We are absolutely flooded with news about Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, and their presidential campaigns. They are raising money, speechifying, denouncing Mr. Bush, hurling accusations and mud-clods at each other, and vying for maximum media exposure - all for a presidential race that doesn't officially start for another year. What is really going on here?
Pundits and commentators impart their own spin. Some say Senator Clinton "fears" Senator Obama, so she wants to smear his persona and derail his candidacy. Others say she is furious about his appearance on the scene, just as her "coronation" as Bill's heir-apparent was forming up. This was not the plan. Mrs. Clinton's nomination and election were supposed to be inevitable - a triumphal sweep through America's heartland, and onward to the White House in January 2009. (Mr. Obama didn't get the memo.)
Good stories, but I'm not buying. The 2008 election is still 21 months off. Even if Mrs. Clinton is worried about the Obama "threat", why not just wait until he self-destructs? Or at least wait until the primary to strike a blow? Why waste so much energy fighting at what amounts to the "weigh-in", when you can throw plenty of punches in the ring during the real fight?
To parse this mystery, one must understand the Clinton Style. It's called Domination - of the media, that is. Some pundits call it "sucking all the air out of the room". Bill and Hillary don't want to be in the news. They want to be The News. All of it. That way, they will crowd out all other pretenders. When the primaries finally arrive, no one else will come to voters' minds. Two Presidents Clinton - i.e., both ex- and aspirant - will have so completely hogged the political spotlight for two years that no other candidates' messages will have leaked through. The Clintons will be the whole political enchilada.
I'll even make a modest prediction. Bill Clinton will be Hillary's "wild card". If she gets in a really tight spot - perhaps a major gaffe, or some tough questions that she fumbles, or personal disclosures that put her on the hot seat - watch for Bill to have some kind of breakdown: a possible stroke, a cancerous polyp, a nervous attack, or maybe a melanoma on his left ear. All media attention will instantly run to him, leaving Hillary and her predicament forgotten. She will be off the hook, as correspondents breathlessly report from outside the hospital where Bill is being treated. I don't mean to ridicule such medical conditions, of course. I mention them only by way of saying that this is how the Clintons play the game. It is another version of diversionary bombing raids during the Monica scandal.
But - speaking of diversions - I believe the media fixation on Senators Clinton and Obama goes deeper. Big media - being generally sympathetic to Democratic candidates - are naturally protective of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns. Brawls between their camps over trivial issues make fine diversions to mask close examination of either candidate. No need to report positions on issues when candidates and members of their staffs are hurling rude names and flatulence at each other. The last thing either campaign wants is a searching look at its candidate. Why not? One would think they would welcome it. It is because both candidates are so weak. As Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland: "there's no there there".
True, both candidates are senators. But how helpful is that? John Kennedy was the last senator-only to be elected president. Many historians do not regard the martyred president's administration as successful. Political analysts say the Senate is not good preparation for the presidency because its members are "minor potentates" of obeisant satrapies, not "executives". Senators can posture, criticize, make speeches, issue sound-bites and demand answers, but are seldom held accountable for results. They can pass laws, but the executive has to carry them out. LBJ was good at law-making, having been Senate Majority Leader before he was VP. He had an arm-twisting style, but he wasn't very practiced at the nuances of true executive leadership.
Historically, governors show themselves better prepared for the presidency because they have been CEOs of states. In the popular imagination, CEOs sit around giving orders and firing people (think Donald Trump), but in the real (political) world they have to schmooze, cajole, flatter, encourage, bribe and sometimes kick butt to make things happen.
Like JFK, Senator Obama has a silver tongue and good looks. Those same assets - plus a glamorous wife and photogenic children - put the handsome Irishman in the White House by a whisker. Richard Nixon was an experienced and savvy statesman, but he couldn't match JFK's easy wit and his flair for the new medium of television. A heavy five o'clock shadow - impervious to several shavings a day - and an inability to look "windblown" doomed Mr. Nixon.
Mrs. Clinton is also well turned out, but she lacks the natural affability and charm Mr. Obama projects. No five o'clock shadow, but she would not win the Mrs. Congeniality prize.
