President Biden continues to take a more aggressive approach toward his opposition, calling out Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott in a Tuesday tweet after the lawmaker delivered a copy of his “Rescue America” plan to the White House and accusing Scott’s bill of “putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block.” On this week’s Now & Then episode, “When Parties Push Back,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed other moments when American politicians struck back against belligerent critics, from Massachusetts Representative Anson Burlingame’s willingness to duel South Carolina’s Preston Brooks in 1856, to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 “I Welcome Their Hatred” speech. In the lead-up to the 2000 election, President Bill Clinton’s criticism of Republican candidate George W. Bush showed the familiar risk and reward of confrontational political rhetoric. 

On January 21st, 2000, Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush declared at a press conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa that he believed Roe v. Wade had been wrongly decided. “I felt like it was a case where the court took the place of what the legislatures do in America,” Bush proclaimed. “That’s the case where the court stepped across its bounds and usurped the rights of legislatures.” 

Bush had been pushed to make the statement by his main challenger in the Republican Iowa Caucuses, Forbes heir Steve Forbes. The magazine magnate had suddenly come out as a social conservative after  1996 run focused on fiscal conservatism and alleged that Bush was an abortion “moderate” who refused to pledge to appoint only anti-choice judges. “Bush won’t give a real answer on Roe v. Wade,” Forbes complained. “He ducked on that and he ducked on the judges.” 

One day after Bush went on record against Roe, President Clinton – who had been mostly silent about the race to decide who would run against his Vice President, Al Gore–appeared at a Democratic National Committee luncheon at Los Angeles’ now-defunct, members-only Regency Club. 

“I appreciate Governor Bush being candid enough to say he didn’t believe in Roe v. Wade,” Clinton told the crowd of donors and state notables, including California Governor Gray Davis. “In another article a couple weeks ago, he said the two Justices on the Supreme Court he most admired were Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas,” Clinton continued. “I think this is good.”

The crowd laughed, but Clinton cautioned them. “No, no, this is a good thing. People should say what they think. And we shouldn’t be hateful about it; we shouldn’t be mean…but we should make sure that everybody knows where everybody else is coming from in this deal. And it’s not helpful to go around with your head in the sand and pretend that there are no consequences here.”

The Democratic National Committee Chair, former Philadelphia mayor and future Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, positioned Bush’s anti-Roe coming out far more bluntly. He held up a newspaper with a headline about Bush’s Council Bluffs announcement and said, “I don’t know if you can see it, ‘Roe v. Wade was a reach,’ Bush says,” Rendell clarified. “Well, that ought to send a chill up your spine.” 

After his abortion-related pushbacks, however, Clinton went largely quiet on the Bush candidacy. In the interim, Forbes began to slide and Arizona Senator John McCain became Bush’s biggest rival in an increasingly combative battle for the nomination. 

The rancor between Bush and McCain intensified on February 2nd, when Bush gave a campaign address at Bob Jones University, a Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina that effectively forbade inter-racial dating among its students and barred Catholics from attending. McCain quickly seized on the issue, targeting Catholic voters with phone calls dubbed a “Catholic voter alert,” highlighting the school’s characterization of the faith as a “Satanic cult.” Bush campaign chief strategist Karl Rove argued that McCain’s tactic used “sleazy, anonymous phone calls in the name of phony groups.” Bush himself called the calls “slander,” but ultimately apologized for the “needless offense” caused by his visit to the school. 

Bush would get his revenge. In the lead-up to Super Tuesday, March 7th, 2000, the Bush campaign ran a series of radio ads in New York accusing McCain of opposing breast cancer research due to his vote the previous year against a $13 billion spending package that included – among many other things – funding for the North Shore Long Island Jewish breast cancer program and several state breast cancer mapping research programs. 

Breast cancer survivor and funding activist Geri Barish taped one Bush ad in which she excoriated McCain’s record and said, “We need a candidate with a record on women’s issues we can trust.” McCain eventually expressed his displeasure with the characterization, but, in Clinton’s assessment from his memoir, My Life, “Senator McCain didn’t hit back hard at the Bush campaign or the right-wing extremists for smearing him until it was too late.” 

After defeating McCain in New York and in several other critical Super Tuesday states, Bush – now the presumptive nominee – also upped his attacks on Clinton. In a speech to supporters in Austin on the night of his primary victories, Bush argued that Gore would be a simple continuation of Clintonian rule: “Someone will make history this November. Either we will ratify the status quo, or we will have a new beginning in American politics. I say: America must not give Clinton-Gore a third term.”

