Sunday, January 6, 2008

Imagining a World Without Hillary


No, this isn't a cheap shot at perhaps the nation's first woman president. Nor is it a cheesy post-holiday attempt at "It's a Wonderful Life" humor.

But I do wonder what role Bill Clinton would be playing in this election cycle if his wife wasn't running for president. And what he has in mind for the future.

Bill loves to be known as the country's first black president. This is a tribute to his sincerity towards a voting block he doesn't treat like a voting block which turns out in disproportionately-large numbers for Democrats. This warmth is, I reckon, especially savored by a white child of the segregated south; when it came time for the post-presidential potentate to chose a base of operations Clinton landed in Harlem, a brother from another planet.

Hillary has many plates she must keep spinning. Some are up there of her own doing, and some are not -- including the gender dish, where her passions are served up as evidence of imbalance in a way they never would coming from a man.

So, she has it tough already. Add to that now this: how do you bash your black opponent with talk that this scholarly, street-toughened son of a Kenyan and a Kansan isn't sufficiently experienced in the ways of the world to be president -- without it sounding like you're telling him not to be uppity, to wait his turn?

How can you do this when your opponent brings to mind so many of the positive traits that your rock star husband put to such effective use when he was reaching for his impossible dream: youth, a fresh outlook, room-silencing oratory, visceral passion and that certain, transcendent something we cheapen by describing as mere charisma?

She'll figure it out, for as long as she needs to. But what about Bill? What happens if Hillary is not the nominee, especially if she bows to Obama many months before the convention? He could not afford to stay on the sidelines in that waiting period, even if he wanted to. She would have to make the first move, of course.

But even now, late at night, as he swirls that imaginary bourbon and thinks of what might have been, Bill must know that his heir is not Hillary, but Barack.

Is this why he has been less direct with Obama than she, even when it is usually a proxy's role to get tough? Much was made of Bill's "roll the dice" remark on Charlie Rose -- but isn't it closer to a pulled punch than a coup de grace when you say that to people who want to roll the dice?

Bill is a master at hand-to-hand political combat -- a draft dodger who vanquished wounded combat veterans Bush 41 and Bob Dole, for goodness sake. Surely if Bill wasn't keeping his sword sheathed there would be much more blood on the ground.

Is it half-heartedness that prompts Bill to sometimes talk about more about himself than the candidate? To flub the message? Or can even the great change agent himself make no sense of the change vs. experience argument? Does he even want to?

Witness this, spoken by Bill at a New Hampshire Town Meeting yesterday:
"This is not about experience versus change. This is about whether you want a proven record of action. This is what it's about. If you've got the vision and you've got the plans, can you deliver?"
I think Bill is conflicted by two things. He cherishes his standing in the black community and will do nothing to jeopardize it or to see it jeopardized. This is partly a political calculation -- life goes on, tomorrow is another day, I live here, etc. -- but mostly it seems to be genuine affection.

Then there is his gut appreciation that in a different world he'd be on the Obama bandwagon. If there was no Hillary, then Bill would have Barack's back. He would be making all the arguments that leap off the page anyway and drawing attention to all the parallels between the brother scholars, philosophers and political game-changers.

Obama, in what I think was a turning point, joked in a debate that'd he even be seeking advice from Hillary as president. It's easier to imagine that the Clinton he'd want as a counselor is Bill.

And while Bill has ideas of his own on how to spend post-presidential life he also seems keen to be on retainer for the next Democratic occupant of the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

I just think he won't be too torn up if the call from the White House switchboard is placed on behalf of President Obama.

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