Brought down by Bill?

Does Bill Clinton have a passive-aggressive relationship with Hillary? I sometimes wonder. If Hillary Clinton does not become the Democratic presidential nominee this year, it can probably be traced to her husband. Before Bill Clinton said this in response to a reporter’s question, polls had put Hillary Clinton even with Barack Obama in the South Carolina primary. Indeed, prior to mid December 2007, polls showed Clinton holding a steady lead over Obama. While Bill Clinton’s remarks were not overtly racist, they were implicitly racist. When asked why it takes two Clintons to beat Barack Obama in South Carolina, Clinton drew attention to the fact that Jesse Jackson won the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina twice in the 1980s. The implication was clear: if given a choice, blacks will vote for other blacks. What was more interesting than his words though was the little “Ha ha ha” he uttered after being asked the question. The tone was unmistakable.

When I heard it, I just cringed. Some part of me thought that if Hillary Clinton did not end up mortally wounded by his January 26th remark, Bill’s remark would definitely knock her out for at least a round. Unquestionably, that was achieved. Hillary has been down for three rounds so far. Since Super Tuesday, there have been eight more Democratic primaries and caucuses. Barack Obama has won all of them, in many cases winning by double digits or more. This week in the so-called Potomac Primary, my state, Virginia, picked him over Hillary Clinton by 29%, which was nearly the same margin that Obama won in his home state of Illinois (32%).

It was a spectacularly bad and ill-timed remark by Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton is way too smart of a politician to say it without considering its likely the consequences. This made me wonder if he subconsciously wants Hillary to lose. His words, which were quickly broadcast and transmitted all over the country, caused South Carolinians of all races to reassess both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Many African Americans, who long thought of Bill Clinton as America’s first black president and consequently were inclined to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt, suddenly felt disillusioned. Perhaps they felt more used than disillusioned. Our 42nd president may have come from what many consider a trailer park trash household, but apparently, even trailer park trash households had their standards in Arkansas. I am left to conclude many in Arkansas like Bill had lingering racist feelings. Hey, at least they weren’t black.

I think African Americans across the country felt used and betrayed when they heard these comments. Moreover, by implication Hillary Clinton was slimed too. After all, she had married the man. She was still married to the man, in spite of his infidelities (perhaps because he promised the lure of a Senate seat for the price of staying in their marriage). It is nice to have white politicians who consistently vote to improve the lot of African Americans, but how do they really feel inside? Bill Clinton’s “ha ha ha” was a window into his soul. Consequently, almost overnight South Carolinians changed their mind. At least they knew that Barack Obama was a man of character. He grew up effectively in a single family home too, but he had never stepped out on Michele. His vision was uplifting. Bill Clinton’s vision was more political smoke and mirrors. South Carolina, which January polls suggested was a toss up, moved quickly into the Obama camp. The last poll taken near the end of January showed Obama with a 15% lead over Clinton. He actually won by 28%, winning more than twice the number of votes she received.

Barack Obama may be running a post racial campaign, but clearly, America remains racially sensitive. Many now seem inclined to make bigots pay a political price. Bill Clinton, the ultimate triangulator, was focused on what appeared to be short-term tactics to boost Hillary’s chances. The remark was a mistake. His wife’s campaign now feels like a balloon slowly deflating. It remains to be seen whether his remark will ultimately end it.

Many people, including myself, found much to admire about the Clinton presidency. Bill Clinton deftly navigated the 90’s surrounded by Republicans. Under the circumstances, his accomplishments were quite extraordinary. None of us voters though ever were disillusioned by Bill Clinton’s character. We always knew he was a Wile E. Coyote. Most of us liked what he did for the economy and loved what he did to our pocketbooks. It allowed us to overlook his moral transgressions.

This remark though reminded of us what we did not like about Bill. We hear remarks like “If you elect Hillary, you will get two Clintons for the price of one.” On the stump, Bill Clinton is talking about “our campaign”. These remarks just raise the question: just whom are we electing if we elect Hillary Clinton? Who will really be in charge? By having Hillary’s ear, are we in effect giving Bill Clinton a third term? Will he transform himself into the new Dick Cheney and be the secret power behind the throne? Is that how we want to remember the next Clinton presidency with a sixty something Bill Clinton holed up in Cheney’s old office on the phone working backdoor deals?

For many of us on the fence the answer is “No!” While it is generally better to go with the enemy you know than the one you do not know, Bill’s remarks on a Bill and Hill presidency feel more alarming than reassuring. This is probably why not just blacks, but white men and women, and increasingly Latinos are moving in the Barack Obama column. Given the realities of being president, offering hope may seem at times sophomoric. However, the Obama vision is at least a clean break from the past decades of endless political infighting and partisanship. It is a compelling vision, and one that Bill Clinton now makes look especially alluring.

Bill Clinton may have triangulated his wife right out of the presidency.

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