a whole lot more trouble.
There’s a lesson here, which Obama’s inner circle should have learned from studying the Clinton era: capitulating to the right out of fear will only embolden them. “I think we ought to stop being afraid of Glenn Beck and the racist fringe of the Republican Party,” Howard Dean told Fox News yesterday. In the wake of l’affaire Sherrod, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus decried the frenzied 24/7 new media atmosphere by calling for a “slow blogging movement.” Until such a utopia comes to pass, maybe the Obama administration should take a few boxing lessons and learn how to aggressively, and accurately, hit back.
—Ari Berman’s new book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.