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Oops, Bill Did It Again

Bill Clinton recently returned to the Carolinas, trying to scare up votes for his wife’s flailing presidential campaign by appearing to bash her opponent — Barack Obama.

As we know, the former president has a way with words. But since Hillary started running for president — and coming up short in the popular vote, fund-raising, delegate count and number of states won — Bill has developed a knack for saying the ugliest and most inappropriate things about Obama.

Unfortunately, Bill Clinton also has a reputation for choosing his words very carefully. That fact suggests these putdowns aren’t careless gaffes, poorly chosen phrases or slips of the tongue. It’s likely that Clinton knows exactly what he is saying and for what effect. Like, in January, when he tried to imply that Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary was no big deal because even “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina.” Clinton shrugged off the criticism he got for that crack, calling accusations that he played the race card “a myth and a mugging.”

The latest bubba eruption occurred recently when Bill Clinton was speaking to veterans in Charlotte, NC. One minute, he was playing up a match-up between Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and brushing aside Obama. The next, he was saying how it “would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country.” That way, he said, “people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.”

That would be the “stuff” that the Clintons keep interjecting into our politics with cynical and divisive comments like that.

Obama has been accused of not being black enough and, more recently with the controversy involving his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, of not being mainstream enough. And now he is being accused of — what — not being patriotic enough?

Had enough? I sure have. And so has the Obama campaign, which dispatched an aide and retired Air Force general to return fire. Merrill McPeak, a co-chairman of Obama’s campaign, reminded Bill Clinton — who did whatever he could to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War — that his critics said much the same thing about him when he first ran for president in 1992. And then McPeak went nuclear by comparing Clinton to the late Sen. Joe McCarthy who, in the 1950’s, tried to advance his own career by ruining the lives of countless Americans.

A spokesman for the Clinton campaign bristled and called the comparison absurd.

But is it really? McCarthy’s notorious crusade against communism was all about challenging people’s loyalty to the United States. That’s what Bill Clinton was doing when he seemed to infer that Obama wasn’t among the presidential candidates who “loved this country.”

History doesn’t recall McCarthy fondly. And, I suspect, the same will be true of Bill Clinton’s boorish behavior in this campaign.

As for the timing, do you suppose it’s a coincidence that Clinton decided to play the patriotism card in the middle of the controversy involving Wright, who has been known to spew anti-American venom?

In addressing that issue, Obama recently acknowledged that he was aware of some of Wright’s comments but refused to denounce the man. The 46-year-old delivered a brave and brilliant speech on race in America that, no doubt, lifted the spirit of millions of Americans.

By contrast, Bill Clinton’s remarks demonstrated why so many Americans could use a lift.

Ruben Navarrette, Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.com.