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Thursday, December 30, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Ideological Conservatives: Why They Hate Clinton

Washington Post

WASHINGTON - David Brock, the conservative writer, was so upset by what he saw as the unfair charges brought by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas that he wrote a whole book aimed at trying to discredit Hill and everything she said.

After all, said Brock, liberals were prepared to do everything in their power to defeat Thomas. You couldn't, he insisted, accept these charges at face value.

This is the same David Brock who has produced an 11,000-word article on President Clinton's sex life as governor of Arkansas. In his piece in the American Spectator magazine, the tough-minded, skeptical Brock has disappeared.

For page after page, Brock simply repeats verbatim charges and dirty stories offered by two named and two unnamed Arkansas state troopers, the slimier and more prurient the better. What he claims as fact elides easily into gossip.

And yet Brock has the nerve to dress up his piece with phony academic phrases - "there is a larger point in the case of Clinton" - and he even includes footnotes.

The next time my conservative friends criticize the "irresponsible liberal media" or talk about "the decline of civility in American life," I'll just give them a copy of the Brock article.

For years, conservatives have had great fun attacking "liberal hypocrisy," and at least some of the time, I thought they had a point. But with the rise of Bill Clinton, conservatives seem quite willing to abandon principles they held to be sacrosanct when they were in power.

Gone is all the conservative talk about the need to "respect the presidency," the concern about "ruining people's lives" with unfair charges. Whenever liberals criticized Ronald Reagan, conservatives railed against them as "elitists" who could not accept election returns showing conservatism to be the doctrine preferred by the people. Now, many conservatives show rather less deference to the democratic process.

The real question raised by these charges is: Why do conservatives hate Bill Clinton so? If you listen to conservatives a lot, you routinely hear ugly and salacious jokes about the president and the first lady and talk suggesting this president is the most evil, dishonest, scheming character ever to live in the White House.

The treatment of Clinton by conservatives is actually much like the treatment of Richard Nixon by liberals. Something special is going on here.

For starters, let's exempt two groups whose dislike for Clinton is rooted in something other than politics. Vietnam veterans served their country in an unpopular war and got treated very shabbily when they got home. A lot of young men, including the president, escaped service in that war. Some in their ranks won't forgive Clinton, and who can really blame them?

Then there are people who really do object to having as president someone who effectively acknowledged cheating on his wife. These Americans genuinely want a president to exemplify certain virtues. They'll never like him, which is their right.

The group I am talking about is different: ideological conservatives who would have forgiven Ronald Reagan anything, and Ollie North almost anything. They are willing to go to great lengths to bring Clinton down because they see in him a threat they never saw in Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. In their bones, ideological conservatives know Clinton is the toughest adversary they have faced in a long time. He is trying to alter the country's political landscape and its assumptions about government. And he's actually doing it.

Take just three issues. Conservatives spent years arguing that the key to prosperity was cutting "high marginal tax rates," i.e. lowering taxes on the rich. Yet when Clinton proposed raising taxes on the rich, few conservatives were willing to defend outright the interests of the wealthy. They had to pretend that Clinton's tax increase was going to hit everyone hard, which it didn't. The new taxes on the wealthy passed. So far, the economy is improving anyway.

Conservatives have successfully beaten back proposals for universal health coverage since the days of Harry Truman. All they had to do was yell "socialized medicine," and the American Medical Association took care of the rest. But suddenly the assumptions on health care have changed. The country really is sympathetic to action. Smart conservative strategists such as William Kristol concede up front that if universal coverage is approved, the middle class will never allow it to be repealed, just as it has never allowed Social Security or Medicare to be wiped off the books.

Finally, Clinton has simply not allowed conservatives to have a monopoly on issues such as crime and welfare. Whenever the chips were down, the right could always attack Democrats for being "soft on criminals" and "against work."

They can't get away with that anymore. No one gives tougher speeches on crime, the value of work or the dangers of family breakup than Clinton. The voters have noticed.

It would be nice, of course, if some of the many honorable conservatives out there (Jack Kemp, Vin Weber, Henry Hyde come to mind) lectured their own side on the value of civility and suggested that beating Clinton on the merits would be far better than spreading sleazy stories about him.

But politics being what it is, a few lectures won't do much good. So Clinton will face a paradox - the more successful he is, the more bitter conservatives will get and the harsher the attacks will become.

Which simply means that Clinton won't be cut any slack. He can't mishandle or finesse the Arkansas bank deal. Until recently, the White House has tried to stonewall the story, which Richard Nixon can tell you is a lousy approach.

He can't mess up on little things, such as that upscale haircut. He'll be called to account for any departure from the high ethical standards he loudly proclaimed for his White House.

Hardest of all, Clinton can't even complain publicly that all this is unfair. That will be held against him, too. Clinton, who prides himself on having a great many friends, will just have to live with a great many enemies.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a member of The Washington Post editorial-page staff.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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