At one heated point in Monday night's South Carolina Democratic debate, a perturbed Barack Obama finally blurted out to Hillary Clinton what millions of others have been thinking these past weeks. After Clinton said that what her husband says might be different than what she says or what her campaign says, Obama disgustedly said, "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."
Unfortunate, but true. This Democratic primary nominating process has, indeed, become all about Bill Clinton. Thanks to Hillary Clinton. Unfortunate but not surprising, because, correct me if I'm wrong, but whenever the Clintons are involved, it's always all about them, isn't it?
The ex-president has been unleashed as Hillary's ferocious campaign attack dog to bark, bite, snap and tear away at Obama in a way that the candidate herself cannot and will not. A handful of days ago I watched with fascination as Bill performed his duty. Smoother-talking than a slick diplomat, more charismatic than a movie star, equal parts statesman, wonk, lounge comic and snake charmer, Bill Clinton is nothing less than Hillary Clinton's Super Surrogate.
Dressed in a finely cut taupe business suit, a pale blue shirt, bright orange tie and burnished burgundy cowboy boots, Bill Clinton stood on a middle-school gym stage on the outskirts of Las Vegas and for well over an hour held a standing-room-only audience of hundreds of Hillary supporters nearly mesmerized.
In sharp contrast to his wife, whose public campaign appearances are often curt, awkward and as tightly controlled and choreographed as a ballet performance, Bill Clinton effortlessly soaks up and reflects back the rapt attention he commands from his audiences. Alternating between a twangy folksiness and deliberate wonkiness, shifting from finger-wagging admonishments to cornpone storytelling, Clinton mixed up his style and approach with the startling skill of a veteran poker dealer cutting up the deck.
Bill Clinton's blinding star power also allows him to be used as the "bad cop" of a campaign that has strained to soften and humanize the often brittle public image of its candidate. It's left to him to do the less savory tasks of routine campaigning, precisely because his clout is so enormous, he can usually get away with it. When asked by a questioner in today's audience how big of a role he would play in a Hillary Clinton administration, he cracked a wide smile, offered the audience one of his trademark lowerings of his head and said, "I will do whatever I am asked to do."
Which is exactly what he's been doing.
It was the ex-president who has been deployed during the campaign to warn that nominating Barack Obama would be "roll[ing] the dice" and that Obama's anti-war record was a "fairy tale." And last Saturday morning, in a rather startling set piece, it was Bill, a former president of the United States, who stood inside the door of the Mirage casino caucus site, and as he greeted each individual voter, he simultaneously complained to reporters that pro-Obama union officials were unduly influencing the election.
Hillary can't have it both ways. You can't deploy your husband the ex-president in the middle of your campaign as some sort of thuggish enforcer and then not take responsibility for every word he utters, every action he undertakes.
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But there's a deeper point. Who exactly is Hillary Clinton anyway if not someone who has parasitically attached herself to the legacy and record of Bill Clinton? Without having been his First Lady, if not exactly his only lady, Ms. Clinton would be but a corporate lawyer turned junior senator from New York and with a less than sterling voting record including her authorization of the war in Iraq, approval of a war-mongering resolution on Iran and an inglorious bill to criminalize the national epidemic of flag-burning. Without Bill she'd be about as insignificant a national candidate as was . . . what was his name? Oh, Joe Biden.
"Elections are about the future," Clinton said during Monday night's debate, parroting the most moth-eaten of campaign clichés. But Hillary has made it strictly about the past, as her only affirmative argument for the future is to resurrect the politics of the previous decade.
In Monday's debate, all three candidates went at each other. But Obama finally opened up some cuts on the Clintons, calling out Hillary for lecturing him about supposedly being soft on Reagan. "While I was working in the streets watching those folks watch their jobs shift overseas," he said, staring at Clinton and referring to those who suffered under Reagan's policies, "you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart."
It might be too little too late on Obama's part. But it was absolutely the right thing to do. Hillary has made Bill, his record, his approach to politics, his policies, his style and her embodiment of all the above as the central issue in the campaign. The only honorable position for any opponent of Clinton's is to take her and him on.