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The '70s Hit Parade

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By George F. Will
Thursday, December 20, 2007

In a political season that has become a '70s Show, a Richard Nixon revival infects both parties' primaries. Even Spiro Agnew -- Nixon's Nixon -- is being reprised.

Hillary Clinton attacks Barack Obama by recycling a slogan Nixon used in 1960 against John Kennedy: "Experience Counts." But is it prudent of her to invite remembrances of things past?

She had two experiences wielding power regarding important matters for her husband's administration. One concerned the selection of his first, second and third choices to be attorney general -- all in just 50 days. The decisive criterion would be chromosomes: The attorney general had to be a woman. The first selection, Zoë Baird, crashed because a slipshod selection process did not discover that she and her husband had employed two illegal immigrants as domestic help and had not paid Social Security taxes. Then Kimba Wood failed because she once hired an illegal immigrant before such hiring was itself illegal, a nonoffense magnified by the Baird debacle.

The third choice was Janet Reno, whose eight-year tenure was notable for three things. One was the botched assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., in which 86 people died, 17 of them children the assault was supposed to rescue. Another was seizing, at gunpoint, 6-year-old Elián Gonzáles from his Miami relatives and deporting him to Castro's Cuba, from which he and his mother had fled in an escape in which she drowned. The third was the optional appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the Whitewater land deal, an investigation that led to Paula Jones. When Hillary Clinton adamantly opposed a financial settlement with her, the investigation meandered to Monica Lewinsky and impeachment.

The second of Hillary Clinton's important experiences was the drafting, in secret, of a national health-care plan. It was so dauntingly baroque and ominously statist that a Congress controlled by her party would not bring it to a vote.

Her experiences that should matter most to primary voters reveal consistently bad judgment. Her campaign's behavior radiates bad character.

Mark Penn, a senior campaign official, served as her Agnew after Bill Shaheen, co-chairman of her national campaign, made a Nixonian observation. Nixon specialized in mock-solemn tropes such as "It would be wrong to say" this or that, thereby getting this or that into the political conversation. Shaheen theatrically worried that if Obama, who in a book published 12 years ago acknowledged using drugs as a teenager, is nominated, Republicans will ask him when he last used drugs and if he ever gave or sold them to others. Penn then kept the story bubbling by talking about how uninterested the Clinton campaign is in talking about it: "The issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising."

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee's role in the '70s Show involves blending Jimmy Carter's ostentatious piety with Nixon's knack for oblique nastiness. "Despicable" and "appalling" evidence of a "gutter campaign" -- that is how the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., characterized this from Sunday's New York Times Magazine profile of Huckabee: " 'Don't Mormons,' he asked in an innocent voice, 'believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?' "

Imagine someone asking "in an innocent voice" this: "Don't Jews use the blood of gentile children to make matzoh for Passover?" Such a smarmy injection of the "blood libel," an ancient canard of anti-Semitism, into civic discourse would indelibly brand the injector as a bigot with contempt for the public's ability to decode bigotry.

Huckabee's campaign actually is what Rudy Giuliani's candidacy is misdescribed as being -- a comprehensive apostasy against core Republican beliefs. Giuliani departs from recent Republican stances regarding two issues -- abortion and the recognition by law of same-sex couples. Huckabee's radical candidacy broadly repudiates core Republican policies such as free trade, low taxes, the essential legitimacy of America's corporate entities and the market system allocating wealth and opportunity. And consider New Hampshire's chapter of the National Education Association, the teachers union that is a crucial component of the Democratic Party's base.

In 2004, New Hampshire's chapter endorsed Howard Dean in the Democratic primary and no one in the Republican primary. Last week it endorsed Clinton in the Democratic primary -- and Huckabee in the Republican primary. It likes, as public employees generally do, his record of tax increases, and it applauds his opposition to school choice.

Huckabee's role in this year's '70s Show is not merely to attempt to revise a few Republican beliefs. He represents wholesale repudiation of what came after the 1970s -- Reaganism.

georgewill@washpost.com


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