Neither Senator Clinton nor Senator Obama has been in the senate very long, so perhaps the office has not defined them. But that short tenure also means they carry very thin résumés of achievement. During his two years in the Senate, Mr. Obama has achieved ...what? Well, not much. (OK, it's just two years.) He served in the Illinois Senate for eight (1996-2004), but his record there also was unremarkable. His "fresh, new" positions on issues seem fuzzy - perhaps deliberately so. I ask young people if they like Mr. Obama. Most answer "YES". But when I press them for exactly what they like about his positions, none could recall what they actually are. "He...ah... he seems so bright," said one woman. "He's so intelligent and speaks so well."
How true. He is bright. He's a great-looking guy. (Ladies swoon over his swimsuit pix.) And he can talk the hind leg off a mule. But he's running for president of the United States - not Professor Harold Hill in the Music Man or the head stud of Baywatch. Senator Biden got lashed for calling Senator Obama "bright, clean and articulate". They said he had dissed previous black candidates. Maybe so, but I believe his sin was to let slip the Great Unmentionable about Barak Obama: no there there. He's all image. Everyone knows it, but you're not supposed to say so.
Surely, this can't be said about Senator Clinton. Even before she made senator, Mrs. Clinton was called "the smartest woman in America". That's quite a statement. (How about all those lady CEOs, pols and university profs?) Exactly what did she do to earn the title? Well, she was a high-powered attorney in Little Rock. (Arkansas? No kidding?) Sure. Her clients retained her because her husband was governor. They were paying for her pillow-talk with the state's Top Banana. She handled the Whitewater deal that bilked Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan - and ultimately the federal government - out of millions of dollars. For all this she was known as one of the country's most influential female lawyers? (Please remove your head as you read this.)
OK, but wasn't she "co-president" alongside that loveable old rogue, Bill? Right. Bill tasked her to oversee nationalization of the country's entire health care system. She gathered the Democratic Party's brightest minds and labored for months to bring forth a pile of dung so putrid that the Democratic-controlled Congress wouldn't go anywhere near it. She played no role in the ‘96 campaign, basically hiding out until Bill was safely re-elected. (The Invisible Co-Pres?)
We can stipulate that Mrs. Clinton is a very smart politician. She was smart enough to steer clear of Arkansas (where she could not have been elected dog-catcher) and head for the friendly liberal climes of New York, where her husband had enough political clout to get Senator Moynihan's logical heirs to step aside so she could run for that seat. One of the bluest of blue states, New York is a natural haven for politicians of Senator Clinton's proclivities.
But Mrs. Clinton's six years in the Senate have been as unremarkable as Senator Obama's two. She is a sound-bite senator - trashing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's credibility in a highly publicized committee hearing where she asked him why she should believe anything he said. One of her few positive actions was her vote to authorize the war on terror in whatever way Mr. Bush chose to wage it. That vote now has her crosswise with the anti-war (i.e., dominant) wing of the Democratic Party. Beyond that, it is hard to point to any substantial contribution she has made to the life or governance of the nation in six years.
Even her erstwhile liberal admirers seem fatigued by her multiple personas. Liberal activist and former Democrat Congressional aide David Sirota says, "If you ask, ‘What does Hillary Clinton really represent?' it would be hard to tell." Her bios mention health-care issues she is "working on", but no signature accomplishments spring out. As nearly as I can make it out, Mrs. Clinton's chief credential is her messiah-potential. Her senatorial mediocrity has been overlooked because she is the Party's Great White Hope.
Both Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton are often called the Democrats' "strongest candidates". That really means they are media stars. They have high name-recognition. They are photogenic. They have perfect teeth. If the lid can be kept on what they really are and have done (or not), either one might actually win the presidency. That's not a comforting thought in dangerous times.
If Americans don't untie the string and look inside these pretty packages, they could have some rude surprises in 2009 after the dancing stops. Many voters bought the Clinton package in '92. He claimed to be a "new" kind of Democrat. He was, all right, but not the kind we wanted. Hopefully voters will be smarter this time. Look for candidates of substance to emerge in the months ahead - perhaps in both parties. Lincoln always said you can't fool all of the people all the time.