In the 1990s, the political aggressiveness of the Clintons, what some would call “ruthlessness,” was a tonic for Democrats used to being savaged by Republicans in national campaigns. Several weeks ago, Democrats had to face the fact that the Clinton ruthlessness was now being turned inward, against the party that seems on the verge of rejecting them in 2008. This is the significance of the set of comments made by Hillary Clinton praising Republican nominee John McCain in order to attack Barack Obama.
Ruthlessness is a topic of great ambivalence among Democrats. Democrats love to idealize Bobby Kennedy, and seem to think of him as a sort of hippie political poet of the 1960s because he quoted classical Greek poets. Actually, he was one of the most ruthless politicians of his time, and it was only near the end of his life that he was able to transcend that reputation.
Once upon a time, Democrats were a very tough party. Built on working class and rural voters, and with significant appeal to intellectuals, the Democrats could take a punch and throw a much harder one back. Listen to the speeches of FDR, Harry Truman, and Jack Kennedy, and you’ll hear confident politicians who used humor, sarcasm, and political rhetoric to fight, and often win battles.
The takeover of the party by its more intellectual wing in 1972 gave the party a more thoughtful approach, but also a less battle-hardened one. And as Republicans did better and better in national politics, they had an easy time smacking Democrats, who would often respond with “I won’t dignify that charge by responding to it,” or some other such nonsense. It’s a fairly short step to caving into an unpopular Bush administration on national security matters.
The Clintons were a pleasant surprise in 1992. They were tough, savvy, and aggressive. Their campaign manager James Carville pointed out sarcastically that “Democrats have an instinct for the capillaries.” No more. They vowed that no charge would go unanswered. Bill Clinton could level a charge with a smile. They drove Republicans crazy.
Democrats flocked to support Bill when Republicans counter-attacked, and a loyal party base carried the Clintons through the impeachment battle. When Al Gore faced the crisis of his career in Florida in 2000, though, it was back to the “nice guys finish last” model. While Republicans fought the Florida recount like a pitched political war, Gore went to the courtroom. Would the Clintons have fought for every single, last vote and would they have tried to rally the public behind them? Would they have agonized about seeming too tough and calculating and ambitious? You tell me.
But there is one problem with the Clintons and their ruthlessness. Ultimately, is what gives them their strength, their energy not the Democratic party but their own survival? Once, in the 1990s, the two were identical. The survival of the Clintonswas
the survival of the Democrats.
But the Democrats have grown out of that era, and are ready to spread their wings. Now, Hillary Clinton is fighting for every delegate as she has every right to do. If only Al Gore had fought like this for every Florida vote! But she is also scorching the earth as she does so, elevating the Republican nominee and degrading her Democratic confrere. Some day soon, I imagine that the broader, more dynamic Democratic party will pull down the curtain on her campaign, through a movement among uncommitted superdelegates. The turning point may be the comments about McCain.
The Clintons have been great teachers of real political combat to a political party that needs to be believe not only in its ideas, but in its courage and effectiveness in fighting for them. Ironically, much of that party now finds itself fighting the Clintons to break free of their teachers.
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