Paul Begala can’t forget what happened on Thursday, Aug. 11, 1994. It was the day he thinks the seed was planted that grew into today’s refusal by Senate Republicans to consider any Supreme Court nominee submitted by President Obama. Moreover, he sees it as helping put the nation on the path to what has become this year’s tumultuous, institution-rattling, often-dispiriting, anything-but-uplifting presidential campaign.
That was the day when Congress was fighting over President Bill Clinton’s crime bill and House Republican Conference Chairman Dick Armey of Texas rose from his seat to face the Democratic side of the aisle. With contempt in his voice, Armey all but shouted at the Democrats, “Your president is just not that important to us.”
Begala, then a top White House aide, was stunned at the suggestion that Clinton really wasn’t president of the nation’s Republicans. “There is a straight line from that moment to the birther nonsense to denying President Obama a fair hearing on a Supreme Court nominee,” Begala told National Journal. “Republicans have had a decades-long effort to delegitimize any Democratic president.”
Republicans broaden the charge. They don’t deny that many in the GOP raised questions about Clinton’s legitimacy because he failed to win a majority in either of his elections. And they did impeach him. They also provided ample encouragement to those on the fringe who challenged President Obama’s legitimacy by questioning whether he was really born in Hawaii. But they fire back by accusing Democrats of undermining the legitimacy of George W. Bush, the Republican president in between Clinton and Obama.
Both sides are correct in their accusations and both are complicit in creating a toxic environment unprecedented in American history. There have been many instances in the past when presidents have had their legitimacy challenged. John Quincy Adams never recovered from accusations that a “corrupt bargain” put him in office in 1824; Rutherford B. Hayes was hobbled after he won the presidency only by a deal in 1876 to end Reconstruction. And Benjamin Harrison’s standing suffered by the way he won the election in 1888.
But the country has never seen anything like the last 23 years, during which three presidents have had their legitimacy constantly under challenge, with an accompanying rise in polarization, creating the climate for the current standoff on the Supreme Court and a brutish presidential campaign characterized by insults and attacks.
Less than 24 hours after Clinton was elected in 1992 with only 43 percent of the vote, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole declared, “Fifty-seven percent of the Americans who voted in the presidential election voted against Bill Clinton, and I intend to represent that majority on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Presidential scholar Julia Azari of Marquette University noted that, to some, “Clinton was perceived as having won only because [Ross] Perot stole votes that would have otherwise gone to George H.W. Bush.”
Eight years later, after it took a controversial Supreme Court decision to hand the presidency to George W. Bush, several Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus disrupted the counting of Electoral College ballots to protest. In his memoirs, Bush complained that “[p]artisan opponents and commentators questioned my legitimacy, my intelligence and my sincerity. They mocked my appearance, my accent and my religious beliefs. I was labeled a Nazi, a war criminal and Satan himself.”
Then, another eight years later, the treatment of Obama was even less restrained. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in his memoirs, said the birther attacks had a real impact on governing. “No other president’s legitimacy as a person and officeholder has been challenged in the way President Obama’s most extreme critics have questioned his. Those challenges have encouraged the president’s caution and defensiveness, which in turn has emboldened further challenges.”
Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said this week that the challenges to Bush’s legitimacy were “just something we learned to deal with,” starting at the very beginning of his term when Bush invited several Democratic members of Congress to a meeting only to have some refuse “because they viewed him as an illegitimate president.” Because he saw the damage that attitude did, Fleischer has spoken out against the birthers. “I never liked it when people tried to delegitimize Bush, and I won’t do that to President Obama,” he told NJ. “I’m happy to have policy disputes with him, but not the rest.”
Begala took a similar lesson from what he saw in the Clinton White House. “George W. Bush was, in my eyes and the eyes of many Democrats, illegitimately installed as president in 2000. But Democrats worked with him. … Democrats gave him votes on his Supreme Court nominees.”
Marquette’s Azari, citing the challenge to any Obama Supreme Court nominee and the tone of the campaign, sees scant hope for improvement in the treatment of the next president. The challenge to institutions has “converged with polarization to make presidential legitimacy really dicey,” she said. “Maybe we are seeing the culmination of a general lack of legitimacy … oddly combined with this demand for a strong president to fix it.”