February 25, 2007

The Full Bill

One of the motivations behind the Hillary Clinton campaign's reaction to David Geffen's barbs this week was to mark the boundaries for the debate in the primaries and general election. Hillary has a better reason for that than most; she wants to avoid any debate or discussion of her husband's impeachment. Other Democrats, however, wonder how she can justify that while trotting Bill onto the hustings:

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new commandment for the 2008 presidential field: Thou shalt not mention anything related to the impeachment of her husband.

With a swift response to attacks from a former supporter last week, advisers to the New York Democrat offered a glimpse of their strategy for handling one of the most awkward chapters of her biography. They declared her husband's impeachment in 1998 -- or, more accurately, the embarrassing personal behavior that led to it -- taboo, putting her rivals on notice and all but daring other Democrats to mention the ordeal again. ...

Although she has spent the past seven years establishing her own identity as a public servant, Clinton has been embracing the more popular aspects of her husband's presidency more widely as she mounts her own campaign, with frequent references to their time together in the White House and their joint legacy.

And as she has invoked the good Bill Clinton, she has risked invoking the bad, several Democratic strategists said.

"She's using him in this campaign, so why can't somebody else use him?" asked a veteran of Democratic presidential politics who is not currently aligned with a candidate but who, like numerous other Democrats, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the Clintons. "She's just made him fair game. He's part of her strategy, so why can't he be part of one of her opponents'?"

I'm of two minds on this subject. If Hillary distanced herself from her husband and refrained from having him politick on her behalf, a case could be made that the impeachment isn't germane to her own candidacy. After all, we rarely allow attacks on candidates' spouses to pass without scolding the attacker for aiming below the belt, as it were. We criticize the content of their activities within the boundaries of the campaigns -- for instance, Teresa Heinz-Kerry's "Asses Of Evil" buttons called into question her general temperament and judgment -- but we don't usually debate their personal peccadilloes of the past.

However, in this case, that really doesn't apply. First, Hillary simply can't avoid sending Bill into campaign mode; he remains her greatest political asset. She will also argue -- in fact, she has already argued -- that the country will benefit from a return to the years and policies of the previous Clinton administration. If she wants to use that argument, then those years and that administration becomes fair game for debate.

She can't have it both ways. In fact, demanding a "thou shalt not" commandment is the height of arrogance, a quality for which she has already won reknown. Reagan issued a "commandment" too, but it wasn't for his own personal benefit -- and Hillary Clinton is no Ronald Reagan.

I'm somewhat surprised to see the Democrats push back against this effort. One might have expected them to shy away from the impeachment for their own purposes; who wants to remind people what happened the last time the Democrats held the White House? However, they probably (and rightly) fear that the Republicans would use it against Hillary in a general election and want to see if it will have any traction before they nominate her for the Presidency. (I'm not so sure the GOP will use it against her, however, as it might just backfire against them. Recall what happened in the midterms following impeachment?)

The point is clear. If Hillary wants Bill, she's going to get the full Bill, and she will have to deal with it.


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