Published in the New York Post on December 14, 2007.
Sound familiar? A young, charismatic candidate campaigns calling for change and new directions. Defying the traditional prejudices that have kept his ilk out of the White House, his effortless good looks and measured cadence attract voters to his vision of new possibilities.
Opposing him is a time-tested political figure capitalizing on his role in a popular eight-year administration and campaigning on the theme of experience and deriding the opponent as unqualified and naive.
In 1960 the challenger was John Kennedy and the time-tested candidate was Richard Nixon, whose slogan was “experience counts.” Now it’s Obama vs. Clinton, but the paradigm is the same.
The decision that Hillary should run as the candidate of experience was an enormous blunder. In a Democratic electorate that’s in the party precisely because it so intensely dislikes things as they are and wants change, experience is the wrong virtue to stress.
Democrats back insurgency and political insurrection – but Hillary offers them only a synthetic and imagined incumbency. She has ceded the field of change to her rivals and sequestered herself with those pining for the 1990s, like fans at an old-timers day baseball game.
To voters who want change, she offers only nostalgia.
Hillary and her helpers were doubtless drawn to the theme of experience to set up the negatives they planned to throw at Obama. But it was inside-out logic. Knowing that they’d soon attack Obama’s inexperience, the Clinton campaign decided to emphasize Hillary’s supposed experience. By stressing her experience, they surely felt, they could attack Obama without seeming to do so. But this put the “negative” cart before the “positive” horse – that is, it gave them an attack plan at the cost of locking them into a lame identity for Hillary.
By stressing experience, Hillary is basing her campaign on a fraud. Like her Senate race, which was premised on the obvious lie that she wanted to be a New Yorker, her presidential race is rooted in the fabrication that she was the principal actress in her husband’s presidency.
In fact, she was an observer (a close-up one, to be sure); at most a kibitzer, sending in advice from time to time but surely not a principal.
Yes, she had actual line responsibility, in the first two years of his presidency – a time of dismal failure. But her role from late 1995 to 1997 was scarcely more than a traditional first lady’s: She toured the country, wrote books, cut ribbons and traveled the world.
Even her return to a role of power – when the Lewinsky scandal all but closed down the Clinton presidency at the start of 1998 – was only in the realm of damage control, not as a formulator of public policy. Then, the final year of Bill’s tenure saw her absorbed in her own Senate campaign, no longer much interested in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., except as a springboard.
But now her candidacy’s focus on “experience” has backed Hillary into a campaign of dissembling to reinvent her White House role – a series of ever-grander boasts that more and more defy credibility: First, she was at her husband’s side as he balanced the budget. Then, she became a principal architect of his economic policies, the secret catalyst of the Irish peace process and the face of the administration’s foreign policy.
All this posturing not only makes her look fake – but weaker by the day, too: Why is this strong woman hiding behind her husband’s record, rather than focusing on her own?
All this artifice accomplishes is to win control of the rearview mirror in an election where voters want to look out of the windshield. She’s now positioned in the wrong place in the wrong primary. It’s Republicans who vote for experience – Democrats vote for change.
Bill Clinton is now running around Iowa trying to sell Hillary as the “agent of change,” but he is fighting against the long-term theme of her campaign in making Hillary the candidate of experience. And how can a former president, whose very presence is identified with a bygone era, convince us that his wife is now the candidate of the new age?
What genius thought up this strategy?