Saturday, January 26, 2008


I do not like the "electability" argument; it's generally an intellectually lazy way for people to write off a candidate that they don't like. But I'm starting to have serious questions about Hillary Clinton's ability to win the general election, triggered, (oddly enough,) by her ongoing comeback in the primaries.

Two weeks ago,'s composite polls had Barack Obama up in South Carolina by a 44% to 31% margin over Hillary; today they have him up 38-26. About half of the difference has gone to John Edwards, who has moved up from from 13% to 19%. The other 6% went back into the pool of undecideds.

Pretty clearly, Bill Clinton has managed to create doubt in the minds of a sizable number of previously committed Obama voters. But he's managed to do the same to his wife. Does a larger number of undecideds bode well for Hillary in this primary? Sure; at the very least, she's competing with Obama for more voters. In the long run, this is not a winning strategy, either for Clinton or the Democrats.

We all have fond, rosy-tinted memories of Bill Clinton's presidency. The further we get from 2000, the easier it is to forget about the flaws that undid Clinton's presidency. When he goes on the attack like this, it all comes flooding back.

For starters, he's not presidential. Even George W. Bush, who subordinates everything to politics, has had the sense to keep his mouth shut about the Republican primaries. Some might say that that's because he's so incredibly unpopular that his endorsement would be the kiss of death for the eventual Republican nominee; while that may be true, he remains extremely popular among the Republican base -- the very voters currently being courted.

Perhaps more tellingly, George H.W. Bush has been extremely circumspect in supporting Republican primary candidates over the years. After the former president appeared by video at a South Carolina rally for John McCain a few weeks ago, his office quickly put out a statement that his appearance was not to be construed as an endorsement. Even in 2000, with his own son running and Bush v. Gore in front of the Supreme Court, he was careful not to publicly comment on the election.

Former presidents are certainly not required to be apolitical, but as elder statesmen of their parties, they almost always save their endorsements for the general election. Seven years out of office have given President Clinton a gravitas that he did not possess in 2000, ensuring that anything he says over the next few weeks or months will be treated seriously by the media. This is the essential difference between Bill Clinton stumping for his wife and Michelle Obama stumping for her husband -- for now at least, his attacks on Obama will be treated as the considered pronouncements of a respected elder statesman, and not as political hackery from an overwrought spouse.

But it won't last. Every time he stands on a stage in front of a crowd and attacks Obama, the media and the electorate come that much closer to asking, is he saying this because he believes it, or because he wants his wife to win? Bit by bit, he's burning off the gravitas and goodwill he's acquired in the last seven years. Bill Clinton has already ensured that, if Obama wins the nomination, he will be effectively sidelined for the general election -- as he was in both 2000 and 2004. The more he acts as Hillary's attack dog, the more he diminishes his effectiveness as a campaigner, should she win the nomination.

All of which just serves to remind me of a more disturbing flaw from Clinton's presidency: he is incredibly self-destructive and short-sighted. The Bill Clinton who couldn't keep his pants zippered in 1995 is the same Bill Clinton who can't save even a shred of dignity for the 2008 general election.

Some time in the next two hours we'll learn how well the Clintons' strategy has worked in South Carolina; but I'm afraid it will be months before we find out if Bill Clinton retains any credibility with voters as a statesman, and whether he is ultimately a help or a hindrance to Hillary Clinton's presidential bid.