The durability of Bill Clinton as a Republican scapegoat is one of the marvels of our age. Republicans felt acute separation anxiety when Clinton's term ended, but their fears proved groundless: He may have left the White House, but he had not left the front page or the consciousness of those who regarded him as the model of what not to be.
He surfaced at the White House recently when presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to blame him for the intensified violence in the Middle East. He called Clinton's vigorous, persistent intervention "an attempt to shoot the moon . . . an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go . . . [which] led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it turned into violence."
Even some of the Bush inner circle -- from whom Fleischer may have overheard such chat -- recognized this as "shooting the moon" in Clinton criticism; Fleischer took it back. Not long after, demonstrating his versatility as a target for tsk-tsking, Clinton was again under fire -- a new and "final" report from the independent counsel, Robert Ray. It was yet another recounting of the sordid, twice-told tale of the president and the intern, Monica Lewinsky, supposedly spruced up by Ray's contention that he could have indicted Clinton, which was stipulated by Clinton's exit statement. Almost simultaneously, Lewinsky appeared on an HBO special that showed her shaking her hair out of her face and trying to "clear up some misconceptions." It was another step in her ceaseless quest for "privacy," which we must assume will go on.
The Bush image-makers feel that every comparison adds to the stature of their man. Laura Bush is a solid hit, restful in the Executive Mansion where Hillary Clinton was so restless, the radiant helpmeet vs. the would-be co-president.
But last Thursday the limits of not being Bill Clinton, who used the prestige of the superpower to try to make peace, came home to the present occupant of the Oval Office. It is not enough not to be Clinton -- not when death is everywhere: at the bus stop, the restaurant, at school, in people's cars or when they stay home in their refugee camps or their settlements. The Israelis have missiles and tanks, the Palestinians have suicide bombers. Generals, grandmothers, babies -- all bloodied and still on stretchers. The Saudis presented a peace plan, gauzy in the particulars but at least an idea about getting rid of the source of the trouble, the Israeli settlements. Bush declined to give it a White House push. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt came to the White House and pleaded with Bush to get involved. Bush said no -- he would not proceed until the violence stopped. But only the United States, which founded and funds Israel, can make that happen.
Thursday afternoon, however, in the Rose Garden, Bush announced that his special envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, will go back to Israel and try to get the parties to the table. It's possible Secretary of State Colin Powell convinced him that, just as Ariel Sharon's policy of killing as many Palestinians as possible gets you nowhere, so is the Bush policy of standing in the spectators' stands futile.
Apparently the linkage between the war against terrorism and the bloodbath in the Middle East has not struck the president. The principal anti-U.S. grievance in the Arab world is our treatment of the Palestinians in their dispute with the Israelis. While the president is dispatching American troops to places like Yemen, Georgia and Uzbekistan, he is losing the war for the hearts and minds of Arabs, according to a Gallup poll. It showed that 61 percent of the Arab world, which is either invincibly ignorant or so turned off it can't see straight, doesn't believe Arabs attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11. A show of evenhandedness in the Middle East might help.
The demonization of Bill Clinton will go on. But there is evidence the Republicans are grooming another ogre in waiting. Tom Daschle, the small, humble, considerate Senate majority leader, is unimaginably unpromising as material for a heavy. Republicans are undeterred. In commercials aired in his native South Dakota, he is depicted as an enabler of Saddam Hussein. When he asked sensible questions about the war policy, Republican leader Trent Lott accused him of trying to divide the nation, and House Republican whip Tom DeLay termed him "disgusting." He is baited in the insiders' weekly the Hill and in the conservative Washington Times.
What the effect has been on voters is yet to be determined, but the hammering is taking its toll on Daschle. Last week he lost his famous even temper. He rounded on the Baltimore Sun's congressional correspondent, Karen Hosler, and, with flashing eyes, accused her of calling him an obstructionist. All were amazed.
He obviously doesn't understand the Republicans' continuing need for villains. It's their substitute for policy.