Legacies Suffer Amid Absence Of Incumbents

By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON | Posted Friday, April 18, 2008 4:30 PM PT

Four months into 2008, the presidential campaign — already too long and nasty — is still a long way from over. And the casualties are mounting.

First, George Bush’s popularity remains dismal — even though some of the complaints about his first term have gone by the wayside. The French and German governments are now staunchly pro-American. Violence in Iraq is way down from a year ago. America has been free from a terrorist attack since 9/11.

No matter. Nothing has seemed to help the president. His approval rating stays at, or sinks below, 30%.

Why? The current gloomy economic news and the continuing human and financial costs of Afghanistan and Iraq explain a lot. But another reason is this present election cycle. For the first time in nearly six decades, no incumbent president or vice president is daily hammering back in defense of the recent four years.

We expect Democratic opponents Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to trash an incumbent Republican president. But Republican nominee Sen. John McCain seldom endorses anything about the two Bush terms.

Again, the last time America witnessed anything similar was when Harry Truman left office with a 22% approval rating — under furious attack by Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and shunned by his own party’s nominee, the maverick Adlai Stevenson, who had not been part of the Truman administration.

Obama Obsession

If the current president hasn’t been helped by the present campaign, look what it’s done to his predecessor. The Clinton legacy is wrecked. Left-wing bloggers, liberal columnists and some Democratic politicians now despise Bill and Hillary Clinton — even more than did “the vast right-wing conspiracy” of the 1990s.

A furious Hillary keeps charging the media with the same sort of bias that the Republicans used to routinely claim always favored her husband. Apparently the left has become infatuated with Barack Obama and does not want another eight years of the once-iconic Clintons — especially after their use of the race card, the hardball politics and Hillary’s chronic exaggeration and misstatements.

Globetrotting Bill Clinton spent seven years crafting a legacy as a post-partisan senior statesman. Now he’s thrown that away by devolving into a political henchman assigned to take down the Democratic Party’s first serious African-American candidate.

Whatever the result of the 2008 campaign, the image of an above-the-fray Bill is no more — shattered somewhere between the disclosure of the $109 million Clinton tax returns and his finger-shaking lectures to the press about its supposed unfairness to his wife.

Democrats once were enchanted that their party might usher in the nation’s first woman president. Now many of them fear Hillary is a bothersome obstacle in the way of an even more hip and novel breakthrough candidate.

Issues Ignored

Racial relations also soured from the campaign. Obama promised to be our post-racial healer. But so far, even if it weren’t his intent, he is proving the most racially contentious candidate in recent American history. African-Americans still line up behind Obama, even as whites keep voting in large majorities for Clinton.

The more Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, keeps sounding unhinged, the more Obama can’t quite free himself from this hateful albatross.

When Obama talks down about middle America’s fondness for religion and guns, or suggests that small-town America is “anti-immigrant” and “clings” to “antipathy to people who aren’t like them” or quips about the “typical white person,” he only increases racial polarization — cementing the image of someone who sees America in terms of “they,” not “us.”

The Bush and Clinton legacies, Obama’s “new” politics and race relations are all casualties of a wide-open election without incumbents. But the greatest casualty has been our inability to figure how to deal with looming crises.

So far we haven’t heard specific workable proposals from the candidates about how exactly they would solve energy dependence, soaring food prices, illegal immigration and outdated farm subsidies.

The candidates have offered no new solution for the looming Social Security crackup. Few candidates have expressed novel ideas for stopping staggering deficits or bulking up a sinking dollar — much less exactly the sacrifices necessary on all our parts to restore American financial solvency. No one has offered a better way of dealing with an ascendant but lawless China, an unhinged Iran or the ongoing war against Islamic extremism.

In 2008, everything and everyone has fallen victim to a nasty campaign — except America’s nastiest problems.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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