Thursday, January 24, 2008

One to the Gut
While it's become accepted wisdom that the Democratic presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has been "bare-knuckle," "no holds barred," or whatever other cliche strikes your fancy, two writers at The Politico suggest that if anything, Obama has been far too timid in taking on the Clinton machine--both its history and its future prospects:

Imagine if at the next presidential debate Barack Obama — who is agitated about what he calls Bill Clinton’s misleading criticisms — cocked his head, smiled ruefully and, in Reaganesque “there you go again” tones, said something like this to Hillary Clinton: “You know, I admired some aspects of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But let’s recall that it was precisely these sort of too-cute-by-half statements that caused him to be reprimanded by a federal judge and stripped of his law license. Senator, you may want to go back to those days and that style of politics, but I think most Americans are ready to move on.”

Had you forgotten that Bill Clinton voluntarily agreed in the closing hours of his presidency to be disbarred and pay a sizable fine in the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal?

No doubt most Democrats have forgotten — which is testament to both Clintons’ indefatigable talent for framing political debates on their terms, rather than those of their opponents.

The authors point out that Obama has essentially given his opponent a pass on the aspects of the Clinton record that reflect worst on her--particularly Hillary Clinton's terrible mismanagement of the health care reform effort of 1993-94, a process that antagonized "not simply Republicans and insurance companies but senior officials within the Clinton administration such as Lloyd Bentsen and Donna Shalala who recoiled at the process she ran." They could have added key congressional leaders like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who quickly went from a potential champion to a powerful and eloquent skeptic. The flaws that preordained her failure there--the penchant for secrecy, the unshakable arrogance, the unwillingness to compromise or even dialogue--have run like a red thread through much of Clinton's subsequent career.

They also highlight her terrible record in "an area in which she had virtually unchallenged authority — staffing the legal apparatus of the first-term Clinton administration":

Hillary Clinton’s decisions led to the appointment of Bernard Nussbaum as White House counsel (fired after a year), and former Rose Law Firm partner Webster Hubbell as a top Justice Department official (forced to resign and later sent to prison).

These colossal misjudgments about personnel should hardly be the sole basis for judging potential as an executive. But they are more relevant than subjects Obama has raised, such as her service in the 1980s on the board of directors of Wal-Mart.

Hubbell, of course, was a Clinton loyalist of the first stripe. Listening to the likes of Terry McAuliffe, it's not very hard to imagine that personal loyalty once again will rule the day in a Clinton administration--just as it has under the current president, and possibly with some of the same miserable consequences.

The other point Obama needs to push on is Clinton's proven lousy judgment: on health care, on appointments in the administration, above all on Iraq and Iran. And the meta-theme here is that all considerations--from ethics to war and peace to policy gains--are subsidiary to the goal of greater glory for the Clintons.

(He could also ask, as many have begun to ask, where all the Clintons' fabled "fight" was during the awful years of Bush. If we'd seen more of it against the substantive opponents of the party, maybe it wouldn't be so tough to swallow seeing it turned against Barack Obama.)

One radio ad running in South Carolina today represents a good start. If Obama wins there--and I still think he will, though the polls are starting to suggest reason for doubt--he'll have a new platform from which to speak. Saying the right things could revive his chances for the big contest on February 5th.


The Navigator said...

Two points:
1. I don't think you score points against Hillary by bringing up Bill losing his law license - it's a little too inside baseball for people to see that it was a real slap at him. Too easy for Hillary to dismiss it as part of the fallout from the unfair Kenneth J'avert inquisition. I think the net result would be more sympathy for the Clintons.

2. What I remember of Moynihan's role (and I wasn't watching super-closely; this is just a general impression) was that he was personally miffed that he hadn't been consulted enough and shown enough deference, and felt that NYC hospitals might not have done all that well under Hillary's plan, so he damaged the effort by saying there was no real need for it because there was "no health care crisis." Yeah, maybe it was a Clinton failing that they didn't stroke important Dem senators the right way - that's part of being politically effective - but I'm not sure it reflects all that well on Moynihan.

David said...

Probably a valid point about Moynihan. There was an outstanding piece on The American Prospect website last week, which I read I think a few hours after posting this, about the lessons of the 1993-94 healthcare reform effort. Here's the link:

Moynihan doesn't come off well in Ezra Klein's telling, though I still think my criticisms of the process are unfortunately in keeping with the character flaws I perceive in the Senator.

But perhaps more to the point, the piece undercuts one of my big reservations about Clinton, which is that she isn't strong enough politically to win a big fight for health care reform. If Klein is right, any Dem should be able to do it--and any Dem would deservedly reap the glory for the accomplishment.

I'm at the point where I've somewhat disgusted myself writing about the race. I am strongly supporting Obama, yes, I'm sick of the Clintons, I don't like the kind of politics they practice, and I don't believe they can get us past the zero-sum nonsense of the last 15-20 years.

But I've overstated it--I'm feeling the argumentative equivalent of that remorseful bloat one feels after eating too much--and I'm coming to realize that I've got more of a problem with Bill these days than I do with Hillary. I'm even starting to think I'd cast my (wholly irrelevant) vote for her in November if it came to that.

David said...

Damn--let's try that link again. The Lessons of '94

The piece is so good, it was worth the 15 seconds it took for me to repost the link.