Bill Clinton And The Right Side Of History: DNC Day 2
“My fellow Democrats, sixteen years ago, you gave me the profound honor to lead our party to victory and to lead our nation to a new era of peace and broadly shared prosperity.
Together, we prevailed in a campaign in which the Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it won't work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history.”
The “right side of history” language is so effective because it can be verified later, and it’s a powerful trophy to put on the mantle when one is correct in a major way. It’s the main selling strategy for hedge funds and professional handicappers, and we’re going to hear a lot of it in the form of “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” (Bin Laden wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Suburban—oh wait.)
Democrats still use the right side of history argument to reinforce support for the New Deal umbrella, and the full-throated embrace of Obamacare on the convention’s first day seemed like a play on that same “thank me later” strategy. Social Security did not appear as some controversy-free piece of landmark legislation, but it has won its near universal backing because of its historical record.
Being right can win over the most entrenched opposition over a long enough period of time. One of my favorite examples of this was when the Catholic church apologized to Galileo for condemning him for believing that Earth revolved around the Sun—something they came around to doing in 1992.
Interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that any race-based marriage ban was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitutions. Many of the same arguments made about same-sex marriage now were made about different-ethnicity marriage then.
Marriage between two people of different races was supposed to produce troubled children who would never make it in society. Like Barack Obama. If President Obama were to drop the hammer and say something like “many people in that hall last week who don’t believe in marriage equality are using the same reasoning they used against my parents getting married a generation ago,” it might wet some undergarments, but it would be a hell of a lot more honest of a statement than anything Paul Ryan said after “I’m Paul Ryan.”
President Obama has chosen to frame his economic argument as a history lesson. He has linked himself with Clinton policies that helped grow the economy, while Romney and Ryan are attached to Bush policies that failed. In other words, Clinton was on the right side of history, and Bush was on the wrong side.
Mitt Romney mocked the president’s desire to save the planet, but I don’t see what’s so hilarious about giant hurricanes, animals appearing in locations far from their natural habitat, biblical droughts and Arctic sea ice retreating to the point where the Northwest Passage is open for business. I’m sure future generations of Americans living in kelongs perched on the Great Memphis Sea are going to find old pictures of Mitt Romney jet-skiing on the lapis waters of Lake Winnipesaukee to be especially smug.
I’ve written previously about Romney’s dangerous frozen-in-time foreign policy. At this point, Russia is a corrupt petrostate in slow demographic decline with leadership that is very concerned about saving face and still in possession of thousands of nuclear warheads. This is not a country to needlessly antagonize. Also, Romney standing up to Putin would go about as well as Pawlenty standing up to Romney.
Private equity CEO Mitt Romney also for some reason thinks it’s good idea to threaten a trade war with China, the main lender to the United States. I’m sure Bain Capital used to take gratuitous shots at its banking partners all the time. Or not.
The right side of history argument is an appeal to future fact. Winning it has a lot to do with future success.
Do Mitt Romney and the Republicans truly believe that the next century, hatched from the global information age, will be one where people pull back toward the social norms of the type of people who view everything through a heavy racial and tribal film? They are fighting denture and nail to preserve this vision of America, to take their country back from those who threaten to make it a place where religion isn’t so completely overarching, where people are freer to be open regardless of where they stand on the sliding scale of sexuality and where people are less—phenotypically Romneyesque.
The real irony in all this is that there’s almost nothing as distinctly un-American as being afraid of the frontier, whether it is land, sex or demography. America has always come out on the right side of history because we haven’t been afraid to see what awaits us beyond our reservoir of knowledge. The obvious and timely example here is Neil Armstrong, but this same theme repeats itself in the life stories of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and yes, the ancestors of one Mitt Romney.
Maybe one day we’ll look back on the Republicans’ dogged effort to resist time in the same way we look at Pope Urban VIII’s muzzling of Galileo. When a set of facts change or new ones emerge, old policy arguments have to adapt or they end up with all the historic and economic value of a losing parlay card.
Mitt Romney's core constituency wants the world to stay exactly where it was, in a simpler time with a more defined hierarchy—yet it moves. Leaders who move with it, leaders who are on the right side of history, are more prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that a changing world creates. The next hundred years will happen, whether America is a big part of it or not. Time is undefeated. Adapting to change and not denying it exists is the way to make it, as now both parties have promised, an American century.
Reach Staff Columnist Matt Pressberg here.