CHICAGO -- Politicians don't do themselves any harm by defending their wives as Bill Clinton did the other night when Jerry Brown accused him of "funneling money" from the state government into Hillary Clinton's law firm.
But the governor of Arkansas would be making a mistake if he doesn't understand that there are limits to the number of blows he can absorb without paying the price down the road. Although Clinton is now in a commanding position in the contest for the Democratic nomination, he has not resolved pervasive doubts in the party about his electability.
Brown's complaint that Clinton was guilty of a conflict of interest because his wife's law firm did business with state agencies was based on a newspaper story that Brown interpreted as far more definitive and incriminating than it was. The Washington Post did not accuse Clinton of "funneling" money anywhere. The issue is a complex one that not many voters are likely to understand simply because they lack enough information to make a judgment.
But, coming in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers episode and the controversy over Clinton's draft history, any fresh accusation reinforces whatever suspicion exists that there is "something wrong" with Clinton as a potential presidential nominee. And Brown clearly is not inclined to back off. In Michigan the following morning Brown compared Clinton to Richard Nixon taking the advice of a tough guy political operative of another era, Murray Chotiner, and following a policy of "always attack" rather than answering charges.
Brown insisted that he was not attacking Hillary Clinton, whom he described as "a free agent" in her law practice, but instead Bill Clinton's failure to "purge his administration of conflicts of interest." But Clinton, talking to reporters at a coffee shop here the morning after, continued to depict the Brown assault as being directed at Hillary.
"If he wants to go after my wife," he said, "I'm going to hit him just like I did last night." It made a boffo sound bite for television.
Clinton has absorbed a remarkable amount of punishment this year while managing to maintain his equilibrium, at least in public. And he and his supporters point to his string of primary successes as evidence that the voters are less preoccupied by questions about Gennifer Flowers and the draft than are reporters and his rivals for the nomination. But that disingenuous argument ignores some contradictory evidence in opinion polls that at least a minority of voters are concerned about these matters.
More to the point, what everyone in politics recognizes is that dealing with a Jerry Brown trying to get a foothold in an intraparty contest is not the same as dealing with President Bush in the general election campaign. No one who followed the 1988 campaign has any doubt that Bush and his strategists -- Roger Ailes will be back soon -- will find a way to use the draft history, for example, to question Clinton's patriotism. And the last thing the Democrats need is another campaign that turns on what the Republicans call "values" rather than on the inadequacies of the Bush administration in domestic policy.
It is quite possible, of course, that Clinton could defeat Bush even while carrying this political baggage. The Arkansas Democrat has demonstrated in the primary season that he is both tough and resilient, as he showed again in his finger-pointing confrontation with Brown during the final debate here.
Democratic professionals consider Brown a gadfly with no long-term future in the nominating contest. The former California governor has a podium, however. As one of the three survivors of the Democratic competition, Brown is assured of a measure of press attention and has no intention of folding his live-off-the-land campaign. And now he has learned that the attacks on Clinton's background will earn him more attention than that given to the second "serious" candidate in the field, Paul Tsongas.
Clinton has handled the Brown assault with his usual personal force and self-assurance and has managed, at least to a degree, to convert the charges into an indictment of his wife rather than himself. That is smart politics. But over the long haul, Jerry Brown is a problem for Bill Clinton.