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January 28, 2008

How Do We Solve A Problem Like Bill Clinton?

The Hillary Clinton campaign hasn't set that question to song, not while the Sound of Losing still rings in their ears from their disastrous showing in South Carolina. After losing by more than a 2-1 margin in the bellwether state, the campaign now knows that they cannot afford to have Bill Clinton shooting his mouth off on the national stage. The one man they assumed could be their greatest asset has suddenly become an albatross, and no one knows how to cut it from around their necks (via Real Clear Politics):

Democrats inside and outside the Clinton campaign on Sunday debated and in some cases bemoaned the degree to which former President Bill Clinton’s criticism of Senator Barack Obama last week had inflicted lasting damage on his wife’s presidential candidacy.

“I think his harsh style hurt Senator Clinton — it polarized the campaign and polarized the electorate, and it also made it harder for Senator Clinton’s positive message to break through,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and pollster who is not affiliated with any of the candidates.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign team, seeking to readjust after her lopsided defeat in South Carolina and amid a sense among many Democrats that Mr. Clinton had injected himself clumsily into the race, will try to shift the former president back into the sunnier, supportive-spouse role that he played before Mrs. Clinton’s loss in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton advisers said.

But Democrats said it was not clear whether the effects of Mr. Clinton’s high profile could be brushed away by having him modulate his campaign style. They said Mr. Clinton had upset some of the central themes of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, including her appeal to women and her assertions that her time in the White House during the 1990s amounted to vital experience rather than a link to a presidency defined as much by scandal and partisan divisions as by its successes on fronts like the economy.

A sea change has taken place since the primaries began less than four weeks ago. At first, people just whispered that Bill Clinton needed to back off a little. He then got criticized for a couple of specific eruptions. Now even the New York Times -- Bill's hometown paper and one of his biggest boosters -- openly writes about the desperation in the campaign, and the sense of futility felt about the chances of repairing the damage to the campaign.

In fact, Bill's presence now worries Team Hillary that he has begun to overshadow her, making her look weak. His attacks leave the impression that she cannot run on her own, and/or that she can't control Bill. That beats the alternative, though, which the New York Times doesn't mention in its report. It's more than possible that the two planned this good cop/bad cop routine, with Bill filling the role of the VP nominee in being Hillary's proxy for negative campaigning. That would make her less weak, but a lot more cynical and conniving.

Mainly, Democrats and voters in general have been treated to a blast from the past with the Clintons over the last few weeks. We have seen all of the bitter partisanship, the character assassination, and the drive to win at all costs -- but this time directed at Democrats rather than Republicans. As I noted on Saturday, leading progressive voices have awoken as if from a dream and begun connecting the dots to the Clinton era, wondering if conservatives had it right in the 1990s.

As long as the Clintons remain on the national stage, this kind of politicking -- the smears, the lies, and the prevarications -- will also remain. If Democrats want to associate themselves with it, they have to make that choice. No one can pretend later that they didn't know about the problem like they did after 2000.


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With the Clinton campaign still smarting from Obama's victory in South Carolina, the latest New York Times headline is amusing in its painful understatement: Clinton’s Camp Seeks Gentler Role for Ex-President:Democrats inside and outside the Clinton ca... [Read More]

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