Former President Bill Clinton needs little provocation when it comes to questioning Karl Rove's tactics.
Clinton showed no hesitation reeling off three sharp questions for White House adviser Karl Rove - when asked for one - and he offered some muted praise for his successor in an interview at the Aspen IdeasFestival, where he graced the stage for the second straight year.
Clinton told an audience of about 600 that President George W. Bush had been more successful getting congress to support funding to fight AIDS, and said it was natural for a president after 911 to assert stronger executive powers. He also praised the Bush administration for its position and rhetoric regaring genocide in Darfur, saying the administration "actually has been quite good" in taking a stand.
But the Democrat's most animated moments came when Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows asked him what question Clinton would want to ask President Bush's top aide, who speaks here Sunday.
In short order, Clinton came up with three.
"I would ask him to give an honest answer to the following," he said, asking whether if top Clinton adviser Raum Emanuel [now a congressman] had blown the cover of a CIA agent, thus undermining the cover of untold number of other agents probably working to fight terrorism, and that agent's husband happened to be Joe Wilson, who had failed to support an administration claim regarding nuclear transactions between Niger and Iraq, "would you (Rove) or would you not...call Raum Emanuel a traitor?" He also wondered if Rove would have instructed Republican congressman to take the floor and echo such traitorous claims.
"I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he'd say that's exactly what I'd ask them to do, and I don't know why they didn't," Clinton mused. "I mean this guy is good."
The former president, who was departing Saturday to attend the World Cup final Sunday, also suggested Rove be asked how anyone could question the patriotism of former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who Clinton noted had left two legs and part of an arm on the battlefield in the Vietnam War but who was defeated in 2002 after ads for Republican rival Saxby Chambliss associated Cleland with images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Thirdly, Clinton said Rove should be asked why the Bush Administration would offer an estate tax repeal valued at 20 times the cost it would take to strengthen gaps in the security of U.S. ports, but which Republicans had roundly rejected.
Asked about Democrat's electoral prospects in November, Clinton rebutted a questioner who said Democrats did not appear to be able to differentiate themselves from the majority Republican party, while acknowledging his party would has a major disadvantage in communicating its message due to the GOP's control over the executive and Congress, as well as judicial appointments.
"I think the differences are clear," he said, acknowledging Democrats needed to run a national campaign emphasizing what he said was their commitment to open and accountable government rather than his characterization of Republicans' efforts to concentrate power and reward the wealthiest taxpayers. "911 suspended critical thinking for awhile," he said, adding, "they ran that old dog up the chute for a couple of elections."
"Historically, we should win," Clinton said, referring to the trend of second term presidents to lose legislative seats at mid-term elections, and he said it was possible to win a majority on Capital Hill, at least in one of the houses. He questioned whether Republican baiting on issues like flag-burning and gay marriage would start to wear thin: "I don't know how long you can milk that old cow."
In the hour-long interview, Clinton touched on a variety of subjects:
- Alternative Energy. He praised the 25% tax cut for clean energy development as a part of the 2005 Energy Act which he said he'd once proposed, but which had been met with indifference by the Republican Congress. "It elicited a giant yawn," he said. "I told Newt Gingrich I finally found a tax cut he would oppose."
- Climate Change. Clinton praised former Vice President Al Gore's climate change movie, "an Inconvenient Truth," adding he now believes the issue is 'a lot worse' and its potential consequences more widely appreciated than it was when he was in office. "In addition to climate change, we may not have as much oil [reserves in the world] as we think," he said.
- Jobs. Related to climate change, the former president argued America was failing to exploit opportunities for new technologies that were being embraced by other countries, and that we risk falling behind. "This decade's new jobs are in clean energy and we haven't seized them."
- Iraq and Afganistan. Clinton kept consistent with his previous statements that the United States should not set a deadline for pulling out of Iraq, and he also expresed concerns about a resurgance of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
- Hamas and Israel. Clinton said he was split in his opinion of the administration's response to Hamas's electoral victory, supporting Bush and the European Union for withholding nonhumanitarian aid due to Hamas's failure to recognize Israel, to renounce terror and to honor treaties, but he also said it remained important to keep channels of communication open. "You don't have to advertise it. You don't have to put it in the paper.... I'd still talk to them if they wanted to talk. The more you talk the fewer people will die."
UPDATE - James Fallows has posted a wonderful description of how it felt sit next to Clinton in the interviewer's seat, with some of the most telling lines coming towards the end. We indeed found the former president particularly relaxed and eager to linger at the rope line to speak with attendees.