Bill Clinton's Muddled Attempt to Own the Middle

Instead of attacking the Bush administration's utterly failed policies on Iraq, Clinton'swas all rear view mirror course correcting… fine tuning what we couldda, shouldda, mighta done differently back in 2003. What about now, Mr. Clinton? How about telling us what we should be doing differently now? But that kind of forward-thinking leadership was nowhere to be found.
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Since leaving office, Bill Clinton has tried out a variety of positions: Elder Statesman, Prolix Memoirist, King of the Public Speakers, Hospital Bed Campaign Advisor, First Husband-in-Waiting, Disaster Fundraiser, Global Visionary.

But judging from his latest TV appearances, he seems to have landed on a brand new incarnation: Equivocator-in-Chief.

Forget all the nonsense you might have heard about the former president taking on the current one (Drudge linked to a story calling it "a withering attack" and right-wing blogs followed suit) -- in truth, he consistently played both sides of the fence.

On a variety of key issues -- especially Iraq and Katrina -- instead of offering clarity and leadership, he offered a steady stream of have-it-both-ways, "on the one hand... and on the other" reasoning.

Let's start with the Katrina relief effort. After spending the early days of the catastrophe providing cover for Bush (including making the ludicrous claims that the flooding of New Orleans could not have been foreseen, and that we could not make any judgments on the response without being there), he belatedly decided to cast a discerning eye on the administration's woeful handling of the disaster. "You can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up," he told George Stephanopoulos. True, but not exactly "withering."

And he took a page out of the GOP playbook by spreading the blame around, pointing the finger for the lack of an effective evacuation plan squarely where it belongs: uh, everywhere. "Maybe the mayor, maybe the governor," he said when asked who was responsible. And maybe the dog catcher too.

Of course, this is the same guy who 13 days earlier had adopted the administration's talking points and counseled against playing the blame game, saying "I don't think we should do it now."

This too-little-too-late criticism smacks of the worst kind of bandwagon hopping -- and a transparent attempt to placate Democratic anger at his shilling for Bush. Not exactly leadership in action.

The Equivocator-in-Chief was equally all over the map when it came to Iraq.

"I think it's been a net negative," he replied when Tim Russert asked if the war has hurt the U.S. image abroad. "On the other hand, Saddam is gone and 58 percent of those people voted. That's an even higher percentage of people than voted in America in 2004... So there's still a chance this will work. And if it does, there's still a chance it will be a net plus for the Middle East."

For those of you keeping score, that's one point for Iraq being a net negative, and one point for it being a net positive. I forget, does a tie go to the runner? Or is it like kissing your sister?

On This Week, Clinton told George Stephanopoulos that he disagreed with the sequence of events that led to the war, saying that the Bush administration "decided to launch this invasion virtually alone and before UN inspections were completed, with no real urgency, no evidence that there were any weapons of mass destruction," which "undermined the support we might have had."

As Matthew Yglesias points out, this isn't what Clinton was saying at the time. But leaving that aside, this is hardly the stuff of a "withering attack" on the Bush administration's utterly failed policies on Iraq. Instead, it's all rear-view mirror course correcting... fine tuning what we couldda, shouldda, mighta done differently back in 2003.

What about now, Mr. Clinton? How about telling us what we should be doing differently now?

But that kind of forward-thinking leadership was nowhere to be found.

Indeed, when asked directly by Stephanopoulos, "What do we do right now? What should the new strategy be?", Clinton's IQ took a sudden, precipitous drop. "Well," he replied, "I don't know, because I'm not president." As if only the president can articulate a strategy on Iraq. Memo to Bill: after years of rightly earning the rep as the smartest guy in the room, this clueless routine doesn't really play.

And when he wasn't trying to pass himself off as the Global Village Idiot, the former president was parroting the Bush party line on Iraq, arguing that setting a timetable for withdrawal would embolden the insurgency, and offering a hearty defense of Bush's "strategy for success in Iraq" (i.e. "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down"). Clinton termed this "the correct strategy" -- although, just a few moments earlier he had said, "If we do [have a strategy for victory], it's not working right now." Dizzy yet?

The only thing Clinton said that differed from the White House's current stay-the-course mantra was his suggestion that "we may not have, in the short run, enough troops" to hold off the insurgents until Iraqi forces can take over for themselves. So that's going to be the big difference between the administration and the loyal opposition in 2006 and 2008 -- how many more troops each party is willing to throw at the problem?

Please, say it isn't so! For some new talking points, Bill Clinton and Democratic leaders should pick up the new issue of Time, and read the words of a retired senior military official: "We have failed the Iraqi people, and we have failed our troops."

Now that's withering.

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