Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mud, Dust, Whatever

If Bill and Hillary Clinton were the stars of a reality TV show, it would be a weekly series called “The Connivers.” The Clintons, the most powerful of power couples, are always scheming at something, and they’re good at it.

Their latest project is to contrive ways to knock Barack Obama off his white horse and muddy him up a little. A lot, actually.

Most of the analyses after last week’s dust-up over David Geffen’s comments to Maureen Dowd have focused on whether the Clintons succeeded in tarnishing the junior senator from Illinois. What I found interesting was that no one questioned whether the Clintons would be willing to get down in the muck and start flinging it around. That was a given.

When Senator Obama talks about bringing a new kind of politics to the national scene, he’s talking about something that would differ radically from the relentlessly vicious, sleazy, mendacious politics that have plagued the country throughout the Bush-Clinton years. Whether he can pull that off is an open question. But there’s no doubt the Clintons want to stop him from succeeding.

Senator Obama has come riding out of the wilderness (all right, Chicago) to stand between the Clintons and their dream of returning to the White House and resuming what they will always see as the glory years of the 1990s.

He hurts Senator Clinton in myriad ways. In all the uproar over Mr. Geffen’s comments, hardly anyone has said they were wildly off the mark. There would be no Obama phenomenon if an awful lot of people weren’t fed up with just the sort of mean-spirited, take-no-prisoners politics that the Clintons and the Bush crowd represent. Senator Obama — at least for the time being — is an extremely attractive alternative.

Right behind that as a factor is the distinct possibility that Mr. Obama will ride off with the black vote, without which the Clintons are doomed. Those who joked that Bill Clinton was the first black president are now confronted with someone who might be the real deal.

Senator Obama is also much freer to take fresh stands on the issues. His camp has been delighted, for example, to watch Senator Clinton twist herself into a pretzel on Iraq. From day care to health care to trade and beyond, Mr. Obama is free to offer something new. He’s not tied to the Clinton experience, the Clintonian way of viewing the world.

And, finally, this campaign is not the be-all and end-all for Senator Obama. More easily than the Clintons, he can afford to make mistakes. He does not have to win this election. He can fight another day. In the absence of any catastrophic misstep, he could be selected as a vice-presidential candidate this time around. (It’s not too hard to imagine a John Edwards-Barack Obama pairing.) He can run again for president four years from now, or eight years from now.

His future, as Yogi might have said, is all in front of him.

The Clintons were fresh once. I remember the exhilarating bus tour they took with Al and Tipper Gore right after Bill Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination in the summer of 1992. There was a spontaneous quality to that tour and a sense that these four young leaders represented a new dawn of American politics.

Almost 15 years later, Hillary Clinton has to fight the perception that she is chasing yesterday’s dawn. She has the benefit of universal name recognition, uniformly high poll numbers and trainloads of campaign cash. But she still gives the impression that she’s riding the political high wire with the mixed blessing of Bill Clinton planted firmly on her shoulders.

It’s ironic that the first woman with a real shot at the presidency comes off not as a compelling underdog but as the powerful front-runner at the controls of a ruthless political machine.

We’ll have to wait and see whether Senator Obama is really offering a new, more hopeful brand of national politics. But here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for a candidate making his first foray into the crucible of presidential politics:

Don’t listen to those who tell you not to fight back against the Clintons. You will not become president if you allow yourself to become their punching bag. Keep in mind the Swift-boating of John Kerry. Raising politics to a higher level does not mean leaving oneself defenseless.


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