“Sen. Clinton, if you are elected president, will you have the power to stop your husband from making public statements that could be harmful to your administration? Could you, for example, prevent him from deriding the arguments of a foreign leader or a prominent Senator as a ‘fairy tale?’”
If a journalist or an opponent asks this question the answer is certain to be something that cannot be parsed to yield a recognizable “Yes” or “No.” We’ve known since 1991 that the first principle of Clintonian metaphysics is the rejection of false dichotomies. It’s a sound principle, as far as it goes – they’re called false dichotomies for a reason. The problem is that in the parallel universe the Clintons inhabit, there are no true dichotomies. It is possible there for Bill to smoke marijuana without smoking marijuana, and Hillary to vote for a bankruptcy bill as a way to register her opposition to it. Poor John Kerry voted for things before he voted against them. The Clintons, however, break through the space-time continuum to be for and against things, to do and not do things, at the same time. No wonder the meaning of the word "is" goes up for grabs.
Hillary can hardly run on the promise that her husband will be the loose cannon of her administration, acting as minister without portfolio and political commentator at large. Ronald Reagan didn’t think the voters or the Constitution could allow former Pres. Ford to become “co-president” in 1980, and the idea doesn’t sound any more promising 28 years later. But if she insists that Bill Clinton will be subdued starting next January in a way he hasn’t been this January, she is either endorsing his over-the-top Obamaphobia, or making the weird claim that she’ll have more control over her presidency than over her presidential campaign.
Inevitably, Hillary wants to have it both ways, to distance herself from Bill’s attacks and avail herself of them. “I’m here, not my husband,” she said in Monday night’s debate. “This campaign is not about our spouses, it’s about us. . . . At the end of the day, voters are going to have to choose among us.” Yet her campaign advisors made clear to Patrick Healy of the New York Times that, “Mr. Clinton is deliberately trying to play bad cop against Mr. Obama,” leading Healy to observe that “the Clintons are all but openly running together as a power couple ready to take office in 2009.”
The tenor of the criticism of Bill Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign since the Iowa caucuses could lead to the conclusion that the vast right-wing conspiracy has picked up some surprising new members. Joe Klein calls it “desperate,” “unprecedented,” and accuses Clinton of making “a spectacle of himself.” Clinton’s “transition from elder statesman, leader of his party and bipartisan ambassador to ward heeler and hatchet man has been seamless — and seamy,” according to Maureen Dowd. E.J. Dionne laments “Clinton’s Depressing Assault on Obama.” Michael Tomasky says that Clinton has “done himself a tremendous amount of damage” by campaigning “against a fellow Democrat no differently than if Obama had been Newt Gingrich.”
It’s clear that the Clinton campaign is willing to pay the price of diminishing Bill, as long as it diminishes Barack Obama even more. James Carville, of course, is happy to give the Times the pugnacious take-away snarl: “This is not Williams College students electing a commencement speaker. This is a huge deal. Does the president risk going overboard? Sure. But Obama runs a risk of being wussified.”
But the whole process has diminished Hillary Clinton, too – in ways that might not cost her the nomination or even the election, but which will put a Barry Bonds-sized asterisk beside her name in the history books. To the extent the 2008 Clinton campaign is about them it’s not about her. No detailed recitation of policy nuances can keep such a candidate from being reduced to Lurleen Wallace, a political spouse running as a stand-in for her term-limited husband. The New Republic’s Michael Crowley says that debunking Hillary’s claim that her Oval-Office-relevant credentials go all the way back to when she was a 25-year-old law student is beside the point. “Experience” is the Clinton campaign’s code word for having a former president right down the hall. The first female president will give us our first training-wheels presidency.