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Sunday, January 20, 2008

It's all about Bill

With a bunch of reporters at a bar on Sunday, Bill made the problem hers. "We can't be a new story, I'm sorry. I can't make her younger, taller, male.'' -Bloomberg.com

In an alternative universe President Bill Clinton might have used his retirement to survey the landscape of his journey through public life and made some fundamental changes in how he operates. After a political career that, whatever else you might say, was always more tacky than tactful, Clinton could have, knowing his wife and life partner aspired to the presidency, calibrated his public persona to fits those goals. Elder statesman, eminence grise, party arbiter and nurturer of new talent, supportive spouse..alas, it was never meant to be.

In an alternative universe, of course, Senator Clinton would have won Iowa.

She did not and what has followed now seems like it was inevitable. Bill Clinton is in the news. Bill Clinton has been in the news. And, for as long as Senator Clinton's run for the presidency continues, perhaps even back to the White House, we all know that Bill Clinton will be the news. He and the cameras and microphones seem to have a mutually insatiable appetite. And when the cameras are rolling Bill is proving to be, at the very least, a frequent liability.

Truth is, Bill Clinton is also the Clinton campaign's major asset on the campaign trail. He worked the Las Vegas strip over the last week like someone who has won the presidency twice before. He is someone who knows how and where to land a knock out blow; even if that blow is a sucker punch. While Bill Clinton is most famous for his rhetoric and communication skills, this go round those skills aren't always serving him so well. However, when it comes to the state-to-state politics of primary season, ex-president Clinton knows who to talk to and how to play the game. Bill Clinton knows how to win elections in the USA. No one can deny him that.

And, yes, he can't deny himself, even when he's "on" he can't hold back. And isn't that the point?

President Bill Clinton is aware of the 22nd Amendment. Of that you can be sure. President Clinton is familiar with the long tradition in American history, initiated by George Washington and followed by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, of respecting the limited and finite nature of that American invention, the citizen executive. He is aware that the how and style of previous presidential retirements have implied a respect for the fundamental values of our Constitution.

But, yes, once again in American political life, suddenly, inevitably, it's all about Bill. One would think that if you were involved in the coincidence of the campaign to elect the first woman president with the campaign to elect the first First Lady president, that as a potential First Gentleman and former President oneself you would calibrate your rhetoric and your style and have some deference for your spouse. Not just for her sake, but for ours. To make it absolutely clear to everyone that we were electing Senator Clinton on her own terms and strengths, and they are many, and not sidestepping the 22nd Amendment.

That just wasn't meant to be.

Lost in the fake brouhaha about Senator Obama's comments about Ronald Reagan (as if an African-American former community-organizer from Chicago's South Side in the 1980s is unclear about the legacy of Ronald Reagan) was the utterly mystifying quote with which I led this piece:

We can't be a new story, I'm sorry. I can't make her younger, taller, male.

That's a phrase that's 'a tell' for those who have ears to hear it. Sure, it's unfortunate, and patronizing...to her and us...and sexist. We can elect Senator Clinton to be President, or not, on her own terms, thank you very much. But that's not the point. What Bill Clinton really meant, on some level, is that he can't make her Bill.

At the end of the day, the message Bill and Hillary Clinton are sending to the American public is that the only way to pull the plug on the intersection of the Bill Clinton saga and the office of the president is for primary voters to decide to vote for someone else. He's not going to change.

Never has, never will.

There's no alternative universe when it comes to Bill.

4 Comments:

  • Exactly, and that's why Obama will lose. He's being double-teamed in the good cop bad cop routine, and out there in the non-blogging world, there's just too much adulation for Bill Clinton. Scratch beneath the surface of a lot of low-information Clinton voters, and you'll likely find that they're voting for Hillary precisely because they think they'll get Bill as part of the deal.

    Sure, it's unseemly, but it's going to work.

    (BTW, I bet pollster will start asking questions along this line, eg. "If Hillary Clinton becomes president, are you comfortable with Bill Clinton having some executive power?")

    OT, do you get the impression that it's OK for Hillary to play the gender card, but not OK for Obama to play the race card? Or am I mistaken?

    By Anonymous Nigel Aimes, at 6:46 PM  

  • The New York Times already asked that question and 46% of voters who supported Hillary said they were doing so because they liked Bill and wanted him back in the White House.

    46%

    That is an incredibly huge number. So basically Obama is fighting Bill Clinton for the presidency. And I think Obama knows it and everybody else knows it too.

    And yes, I do think that Hillary can play the woman card. When she said that being woman was big change by itself was a dead giveaway. Could you imagine Barack saying that? He'd be "pulling the race card" or some such nonsense.

    By Anonymous window124, at 10:07 PM  

  • window124 -- My. God. I had no idea it was that high. That helps explains the viciousness of Clinton fans on places like Taylor Marsh. Obama isn't just running against Hillary; he's running against -- and repudiating -- the dynasty. That's got to hurt their sense of entitlement.

    I agree about the race thing. Unless he wants to be labelled the angry black conspiracy theorist, Obama is forced to stick to Marquis of Queensbury rules while Hillary & Bill go all Thunderdome on him.

    Damn, but that's depressing. Going negative is ugly, but it wins elections.

    By Anonymous Nigel Aimes, at 1:57 AM  

  • You didn't say when the NY Times asked the question, but I suspect the percentage is dropping. I thnk there are a lot of households like mine, and those of my friends, where the debate has been whether to support Hillary because of her "greater experience" along with a sense that she can handle the Republican "swiftboating" better (my husband) or to go with Obama because of his message of hope, soaring rhetoric,and different style of politics (me). We both are life-long democrats, who loath Bush. But the more Bill goes on in public, the more we are reminded of the things we hated about his presidency (Monica-gate, et al)that limited his effectiveness.

    Personally, I cannot stand the thought of reviving discussions of the blue dress and (Horrors!)the cigar incident. Moreover, I found Hillary's performance on the Tyra Banks show demoralizing. For ten years, Hillary has had the good sense to show a stiff upper lip and say nothing about Bill's affairs. Now, when she is running for office, she does this whole heartfelt reveal-all number. Just as I did not want to know what kind of underwear Bill wore (let alone the silly remarks he made during sexual encounters) I don't want Hillary going on national TV saying the kind of things one should only say to one's closest friends or therapist. And the appearance reminded me too much of the interview in the 1992 campaign when she saved his campaign from the Gennefer Flowers allegations.

    In short, I think that Bill's & Hillary's recent performances leave voters feeling that we will not just get Hillary, but that we are being offered (in Bill's maligned phrase from 1992) a two-for-one deal. The thing is that the deal comes with all of Bill's unattractive baggage -- baggage that makes a huge target for nasty republicans, and baggage that will be with us for at least four more years if Hillary gets elected.

    I'd also note that Democrats seem to assume that whoever the Republican candidate is, he will run the sort of race that George W. Bush did. But now there is a real possibility that McCain will get the nomination, which could make a huge difference in the general election. Unlike the other Republican front-runners, McCain is very likely to run a clean campaign. An Obama-McCain race could be the cleanest, most uplifting, least divisive race we have seen in years. But if Hillary is nominated and runs against McCain the way she has been running against Obama, it could hurt the Democrats' chances. Though Obama does not have McCain's experience, his positions on issues are more consistent with those of most voters, and he is not saddled with support for the Iraq war.

    By the way, my husband has now come over to the Obama side.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:43 AM  

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