Republican Whip Eric Cantor meets with his staffers. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)
Today's Republicans are thumbing through Newt Gingrich's worn playbook of 1993 looking for tips on how to blunt President Barack Obama's political momentum and flip it to their advantage. In doing so, they also appear to have dug in to what might be called the secret appendix.
The official history of what happened during Bill Clinton's difficult first two years - which ended in a sweeping Republican congressional victory in 1994 - focuses on the GOP's united resistance to his economic plan and Hillary Clinton's failed health care reform. But there was a darker side to the political damage inflicted on the early Clinton administration.
Republicans and their right-wing allies disseminated what - in a covert operation - would be called "black propaganda." Some exaggerated minor scandals, like the Travel Office firings and Clinton's Whitewater real-estate deal, while other key figures on the Right, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, spread ugly conspiracy rumors linking Clinton to "mysterious deaths" and cocaine smuggling.
Sometimes, these multiplying "Clinton scandals" built on themselves with the help of their constant repetition in both the right-wing and mainstream news media. For instance, overheated accusations about some personnel changes at the White House Travel Office pushed deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster into a deep depression.
Then, on July 30, 1993, a distraught Foster went to Fort Marcy Park along the Potomac River and shot himself. The Right quickly transformed the tragedy into a new front in the anti-Clinton psychological warfare, with Foster's death giving rise to a cottage industry for conspiracy theorists and a new way to raise doubts about Clinton.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, among others, popularized the notion that Foster may have been killed elsewhere, with his body then transported to Fort Marcy Park. Repeated official investigations confirmed the obvious facts of Foster's suicide but could not quell the conspiracy rumors. [For the fullest account of the Foster case, see Dan Moldea's A Washington Tragedy.]
The "mystery" around Foster's death also bolstered the "mysterious deaths" list, which mostly contained names of people who had only tangential connections to Clinton. The effectiveness of the list was the sheer volume of the names, creating the illusion that Clinton must be a murderer even though there was no real evidence implicating Clinton in any of the deaths.
As the list was blast-faxed far and wide, one of my right-wing sources called me up about the list and said, "even if only a few of these are real, that's one helluva story." I responded that if the President of the United States had murdered just one person that would be "one helluva story," but that there was no evidence that Clinton was behind any of the deaths.
Other dark Clinton "mysteries" were spread through videos, like "The Clinton Chronicles" that Falwell hawked on his "Old-Time Gospel Hour" television show. Plus, salacious tales about the personal lives of the Clintons were popularized via right-wing magazines, such as The American Spectator, and the rapidly expanding world of right-wing talk radio.
The Right also generated broader conspiracy theories about "black helicopters" threatening patriotic Americans with a United Nations takeover. The paranoia fed the rise of a "militia movement" of angry white men who dressed up in fatigues and went into the woods for paramilitary training.
By fall 1994, Clinton's stumbling performance in office and the public doubts created by the black propaganda opened the way for a stunning Republican victory. Recognizing the influence of talk radio in spreading the Clinton smears, House Republicans made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the GOP caucus.
However, the forces that the anti-Clinton psy-war campaign set in motion had unintended consequences. In the months after the Republicans gained control of Congress, one pro-militia extremist, Timothy McVeigh, took the madness to the next step and blew up the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Clinton Coup d'Etat?"]
Reprising the Smears
Now, 16 years since the start of Clinton's presidency, the Republicans and their right-wing allies are again on the outside of Washington power and are back studying the lessons of 1993-94. Only a month into Obama's presidency, there are some striking similarities in the two historical moments.
In both cases, the Democrats inherited recessions and huge budget deficits from Republican presidents named Bush. In both cases, congressional Republicans rallied against the economic package of the new President hoping to strangle the young Democratic administrations in their cradles.
And, as congressional Republicans worked on a more overt political level, their media allies and other operatives were getting busy at subterranean depths, reviving attack lines from the campaigns to sow doubts about the two Democratic presidents - and trying to whip up the right-wing base into a near revolutionary fervor.
So far at least, the Republicans are experiencing less success against Barack Obama than they did against Bill Clinton. According to opinion polls, Obama remains widely popular with an American public that favors his more activist agenda for reviving the American economy and confronting systemic problems like energy, health care and education.
Though Republicans scored points inside the Beltway with their opposition to Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill - and their complaints that Obama "failed" in his bipartisan outreach to them - the GOP tactics appear to have backfired with the American people.
Gauging public opinion one month into Obama's presidency, polls found that most Americans faulted the Republicans for rebuffing Obama's gestures of bipartisanship, and a New York Times/CBS News poll discovered that a majority said Obama "should pursue the priorities he campaigned on … rather than seek middle ground with Republicans." [NYT, Feb. 24, 2009]
But the Republicans seem incapable of coming up with any other strategy than to seek Obama's destruction, much as they torpedoed Clinton. The three moderate Republican senators who supported the stimulus package - Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter - were widely denounced by the right-wing media as "traitors."
Indeed, the Republican Party arguably has become captive to the angry right-wing media that the GOP conservatives did so much to help create in the late 1970s, after the Vietnam War defeat and Richard Nixon's Watergate debacle.
