On Sunday, former President Bill Clinton reminded America that claims of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” did not begin with health-care town halls and the Tea Party protests.
On “Meet the Press,” host David Gregory asked Mr. Clinton if the “right-wing conspiracy” that his wife famously said was undermining his presidency in 1998 was undermining the Obama presidency.
Without hesitation, Clinton smiled: “You bet.”
In 1998, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton saw a conspiracy in the collection of political forces and shock jocks aligned to push for the impeachment of her husband for his affair with an intern.
The most ardent Democrats – perhaps the former president included – now see conspiracy in healthcare town halls where bad-tempered constituents are alleged to be the stooges of deep-pocketed organizers. Tea parties to protest huge government spending are the work of former Rep. Dick Armey and Fox News.
But Republicans are not the only targets. With flow charts so complicated that they would do Democrat healthcare reform-hawks proud, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck claims that President Obama is clearly a Communist. The president also was not born in the United States, making his presidency invalid.
Some of the claims might have more a ring of truth to them than others. But speaking more broadly, they suggest that both sides of the political spectrum, it seems, are increasingly unwilling to accept many of their opponents’ views as legitimate.
This plays into a broader trend that political scientists like Richard Reeves of the University of Southern California call “hyperpartisanship” – the inability of today’s parties to play nice – and they trace the beginnings of the current trend to the Clinton administration.
“If there is such a thing as hyperpartisanship, it peaked in the impeachment of Clinton, writes Professor Reeves in “Bridging the Political Divide in the 2008 Presidential Election. “Partisanship was the rule and it has stayed the rule.”
Seeing the trend as cyclical, Reeves suggested: “The next president of the United States may have the chance to unite the country in a way it has not been for several decades.”
In a way, Obama has, with approval ratings that remain relatively high (56 percent), despite a massive and controversial agenda.
Yet it also clear that his person and policies divide people just as Clinton did – and perhaps even more.
On “Meet the Press,” Clinton went on to say that the right-wing conspiracy “is not as strong as it was because America has changed demographically. But it’s as virulent as it was.”
One of Obama’s senior advisers, David Axelrod, said in April that the Tea Parties could “mutate into something that’s unhealthy.”
Another former president, Jimmy Carter, said in the wake of the congressional “you lie!” incident that much of the opposition to Obama was based on race, not on policy.
So far, however, the president and first lady have tried to stay above the fray. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama doesn’t think that criticism of his policies is “based on the color of his skin.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article had the wrong host for “Meet the Press.”