MAYBE IT'S HAPPENED BEFORE and I missed it. Maybe it's a practice that other administrations have indulged in once they've left office, only with less fanfare and visibility. But so far as I know, officials of the Clinton administration are the first to attack the policies of the next administration in a systematic way that includes public criticism, leaks, and dubious statements.
Now there's nothing illegal or even unethical about this. But it does abet the partisan and bitter tone that has seized Washington in recent years and it could undermine the new administration. And it's unprecedented, I believe. Up to now, there's been an unwritten rule that when the government changes hands--and parties--top officials from the prior administration don't attack the policies of the new administration. Others may criticize, since no administration is immune to criticism. But for the leaders of the administration that recently left office, this was regarded as bad form. The Clintonites, however, feel otherwise.
Who's done the zinging? The most persistent critic is Sandy Berger, the national security adviser under President Clinton. True, the criticism he's aimed at the Bush administration has been polite and generally high minded. And it's mitigated by the fact that the national security adviser in the first Bush administration, Brent Scowcroft, has been far more critical of the current Bush administration, though Scowcroft's own protege, Condoleezza Rice, is now the national security adviser. Nor has Berger uttered anything as inflammatory as has Warren Christopher, Clinton's first secretary of state. Christopher likened terrorism suspects held by the Bush administration to the "disappeareds" who were secretly executed in Argentina years ago.
Nonetheless, Berger has repeatedly aired his strong differences with Bush's foreign policy, both in op-eds and on TV. He's faulted President Bush on such issues as the Middle East, missile defense, Iraq, and relations with Russia and China. In one column, Berger indicated that Bush had inadvertently strengthened the hand of hard-line, anti-American officials in China. In another, he wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn't accept a decision by Bush to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty. As it turned out, Putin did accept exactly that. Berger also figured prominently in a highly questionable Time magazine story saying the September 11 hijackings might have been averted if a Clinton plan for dealing with al Qaeda terrorists had been adopted by Bush.
Another critic is Gene Sperling, the top White House economic adviser to Clinton. He was especially active following Vice President Cheney's speech on the economy last week, insisting Bush and Cheney are "very worried" because they have a "very weak economic record." To a lesser extent, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has chimed in, citing the Bush tax cut as the chief impediment to improving the economy.
The most venomous attacks have come from Al Gore, Clinton's vice president, and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman. Gore gets a pass because he's probably running for president in 2004. He's a candidate. McAuliffe didn't work in the Clinton administration, but that doesn't absolve him. Why not? Because he's the closest thing Clinton has to a public mouthpiece. McAuliffe got the party post only through Clinton's intervention and he now performs the duty of saying what would be crass or impolitic for Clinton to say. It's inconceivable McAuliffe's anti-Bush speech to a meeting of the Democratic National Committee last week wasn't at least partially the work of Clinton himself.
On rare occasions, the Bush administration has opened itself to legitimate criticism by the Clintonites. One of these occurred at a White House briefing when Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested Clinton was responsible for leaving Bush with a difficult situation in the Middle East. Actually Clinton had pushed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis. It wasn't Clinton's fault that Arafat refused a generous offer. Wisely, the Bush White House quickly withdrew the Fleischer criticism.
But that mistake hardly warrants some of the things said by the Clinton crowd. McAuliffe, for instance, said that Bush ordered Republicans on Capitol Hill to begin personal attacks on Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. He claimed Clinton left Bush with the strongest economy in history. In truth, Bush was left with an economy already in recession when he took office in January 2001, a recession that lasted 9 months. It was Clinton, when he became president in 1993, who was handed a rapidly growing economy.
The press reported the opposite and has never corrected its mistaken judgment. And the Clintonites aren't about to correct it now. On the contrary, Sperling to this day peddles the line that Bush, before he was inaugurated as president, caused the economy to weaken by "talking" it down. All Bush did, of course, was accurately describe the state of the economy at the time. That, the Clintonites noisily refuse to accept.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.