Why Hillary's Winning
by Todd Beeton, Mon Jul 09, 2007 at 06:02:11 AM EDT
Think Progress brings us this most remarkable theory on the timing of the Libby commutation floated by Bill Kristol yesterday on Fox News Sunday:
Here's why the president acted the way he did. He knew Bill Clinton was joining Hillary in Iowa on July 4th. [LAUGHTER] No, I'm serious. So on July 2d, Ed Gillespie, who's a very canny Republican operative, said, 'Let's pardon Libby. Clinton will rise to the bait, and we can spend the last half of the week debating the unbelievable Clinton pardons against the defensible Bush pardon.' I regard this as an extremely clever Machiavellian move by the president. It cheers me up about the Bush White House, and I'm really heartened.
Well, if it was bait, the Clintons sure took it, both having made public statements condemning the commutation. And sure enough, their engagement on the issue did lead to a change of subject to Bill's controversial pardons. But despite the conventional wisdom of the Sunday morning talkers, I hardly think it hurt Hillary. Certainly it got the discussion off the positive aspects of the Clinton years and onto one negative, but the discussion also both kept the Libby commutation in the news AND served to further cement voters' association of Hillary with those 8 years in the 90s that Democratic primary voters remember with such fondness. And actually, I think it went a step further. More than merely associating Clinton with her husband's presidency, by putting Hillary on the defensive about Bill's pardons the discussion seemed to imply Hillary's complicity in the pardons, an implication that was made explicit by Scott Stanzel in a White House briefing on Thursday (h/t digby for the transcript):
I would say that it is amazing to me that they can -- with what they did on January 20, 2001, they can criticize the President for issuing a commutation -- his fourth -- insomuch as they issued -- President Clinton issued 141 pardons on January 20th...
Now whether this was a Freudian slip, revealing the true nature of the resentment the right has for Hillary (two for the price of one and all) or if it was the result of a concerted strategy, the fact is it merely served to further undermine in voters' minds Barack Obama's claim that:
The only person who would probably be prepared to be our president on Day 1 would be Bill Clinton -- not Hillary Clinton
Considering the fact that Hillary consistently polls higher than Obama on "experience" and "strong leader" measures despite having only a few more years in the senate under her belt, it's hard not to conclude that voters simply trust Hillary to be president because on some level they feel she already has been. Which is Barack Obama's biggest challenge -- how to ask voters to "turn the page" on the beloved Clinton years in addition to the Bush years when he's running against such a tangible reminder of the Clinton presidency. David Brooks touched on this tension on Meet The Press yesterday, but I think he draws the wrong conclusion.
Whether you think the slander at Libby was politics as usual or the commutation was politics as usual, the bottom line people are going to take away from this is that people in Washington don't play by the rules the rest of us do. So for--Clinton's essential problem is, is she politics as usual or is she a change? Obama is now the change, she's politics in--as usual.
The flaw in his argument is that change doesn't necessarily have to mean something new, it just needs to mean something different from what we currently have. In fact Hillary's new campaign slogan seems to tap into this idea:
STRENGTH + EXPERIENCE = CHANGE
Brooks's conclusion also relies too much on the typical Brooks/Broder/Klein trope that people despise Washington. It's not Washington people hate, rather it's what Washington has become under George W Bush; it seems to me people desperately long to return to a time when Washington worked, as they feel it did during the 90s. Hillary's ascension in the polls as well as Al Gore's continued strength despite not having declared would seem to back this up and it would certainly explain why, as PsiFighter37 concludes in his excellent analysis, Al Gore's entrance into the race would hurt Hillary the most. Perhaps there's an element of nostalgia to it but more likely I think it reveals a subtext of redemption that's running beneath Clinton's campaign, the desire to reclaim what was wrongfully taken, a narrative that currently appears to be more powerful and more appealing to Democratic voters than Obama's new kind of politics theme.
Which leads me to wonder, if there was Machiavellian scheme, is helping to solidify a Clinton nomination the White House's goal or their worst nightmare? Conventional wisdom would seem to be that, as Fred Barnes verbalized on FNS, a Clinton nomination would rally the demoralized Republican base. But with Bill Clinton's popularity on one hand and disapproval of Bush virtually uniting the country on the other, could a return to the Clinton years actually be a winning campaign theme in the general election as well?