Initially, Clinton did not comment on the internecine fights between Bush or McCain, nor did he take the bait as Bush began invoking his name. At a Lincolnwood, Illinois fundraiser on March 13th, Clinton waxed philosophical on his avoidance of a back-and-forth with Bush and the GOP. “I don’t feel the need to attack them the way they attack us,” Clinton told supporters at the home of Chicago lawyer Mike Cherry. “I think they actually believe what they say. I just think they’re wrong.” 

“There will be a lot of shouting and name-calling and elbowing in this election. There always is,” Clinton predicted. “I don’t think it’s necessary to believe that Governor Bush is a bad human being to believe he shouldn’t be President.” 

Clinton had changed his tune, however, by March 30th, when he landed in New York City for a luncheon fundraiser. Clinton gave remarks for members of the Democratic Women’s Leadership Forum hosted by Denise Rich, the ex-wife of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who Clinton would offer a controversial eleventh-hour pardon the next year. 

Clinton was coming from a dinner the previous night at Allen University, an HBCU in Columbia, South Carolina, in honor of Representative James Clyburn. Clinton pivoted to discussing his attendance at the 35th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday in Selma two weeks earlier; Clinton had advocated for the removal of the Confederate flag from official South Carolina flagpoles. 

Then, the President suddenly turned to the presumptive Republican presidential candidate and to the Bob Jones speech. “You can’t imagine what a big deal this was to a southerner,” Clinton said. “Anybody that went through the civil rights revolution was more offended by that, I think, than anything else.” Clinton clarified he was not saying to avoid the Bob Joneses of the world altogether, but rather to challenge them during an engagement: “You know, there are good people everywhere. But if you’re going to go there, you should say, ‘I don’t agree with your racial and religious policies.’”

The floodgates were open. After rattling off a series of gripes with Republican lawmakers – their voting down the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty the previous October (on which Clinton had collaborated closely with now-President Biden), their aversion to an expanded child care tax credit, and their refusal to collaborate on improving Medicare. 

But Clinton soon moved back to Bush and offered his most biting criticism – an indictment of Bush’s response to the brutal killing of Black Texan James Byrd, Jr., who white supremacists tied to the back of a truck and dragged for three miles in June 1998. Almost a year later, Byrd’s daughter, Renee Mullins, arrived in Austin to promote the James Byrd Jr. Act, a state hate crimes bill that ultimately failed due to Republican opposition to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals among the protected groups. 

Clinton had met Mullins at the airport. “I stood on the tarmac in Austin, Texas, at the airport and embraced the weeping daughter of James Byrd,” he told the donors. “[She] came all the way back from Hawaii to lobby for the hate crimes bill, pleading with the Governor to meet with her. He refused. Finally, he did…All he had to do was lift his hand, and they would have had a hate crimes bill. And it did not pass because they did not want it to pass, because they did not believe that gays and lesbians should be protected by hate crimes legislation.”

Clinton was not done. He hit Bush on the McCain ads: “I don’t believe, by the way, that John McCain is against breast cancer research, either, which was the main thing I heard about in the New York primary,” he said. “That was a total misrepresentation of what was going on. It was completely unfair. And that’s the most charitable word I can think of to characterize it.” 

The critique had come to a close, and Clinton circled back, after a long departure, to his support for Al Gore. “Yes, I want Al Gore to be President, because he’s been the best Vice President in history and because I love him.” 

That night, however, Clinton went back to highlighting the differences between Democrats and Bush. At a dinner fundraiser at the home of John Catsimatidis, the New York City-based grocery store and real estate magnate who is now a vocal supporter of former President Trump, Clinton excoriated Bush for his aversion to gun reform: “Governor Bush and the Republican congressional leadership, they’ve been against closing the gun show loophole…And this has a lot to do with whether your kids are safe.”

The following day, the Washington Post called the luncheon talk Clinton’s “sharpest and broadest attack to date” on Bush. An aide told the newspaper that Bush’s success on Super Tuesday was partially to blame: “The game is different than it was a month ago.” The aides added that Clinton “did not make a conscious effort to dramatically escalate his criticisms,” but that he was “very aware that Bush has made attacks on Clinton a centerpiece of his campaign.” 

Clinton’s level of involvement in Gore’s campaign and the intensity of his vitriol toward Bush would continue to fluctuate over the next eight months, until the intensities of hanging chads and Supreme Court rulings put George W. Bush in the White House. Regardless of outcome, Clinton’s initial choice to push back on Bush’s tactics and policy positions – and the areas where he chose to push – show the depth of ideological and stylistic continuity between the parties of 2000 and those of today. 

For a scholarly and illuminating take on the 2000 election, read James Ceasar and Andrew Busch’s 2003 The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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