Monday, January 21, 2008

The alumnus as alpha dog

It's Martin Luther King Day - or, as the Hillary Clinton campaign might prefer to call it, Martin Luther King/Lyndon B. Johnson Day - but this is no time for a holiday break. Not with Barack Obama calling Bill Clinton a liar on national TV.

Obama didn't literally use that word to describe the only two-term Democratic president since FDR, but that's the gist of what he said on ABC's Good Morning America: "(Bill) has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling. He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts - whether it's about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas. This has become a habit, and one of the things that we're going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate."

Before I explain why Obama's lament is good news for the Clintons, let's step back for a moment and marvel at the unprecedented dynamics of this Democratic campaign. Not only do we have the first major black candidate in history dueling with the first major female candidate in history, but, for the first time, we also have the spectacle of an ex-president auditioning to become First Gentleman (as well as Strategist Emeritus and Presidential Partner Without Portfolio).

Lest we need reminding, Bill's behavior in recent weeks - denigrating Obama as "a roll of the dice," calling Obama's antiwar record a "fairy tale," ranting at a reporter about the supposedly unfair Nevada caucus rules - is quite atypical for a White House alumnus. Recent ex-presidents have tended to go off and play a lot of golf (Gerald Ford), write books (Richard Nixon), do good works (house-builder Jimmy Carter), or parachute out of airplanes (George H. W. Bush). But here we have the alumnus as alpha dog, cutting a swath through the partisan thicket of another campaign, sowing potential discord within his own party, and indeed risking the loss of his hard-won, post-Lewinsky image of ambassador to the world.

Having said that, it's clear that the Clintons see Bill's new role as a worthy bargain. He plays the attack dog while she remains rhetorically leashed. He knees Obama in the kidneys while she attends debates (CNN has another one tonight) and engages Obama's intellect.

And the strategy seems to be working. A lot of independent voters might be rolling their eyes at the latest incarnation of the Clintons' "two for the price of one" routine, but clearly it didn't seem to bother the grassroots Democrats who voted in New Hampshire and Nevada. To those folks, Bill is arguably a bigger draw than Hillary; they'd rather listen to his poetry than her prose. And regardless of whether Bill's attacks on Obama are accurate or not, the bottom line is that his every utterance gets huge media play. Obama will never find a surrogate who can wield that kind of megaphone, even if he was so inclined.

Which brings us back to Obama's morning lament. It was a sign of weakness. A candidate never looks good when he complains about being attacked and about the general unfairness of it all. Under the rules of civility, perhaps it is unfair that he's being double-teamed, but, as the saying goes, politics ain't beanbag. And the Clintons are no doubt delighted with Obama's response, because every second that he expends on them, complaining about them and trying to refute them, is one less second expended on his own message.

And the Clintons will be double-teaming him for the foreseeable future, because it's also financially smart. With the Feb. 5 mega-primaries looming, it would be prohibitively expensive to run TV ads in all the big states; the wiser Clintonian option is to dispatch Bill hither and yon, particularly to the large cities on both coasts (New York, California, and New Jersey all vote on Feb. 5), because he's a free-media magnet. He can keep the heat on Obama, reap the coverage, and it won't cost the Clinton campaign a dime in advertising. And meanwhile, this week, Bill be do his barking in the black churches of South Carolina.

One could argue that the Clinton campaign is hampered by a fundamental contradiction - Hillary wants to sell herself as a strong female leader, yet she apparently can't pull it off without major aid from her man - but no matter. Unless or until the strategy backfires, the alpha dog will continue to roam.