Before I explain, let me say that I’m not a (Bill) Clinton hater. I actually like the guy. I’ve grown nostalgic for the Clinton years. The economy was booming. He was the most free trade president we’ve had in a long, long time (certainly more free trade than this one). The federal government grew less under his leadership than under any president in my lifetime (save for Ford). And after the last seven years, it seems almost quaint that we were all worked up over lies about blowjobs, doesn’t it?
Anyway, on to the subject of this post.
A couple of weeks ago at a bar in Alexandria, I by chance met a visiting Democratic activist from New York. This was an older guy, who also was the vice-mayor of a decent-sized town in the Hudson Valley. We started chatting politics and, of course, the election. He said he was a long time supporter of Hillary Clinton, but had abruptly jumped ship to the Obama campaign shortly after the South Carolina primary. His explanation was interesting. It was all about Bill.
I thought at the time that Bill Clinton’s comments comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson were tacky and self-defeating, but I hadn’t really given them much more thought than that. But this guy made some interesting points. Bill Clinton has mastered southern politics all his life, the activist said. He knows all the buzz words, he knows all the code words, he knows where you do and don’t tread. Clinton, the activist said, has been on the right side of racial politics his entire political career. No one that savvy slips up the way Clinton did. It had to have been a calculated move. And because it was a calculated move, it was a deeply cynical, baldly race-driven move. Clinton, the activist said, was signaling to white voters that Obama isn’t his own man. Clinton was giving white voters the okay to marginalize Obama–to put him aside as just another stooge the party has to prop up to appease the black folk, but not someone they ought to take seriously. This, the activist told me, was unforgivable. It’s why not just black people, but a sizable number of Democratic activists have flocked to Obama.
It was an interesting conversation, and made a lot of sense. But I wonder now if Clinton’s comments may sprung from something even deeper. The thing is, Bill Clinton is incredibly savvy. He may be the most talented politician of my lifetime. The Jesse Jackson comments were uncharacteristically sloppy. What in the world made him utter them?
So here’s a crazy theory that occurred to me the other day, and that gets more plausible the more I think about it: Clinton’s comments were calculated, but they may have been more sinister than even the activist I met knows. Clinton–perhaps subconsciously–was sabotaging his wife’s campaign.
Crazy? Maybe. But bear with me, here. Clinton had to have known that marginalizing Obama wouldn’t work. He knows Obama is a talented politician, that he isn’t a demagogue like Jackson, and that he has already demonstrated that he can attract white voters in large swaths–Obama certainly didn’t win Iowa by dominating the black vote, did he?
So why would Clinton do it? Well, maybe he doesn’t want his wife to be president.
They don’t come much more alpha male than Bill Clinton. The guy’s a walking erection. I can’t imagine anything more emasculating to an alpha-alpha like Bill than to watch his wife arc over him–for her to become more powerful than he. Actually, it’s quite a bit worse than that. Hillary Clinton was on the verge of not only becoming more powerful than Bill, she was ready to become the most powerful person on the planet. Not only that, she was about to do so by assuming the very office Bill once held, but (probably) won’t ever hold again. Bill, on the other hand, would be relegated to first lady. I can’t see how that wouldn’t mess with the psychology of a guy like Clinton.
More to support my theory: It’s pretty clear that Hillary Clinton’s reputation and public image have never been of much concern to Bill Clinton. He has publicly humiliated his wife over and over and over again, then counted on her to stand by him in the interests of his career–at which point he inevitably turns around and humiliates her again. It isn’t all that hard to believe that a guy who’s alpha enough to risk his entire political career and presidential legacy for a few hummers from a pudgy intern might subconsciously sabotage his wife’s ascent to power, is it?
Yeah, I know. Clinton is supposed to be the male face of feminism. Certainly a progressive, forward-thinking fella’ like him wouldn’t undermine his wife’s ambition because of some Neanderthal urge to stay at the head of his pack, would he?
But what’s really all that feminist about Bill Clinton? Certainly not the way he’s treated women on an individual basis over the course of his career. This is a guy who routinely uses women for his own sexual amusement, then tosses them under a bus when they become a problem. Gloria Steinem famously wrote during the impeachment imbroglio that Clinton gets a “free pass” on sexual harassment because of all he’s done to keep abortion safe and legal. But Clinton was a late convert to abortion rights (he was pro-life for much of his career), and rather conveniently switched at about the time it became politically expedient to be pro-choice. And let’s face it, for a guy with Clinton’s urges (and inability to control them), there’s certainly something self-serving about “all he’s done to keep abortion safe and legal.”
I’m not saying Bill Clinton sat down and figured all of this out. But a friend of mine once told me something that I’ve found has proven true over the years: “Few things really happen by accident.” Add it up: Clinton’s remarks after South Carolina gave Obama’s already building momentum another nudge. His wife’s campaign has never really recovered. It was a mistake that was really unprecedented in his political career. Even the Sister Souljah stuff was carefully calibrated. Yes, it irked some academic blacks and the hip hop community, but it also won him praise from the ministers and religious civil rights crowd. The Jesse Jackson comments about Obama had almost no upside at all. The number of quasi-racist, primary-voting Democrats they might have appealed to is exceedingly small–certainly not worth the obvious damage a comment could inflict on the support for just about everyone else. Besides, anyone a comment like that might have been directed at wouldn’t have been voting for Obama, anyway. And it all came at a critical juncture in the campaign, when Hillary badly needed momentum, and couldn’t afford a major mistake. It gave independents who may have been flirting with Ron Paul or John McCain more incentive to come around on Obama. It just seems like too dumb a thing for a smart politician like Clinton to have done if he was really trying to help his wife win the nomination.
Remember, Clinton said some other strange things at about the same time, including his weird, unsolicited comments that Hillary and John McCain are good friends, and would run one of the friendliest presidential campaigns in American history. In the heat of a primary, in an election to replace a Republican administration universally loathed by movement Democrats, is it really wise to casually note that your wife the candidate is chummy with the GOP frontrunner, a guy who would continue most of the current administration’s policies, including (most notably) the Iraq war, the one issue that raises primary voters’ haunches than any other? Democratic voters are out for blood, and Bill Clinton says of Hillary, “Oh that John McCain? She loves him!”
Certainly, Clinton’s gaffes played a big role in turning the Democratic primary around. But the more I think about them, the more it seems like they may not have been by accident.