A Small Reminder That All Presidents Are Compromised Opportunists

Watch Bill Clinton slam a Republican adversary ... for raising taxes.

Over at Reason, Matt Welch flags a political ad that aired circa 1992 and serves as a reminder of why many Americans have quiet disdain for most every politician who rises to national prominence. In the spot, Bill Clinton attacks George H.W. Bush, then the incumbent president, for breaking his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. The ad doesn't mention that he did so as part of a deal with Congressional Democrats, something that would surely be relevant to many voters. It also misleadingly casts Bush's small tax increase as one of the largest ever in American history.

But the most unsavory thing about the ad is the way that Clinton casts himself as a pure champion of low taxes, even though he himself shared the Democratic perspective at the time, and proceeded to raise taxes even more than his opponent had once he unseated him during the 1992 election:

It is very common for politicians to resort to this sort of demagoguery, opportunistically attacking opponents for taking actions that the attacker secretly believes to be in the public interest. George H.W. Bush ran creepy ads himself, as did his son, as has Barack Obama. When Clinton ran that ad, he willfully created a rhetorical environment in which it would be marginally harder for Republicans to back the sorts of measures he regarded as being best for the country. As a deficit hawk, I'm glad that Clinton subsequently presided over a smaller deficit than we've since seen. It's still hard to respect him or any of the other politicians who convince themselves that intellectual dishonesty is justified by the good they'll do once elected. 

Perhaps that sort of thing will always be part of American politics. If so, Americans ought to start treating elected officials as flawed men with discrete constitutional tasks to perform rather than moral leaders who are proper subjects for hero worship, fawning biographies, and speeches that set the tone for the nation. I can stomach moral leadership on public affairs from someone with a flawed private life (take Martin Luther King), but the public lives of our politicians are almost always rife with lies and distortions, even when the men and women in question are far more honorable and decent in their private lives, where the awful incentives created by our polity don't corrupt them. Why do we then build their public selves up, knowing that they'll always just let us down? It's a habit we've got to kick. There are better souls to look to than these people. Is it any wonder that their most loyal backers so often behave so badly to their fellow humans?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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