This Right-Wing Machine proved useful in protecting Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal; undermining Clinton in the 1990s; dirtying up Al Gore in 2000; and wrapping George W. Bush in the protective garb of a full-scale cult of personality after 9/11.
But the machine wore down in its defense of Bush's multitude of disasters and ultimately could not generate enough suspicions about Obama to elect John McCain. Still, it remains a potent force in the country and particularly among the Republican "base."
It is also a machine that can run only on the high-octane fuel of anger and hate. If it tried to down-shift to a more responsible approach to politics, it would stall out, losing its core audience of angry white men who feel deeply aggrieved by their loss of status.
In turn, Republican leaders can't disown the right-wing media infrastructure that has advanced their interests for so long. In the first month of Obama's presidency, the congressional Republicans fell in line behind Rush Limbaugh's openly declared desire for Obama to fail.
Now, the Republicans may see little choice but to bet on the ability of their Right-Wing Machine to continue spreading doubts and hysteria about Obama.
More books and DVDs can be expected soon, recycling the 2008 campaign's rumor-mongering on Obama - that he wasn't born in the United States, that he's a secret Muslim, that he's in league with 1960s radical Bill Ayers, etc.
Much like the Clinton-era militia movement's fear of "black helicopters," there already are rumblings about the need for an armed uprising to thwart Obama's alleged "communist" agenda.
Ironically, right-wingers who defended George W. Bush when he mounted a radical assault on the Constitution - seeking to establish an imperial presidency while eliminating habeas corpus and other key freedoms - are suddenly seeing threats to the Constitution from Obama.
Fox News, in particular, has been floating the idea of armed rebellion. On Feb. 20 - the one-month anniversary of Obama's inauguration - Glenn Beck hosted a special program called "War Room" that "war-gamed" various scenarios including the overthrow of an oppressive U.S. government when "bubba" militias rise up and gain the support of the American military.
The segment featured former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, retired U.S. Army Sgt. Major Tim Strong, and Gerald Celente, a prognosticator who began pitching the idea of an armed rebellion on Fox News shortly after Obama's election last November.
"This is going to be violent," said Celente, founder of Trends Research Institute. "People can't afford it [taxes] anymore. The cities are going to look like Dodge City. They're going to be uncontrollable. You're going to have gangs in control. Motorcycle marauders. You're not going to have enough police or federales - just like Mexico - to control the situation."
Beck envisioned the uprising - theoretically set in 2014 - starting "because people have been so disenfranchised" leading to a "bubba effect" touched off by federal agents from the ATF or FBI arresting some rancher in Texas or Arizona who has taken the law into his own hands in defending his property.
"That's totally possible," ex-Sgt. Strong said. "You've got people who are going to do the right thing to truly protect the interests of the United States, to include their own. … Your second and third orders of effect are going to be your bubbas hunkering down and being anti-government."
Beck, who was a longtime fixture on CNN's Headline News before moving to Fox, then expanded on the justification for the bubba uprising against a federal government that was "coming in and disenfranchising people over and over and over again - and having the people say please listen to us."
According to Beck, these oppressed Americans "know the Constitution. They know the writings of the Founders and they feel that the government - or they will in this scenario and I think we're on this road - the government has betrayed the Constitution. So they will see themselves as people who are standing up for the Constitution."
Beck then turned to ex-CIA officer Scheuer and asked, "So how do you defuse this, Michael, or how long even do we have before this becomes a crazy real scenario?"
"I don't think you'd want to defuse it, Glenn," Scheuer responded. "The Second Amendment is … at base not about hunting or about a militia, but about resisting tyranny. The Founders were very concerned about allowing individual citizens weaponry to defend themselves as a last resort against a tyrannical government."
As the discussion edged toward advocacy of violent revolution, Beck sought to reel it back in a bit.
"Don't get me wrong," the host said. "I am against the government. And I think they've just been horrible. I do think they are betraying the principles of our Founders every day they're in office. But I have to tell you this scenario scares the living daylights out of me because it is shaking nitroglycerine."
Beck then got back to the point: "Do the soldiers come in and do they round up people or do they fight with the people for the Constitution? What does the Army, what does the military do?"
Scheuer answered: "I don't think the military is ever going to shoot on the American people, sir. I think the military - of all people - read the Constitution every year, right through."
Beck then suggested that Obama's stimulus package might lead to this back-door federal tyranny.
"We just had in our stimulus package a way for if your governor says no to the money, the legislature can go around the governor and go right to the Feds," Beck said. "It's this kind of thing that would make the federal government say, ‘You know what? We can call up the National Guard. We don't need your governor to do it.'"
Such insurrectionist musings on Fox News are not likely to be taken seriously by most people. Indeed, many Americans may find it amusing that Fox has developed a heartfelt concern about disenfranchising voters after its enthusiastic embrace of Bush's undemocratic "election" in 2000 or that Fox now feels a sudden reverence for the Constitution after eight years of defendin Bush as he trampled it.
But this sort of Fox chatter runs the risk of feeding the well-nursed grievances of angry white "bubbas" and possibly inspiring a new Timothy McVeigh.
More significantly, today's Republican leaders - finding themselves with little new to offer - appear to have turned to the well-worn pages of this earlier GOP playbook to choose the same game plan that set the nation on a dangerous and destructive course 16 years ago, a course that only now, finally, may be playing out.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.