Obama victory would damage Clinton legacy

January 23, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Bill Clinton has compared Barack Obama's position on the Iraq war to a "fairy tale." He dismissed the Illinois senator's campaign as based on a "false premise." And he suggested that electing Mr. Obama would be a "roll of the dice."

Mr. Clinton is clearly agitated. At first blush, his outbursts and willingness to insert himself into the middle of the contentious battle between his wife and Senator Obama in the Democratic primary appear to reflect the former president's concern about his wife specifically and, more generally, the outcome of his party's presidential nomination.

But for Mr. Clinton, more is at stake in 2008 than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's political future. Mr. Obama is also a threat to Mr. Clinton's presidential legacy and to the Clinton machine's lording over the national Democratic Party.

Yesterday, I asked Mrs. Clinton if the idea of a possible Obama presidency's eclipsing her husband's legacy might explain Mr. Clinton's recent behavior.

"I really find these questions to be totally off-topic, off-base," she said, adding that she and her husband will give full support to whichever Democrat wins the nomination. "I can tell you that that just never crossed our minds. That is just not the way we think."

Despite such protestations, could it be that the deeper worry for Mr. Clinton, whose self-absorption was evident during his eight years in the Oval Office, isn't that Mrs. Clinton will fail to reach the Oval Office but that Mr. Obama will?

It requires only a little foresight and imagination to see what an Obama presidency might mean for Mr. Clinton's legacy:

Suppose Mr. Obama wins the nomination and the White House with a popular-vote majority (something Mr. Clinton failed twice to achieve) and does so by mobilizing previously disaffected voters, young voters and millions of independents and crossover Republicans. Imagine, two years later, in the 2010 midterms, that Mr. Obama's oft-stated goal of building a true "governing majority" is realized, and the Democratic majorities in Congress, among governors and elsewhere down-ballot that he inherited are expanded - in striking contrast to the 1994 partisan collapse precipitated by Mr. Clinton's failed first two years in office.

Imagine, moreover, that these political-electoral feats were achieved by an African-American candidate with a charismatic personality and compelling rhetorical style who dims the house lights on the so-called first black president as he exits the political stage.

Mr. Clinton, affectionately known to many Democrats as "the Big Dog," would be reduced to a yelping old hound dog.

In 2006, as Mrs. Clinton was taking the preliminary steps toward her presidential run, whispered doubts emanated from "Hillaryland" about her husband's deeper loyalties. Was he threatened by the idea of her eclipsing him? If there is even a scintilla of truth behind these doubts, consider how much more threatening an Obama presidency would be to Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Clinton will be able to claim some credit for a "legacy" victory if his wife wins, but not if Mr. Obama does. Mr. Clinton again sleeps in the White House if she wins, but not if he does. Mr. Clinton remains a top figure in national Democratic politics if she wins - but, again, not if Mr. Obama does.

Let's be clear about one thing: Mrs. Clinton has been treated more roughly by the press than Mr. Obama. She was mocked a few months ago for her supposedly annoying laugh, and a few weeks ago for verging on tears. (The criticism of Mrs. Clinton's campaign is beginning to sound like a movie review: She laughs! She cries!) To doubt her humanity is unfair, and if there is any justice and she does win the Democratic nomination, she'll draw Mitt Romney in the general election so America will know which party has nominated a robot.

Seeing the effects of this Hillary-pillory up close, Mr. Clinton is entitled to act up as husband first, but not potential first husband. Indeed, it's difficult to believe his actions are motivated solely by the spousal obligations of a man who is outraged by the public ridiculing of his wife, especially during the month that marks the 10-year anniversary of a certain intern revelation.

No: Bill Clinton would appear to have a larger mission, one focused as much, if not more, on his own legacy as on his wife's reputation or candidacy.

For now, it's the Clintons' party, and they can cry if they want to. But you'd cry too if you felt how much of a threat the Obama candidacy is - not just to her, but him too.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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