Politics & Poker: Redeeming Clinton’s Brand in Obama Age

Posted June 8, 2009 at 6:26pm

Every time there’s a picture in the paper of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in some far-off location, it’s hard not to think of that scene in the movie “Broadcast News— when producer Jane Craig, played by Holly Hunter, dispatches a rival for William Hurt’s affections to Alaska to cover a lengthy trial. The only time this woman is ever heard from again is when she’s making an occasional stand-up report, all bundled up, from snow-bound Nome, or wherever it is.

[IMGCAP(1)]Good to have you on the team — just don’t want you too close.

Make no mistake, Clinton is a vital part of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team — both substantively and symbolically. And the two genuinely seem to have worked out — or chosen to gloss over — whatever differences defined their nasty battle in last year’s primaries.

Clinton was effusive in her praise during an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.—

“The president, in his public actions and demeanor, and certainly in private with me and with the national security team, has been strong, thoughtful, decisive,— she said. “I think he’s doing a terrific job. And it’s an honor to serve with him.—

There’s no mistaking who’s in charge, and for Obama, there are all kinds of advantages to having Clinton at Foggy Bottom. He’s given an extraordinarily gifted woman a very important job, but it’s one that keeps her at arm’s length. Better, if you’re Obama, to have Clinton globe-trotting on your behalf than, say, still in the Senate, meddling on health care reform.

With Hillary Clinton very prominent, with Bill Clinton still hogging his share of the spotlight — most recently on the cover of the Sunday New York Times magazine last week — and with Terry McAuliffe on the ballot in the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary today, it seems like a good time to re-examine Clintonism as a political brand. To start off, it’s fair to say that the brand has already taken on new meaning in the Age of Obama.

Much as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign tried to distance itself at times from Bill Clinton, there was no doubt that the campaign came off as an attempted restoration. Bill Clinton certainly viewed it that way — though in his case, maybe “redemption— is a better word — and the Hillary forces did their damnedest to remind voters about the good parts of the Clinton era (a humming economy, relative stability at the international level), while ignoring the bad (Monica Lewinsky and other scandals, a chaotic White House untethered to one set ideology or strategy).

Probably nobody did more to advance the notion of a restoration publicly than Terry McAuliffe. He was everywhere on TV, cheerleading for Hillary and dissing Obama, even after it seemed prudent to continue to do so.

Was Obama’s nomination victory over Hillary Clinton a repudiation of Clintonism? Or was it a product of Democratic voters’forward-looking embrace of a young, exciting politician whose gifts seemed every bit as sterling as Bill Clinton’s did in the early 1990s?

Whether or not McAuliffe wins today’s primary, some political analysts will try to interpret the results as a referendum on Clintonism vs. Obamaism.

Notwithstanding McAuliffe’s complete identification with the Clintons and Obama’s resounding victory in The Old Dominion’s primary last year, that’s not particularly fair.

McAuliffe’s candidacy is likely to rise or fall on its own merits, as it should. Virginia voters have seen their share of wealthy candidates and have become used to voting for non-Bubba “outsiders— like Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. But both those guys were at least known entities in the state who had paid their dues (and it didn’t hurt that Kaine married a former governor’s daughter). But McAuliffe is something else, someone who despite a Fairfax County address has had no public connection with state affairs in the almost 20 years he’s hung his hat there.

To be sure, if McAuliffe wins, Bill Clinton will be given some of the credit, since he campaigned with McAuliffe and cut campaign ads for him. And if the Macker loses, there will be Clinton haters, on the left and the right, who will cheer. But if he loses, in either the primary or the general election, it’ll be because Virginia voters preferred a competent and seasoned state officeholder to McAuliffe’s over-caffeinated salesman — and because they didn’t consider him enough of a “real— Virginian — not because of the Clintons. (The feeling here is that Creigh Deeds would be a stronger general election candidate anyway — a notion that even some liberal Northern Virginia Democrats seem ready to embrace.)

So where does the Clinton brand go from here?

Much has been made of how many Clinton administration veterans now work for Obama. But Bill Clinton was the last Democrat in the White House — what do people expect?

Analysts are also suggesting that Obama’s talk of bipartisanship is reminiscent of Clinton’s triangulation, and that his caution is similar to Clinton’s (except on a personal level, caution, after all, pretty much defined Clinton’s presidency). Some of their signature issues also, inevitably, are the same.

But while Clinton, like Obama, inherited a lousy economy from his predecessor, there wasn’t the sense of crisis gripping the nation that there is today. And Obama’s team — those who worked for the Clintons and those who didn’t — are only too aware of Clinton’s flaws and mistakes and are hell-bent on not repeating them. At the same time, liberal activists, who never really embraced Clintonism, are vigilantly waiting for signs of squishiness from Obama.

It’s as if the Clinton administration were a building block for Obama’s. But as with any good home renovation, you’ve got to take out the rotting wood and reinforce the good stuff. Yet if health care reform succeeds, if Hillary Clinton is able to pull together a semblance of peace and order in the Middle East, if Obama is able to sustain a lasting Democratic governing coalition, it’s almost as if Bill Clinton can claim a measure of credit.

This may not be the redemption the former president believes he deserves, but it’s something. And no matter what the political climate next year — even if Obama’s popularity plummets — you can be sure that both Clintons will be hot commodities on the campaign trail in any number of races.

If that doesn’t represent a measure of redemption, at least it’s a sign of political strength and longevity. And those aren’t bad thing to possess in this game — ever.