December 22, 2007

What Choice Was There?

The Washington Post reports this morning that Hillary Clinton has reached the earth-shaking conclusion that she has to embrace her husband in her campaign to win the presidency in 2008. Apparently, this strategy created controversy in her campaign despite the rather obvious connection voters would make between the two of them:

After months of discussion within her campaign over how heavily she should draw on her husband's legacy, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is closing out her Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns in a tight embrace of Bill Clinton's record, helping fuel a debate about the 1990s with Sen. Barack Obama that she thinks she can win.

As part of the Clinton strategy, the former president is playing an increasingly prominent public role as an advocate for his wife. He appears to have overcome concerns within the campaign over how closely she should associate her candidacy with his time in office and over whether his appearances could draw attention away from her.

Both Clintons are making the case that theirs was a co-presidency -- an echo of Bill Clinton's controversial statement during the 1992 campaign that voters would get "two for the price of one" if they elected him. At times, the former president has seemed to cast the current race as a referendum on his administration.

Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), the Democratic front-runner nationally but facing strong challenges in Iowa and New Hampshire from Obama, has shifted her emphasis repeatedly over the past few months as the senator from Illinois made inroads in the two states. She has tried to show a more "human" side, and on Friday brought along her daughter, Chelsea, and her mother to events here titled "The Hillary I Know."

She has tried to co-opt the message of change from Obama, declaring that she has been "working for change" her entire life. Over the past week, she injected the phrase "new beginning" into her stump speech.

But the unchanging core of Clinton's message is her experience, and in recent days she has presented the election as a binary choice: between a competent, experienced Clinton and novices such as Obama. "That's the kind of logic that got us George Bush in the first place," she said this week in Iowa.

Only in the Clinton machine could anyone debate whether a wife should embrace her husband, even figuratively. Did she think that anyone would have separated the two of them in considering her for the Presidency? Of course not; without Billl, Hillary becomes nothing more than a Senator with eight years of experience in public office. Without him, she's got less experience in that arena than Barack Obama.

Also, let's not forget that the Clintons did not keep their anger over Al Gore's strategy in 2000 to themselves. Gore deliberately distanced himself from the Clintons, disgusted with their personal behavior and wanting to separate himself from the taint. Bill and Hillary, through their lieutenants, made it clear to any media outlet willing to listen that Gore had squandered his opportunity to win against George W Bush by not embracing their legacy.

Now we find out that Hillary's team strongly considered the same strategy in 2008. Somewhere, Gore must be chuckling, and maybe not just to himself.

Of course, the problem with embracing Bill is ... Bill. He tends towards self-aggrandizement on the trail, something Eugene Robinson noted yesterday, leaving his wife as an afterthought. Other than her role on the health-care policy disaster and some amorphous participation in the Northern Ireland and Balkans negotiations, he can't name anything she actually did as First Lady that justifies the "experience" strategy. He seems unwilling to part with any of his own accomplishments to burnish his wife's credentials.

Bill wants to turn this election into a referendum on his own administration. The Republicans wouldn't mind that referendum, either, with Hillary's negatives as an added plus.

Hillary has no choice but to embrace Bill. If Bill would embrace Hillary, it might even work.


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