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What the heck is Hillary up to?

by Raphael Sonenshein

March 11, 2008 | 11:18 pm

“I think you’ll be able to imagine many things Senator McCain will be able to say.  He’s never been the president, but he will put forth his lifetime of experience. I will put forth my lifetime of experience. Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002.”

This quote from Hillary Clinton stopped me cold. 

I’ve been thinking of it ever since she said it less than two weeks ago.  I wracked my brain to find a time when a potential nominee placed the other party’s nominee above their own party’s possible nominee. 

Well, I could think of two times when it might have made sense.  Both were cases of ideological outliers on their way to party nominations.  Rockefeller Republicans, ideological moderates, were devastated that conservative Barry Goldwater led in 1964, and many certainly thought Democrat Lyndon Johnson was more sensible.  In 1972, many “Scoop” Jackson hawkish Democrats thought George McGovern far less reliable than Republican Richard Nixon. 

It wouldn’t have been shocking for Nelson Rockefeller to harbor a greater preference for Johnson over Goldwater (although he never stated it), and the same with the Jackson folks for Nixon over McGovern (more often stated).

But here we have a case of two Democrats whose ideological differences are nearly non-existent.  So what could Clinton’s comment possibly mean?  it would make more sense to say that she is ready to be commander-in-chief and Obama is not?  That at least counts as intraparty debate.  It’s the McCain part that stands out.

I have finally decided that this nomination race is really not about two candidates with different constituencies, although that is certainly part of it.  I wonder now if this is really about Bill and Hillary Clinton and their complex relationship to the Democratic party.

Let me play this out a bit, and you can tell me what you think. 

The Clintons are clearly the most talented and successful Democrats since the Kennedys.  Unlike the Kennedys, who rose up along with an ascendant Democratic party, the Clintons emerged in a time of Republican dominance.  Although Bill was the candidate, they were certainly a team.  Through sheer intellect, determination, and creativity they managed to create a small space for the Democratic party in the midst of a period of intense Republican political power.  Their skill was to find a way to adapt to the Republican wave, and by going with it, and reshaping it, to win unlikely victories and even attain some progressive policy change in government. 

What drove Republicans crazy was that the Clintons did not offer up a simple target of orthodox liberalism.  They improvised, with mixed ideologies, and often got close enough to Republican beliefs to evade full scale destruction.  Most of all, they survived.  Clinton was elected, and re-elected, and survived impeachment to finish with a high approval rating.  With a booming economy, they gave Democrats something to brag about.

Let’s face it.  For that period of time, the Clintons were the Democratic party at the national level.  Their survival was remarkable.  And yet the party was weaker when Bill Clinton left office than when he arrived.  Republicans took Congress in 1994, and their power was shown when a Republican Supreme Court handed the White House to George W. Bush without major upheaval.

Gore’s exclusion from the White House and subsequent low profile maintained the Clintons as the party’s leadership.  Republicans gained seats in Congress in 2002 and 2004. Kerry’s 2004 campaign merely borrowed the party mantle from the Clintons and moved toward yet another party failure.  The less successful the party was, the more the Clintons were its sole proprietors. 

Democratic rage at the Bush regime and the Iraq war fueled the first signs of life in the party in the 2006 midterms, which the Democrats dominated.  And that set the stage for the possible resurgence of progressive politics and the Democratic party.  Since then, party fundraising has skyrocketed with new donors by the hundreds of thousands coming across the Internet. New types of candidates, including Iraq War veterans, won House and Senate seats.  The party was coming alive, perhaps for the first time in years. 

Did that mean that the Clintons were no longer the be-all and end-all?

These changes meant that the 2008 election would be fought on terrain less dominated by Republicans and their ideas.  Democrats might be able to put some distance between the parties and take some solid swings at their own agenda.  And had the Democratic field been comprised of the usual suspects of Democratic wannabees, Hillary Clinton might have ridden that wave.  But instead she faced Barack Obama, who was built to thrive in this new environment. 

Suddenly, the Democratic Party was not a needy, dysfunctional organization unable to win an election.  The Republicans didn’t look quite so formidable.  The party was changing, and the emotional grip of the Clintons on the party might be shaken.  But of course, these changes happen slowly and 2008 turned into an election that painfully illustrated the transition.  The skill of getting Republicans into a close clinch and then eaking out a policy victory seemed a lot less appealing than “hope” in this new environment.

It must feel to the Clintons that an ungrateful party is deserting them.  After all they have done, shouldn’t they get their just reward?  How could party voters turn to a new, fresh face?  Is there a sense that if the Democrats do this, then the heck with them?

To be continued . . .

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