I've been trying for several days now to sort out my reactions to the increasingly bitter turn of the Democratic nomination race. So let share with you my thoughts about where we are.
As I told you at the time
, I thought most of the charges that the Clintons were injecting race into the process were bogus. And the Obama campaign definitely tried to stoke questions
about what were at worst awkward or ambiguous statements. What's more, most of the talk about venomous attacks on Obama really don't add up.
Bringing up Rezko or cherry-picking Obama's quotes about the Iraq War to cast doubt on his consistent opposition to the war don't cut it. You don't go into a campaign with the idea that your opponents are obligated to present a dispassionate and fair-minded picture of the totality of your record. Or if you do you're a fool. Maybe you think that it should be that way but I'm not even sure there's any point discussing that hypothetical. Fundamentally a campaign is an adversary process, like a courtroom; it's not a civics lesson. Each side puts the other to its test. And there's very little I've seen from the Clinton camp that would seem like anything but garden variety political hardball if it were coming from Hillary or other Clinton surrogates rather than Bill Clinton.
I hear from a lot of Obama supporters that that may be how it's been. But Obama is about the 'new politics'. But this is no different from what Bill Bradley was saying in 2000. And it was as bogus then as it is now. Beyond that there is an undeniable undercurrent in what you hear from Obama supporters that he is too precious a plant -- a generational opportunity for a transformative presidency -- to be submitted to this sort of knockabout political treatment. That strikes me as silly and arrogant, if for no other reason that the Republicans will not step aside for Obama's transcendence either.
And yet I cannot deny that I've felt a mounting sense of unease verging into disgust with Bill Clinton's increasingly aggressive role in the campaign over the last couple of weeks. So I've tried to figure out just what it is that's gotten to me. To give you some perspective, I don't think there are many people who are bigger fans of Bill Clinton than I am or who've expended more ink defending him and his presidency. Nor am I particularly sold on Obama's candidacy. Transcendence isn't usually a big sell for me in politics. And I continue to have my doubts about whether Obama is tough enough or savvy enough to withstand the avalanche the Republicans will throw against the Democratic nominee this fall.
I think there are a lot of us who sense an air of arrogance in Obama's talk of transcendence, reconciliation and unity. I think there are a lot of people who would say, I would have loved to have transcended back in 1995 or 1998 or 2002. But we were spending every ounce on the political battle lines trying to prevent the Republicans from destroying the country. It's hard for folks like that to hear from someone new that they're part of the problem, part of the 'old politics'.
But again, I've thought to myself, what is it that seems wrong about what's going on here. And it's this: seven years after he left the Oval Office, in many respects, Bill Clinton remains the leader of the Democratic party. No, not in any formal way. But he remains extraordinarily popular among Democrats. He is almost unique in the last century as a successful Democratic president continuing to live on after his term of office. Give it some thought and you'll realize that it's almost unprecedented. Harry Truman left office extremely unpopular. And the deserved cult that's grown up around him didn't take root until many, many years later. Certainly it didn't apply to Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter. And Kennedy and Roosevelt didn't outlive their presidencies.
For all these reasons Bill Clinton is unique, sui generis
. And for all these reasons he commands massive press attention. I agree with what TPM Reader JD said last night
that, in effect, Bill Clinton holds a de facto office within the Democratic party. And what he's been doing amounts to an abuse of office. He has come into a primary process between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and used his unique power to jam his thumb down on one side of the scale in a way that I think is very difficult for anyone to overcome.
Now, when I've written similar things before, many of you have written in to say: How is that fair? Obama's and Edwards' spouses are vigorous advocates on their behalf; why can't Bill do the same for Hillary? Why should she be penalized? Others say, he's her husband. Of course he's going to do every thing he can to ensure victory for her. How could he not? Some even say that he owes her in some way because of past transgressions. But this is silly. Obviously there's no comparing Elizabeth Edwards or Michelle Obama to Bill Clinton.
But there's another aspect of this too. Bill Clinton may owe all sorts of things to Hillary Clinton. I'm sure there's a complicated mix of loyalty, love, sense that he owes her, probably the sense that she'd be a great president. But here's the thing. Back during impeachment folks like me made the point -- and I think it was the right one -- that Bill Clinton's obligations to his wife, to his marriage to sexual fidelity and so forth were an issue between him and his wife. He had a different set of obligations and responsibilities to his supporters and to the larger public. And it was the latter that concerned me.
I think something similar applies in this case. I respect all the loyalties and devotions between the two of them in what is clearly a very complicated but also very enduring relationship. But I'm not part of that marriage. Its obligations aren't any concern of mine and they have no claim on me. My relationship with Bill Clinton is as a member of the party that he is, as I've said, the leader of or at least the most revered elder statesman of. And I feel like he's violating the compact that I have with him.
You might say that's not fair, that that means his obligations as a husband and as a leader of his party are hopelessly in conflict. And I could only say you're probably right. But that frankly is one of the reasons we have instinctive suspicions about dynastic politics. And as I say, I can only see one side of the conflict. I'm not part of that marriage. And I can't see putting the fate of the Democratic party, or the country for that matter, into the balance of its obligations.
But before I finish there's another part of this that is I think even more important. With the exception of a few days in early January I've gone on the assumption for many months that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. But I think Bill's actions have greatly diminished her. He has put her back under his shadow where she hasn't been for years.
For the moment, I doubt either of them is losing much sleep over that. Get through today and then worry about tomorrow. But I think she looks much smaller now. He's dominating the race. And that makes her look like a weaker figure -- something that will not wear well in the general election. And this campaign really suggests this is going to be some sort of co-presidency. When Hillary's getting knocked around by the folks on the Hill is Bill going to go Larry King to knock her enemies around? Will he be going off to foreign countries on his own little diplomatic missions?
I had assumed he'd remain a step in the background as he has through through most of this decade. But that doesn't seem to be the case. If the constitution allowed it, I'd happily have Clinton back. I'd happily have Hillary in his place. But I don't want them both.
The presidency is a singular job. It should stay that way. And it's precisely because I'm looking forward to supporting her if she is the nominee that I hate seeing her being overshadowed by her spouse and having her husband bigfoot the process which diminishes her and makes me think her presidency could be a 4 year soap opera where Bill won't shut up and let her have a shot at doing the job.