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Fear and Loathing on Hillary's Trail

By Jed Babbin

Somewhere in Barack Obama's ancestry, I'm betting he was blessed by a connection to the late Stanley Kubrick. The only evidence is the fact that so young a politician has the intellect and sense of humor to apparently throw Team Clinton into a discombobulated near-panic a year before the Iowa caucuses. Obama isn't in this for fun or to torment Clinton. He's in it to credential himself to gain the presidential nomination - and possibly win - as a liberal candidate some time in the next four, eight, twelve or twenty years. Hillary Clinton isn't. She knows that 2008 is her one chance. If Obama - or Edwards or someone else - denies her the nomination, Clinton knows she'll be on the trail to Senatorial codgerdom, not the presidency. Because she's the leader and not the inevitable nominee the fallout from Obama's maneuvers has dropped on Clinton's shoulders.

On October 22, 2006 - a bit more than two weeks before the mid-term election - Obama used an appearance on Meet the Press to hint broadly at a presidential run. The timing was magnificent. Neither president nor senator, not war or the coming election, could steal the limelight from him that day. And then the post-election polls started. Obama - after a single trip to New Hampshire - polled within one point of Sen. Clinton. She polled behind both Obama and John Edwards in a December Iowa poll, and hasn't had a break since.

Clinton's trip last week to Iraq was an exercise in triangulation to offset Obama's and Edwards's calls for withdrawal from the war in open defiance of Clinton's pretensions to moderation. The trip was supposed to end with a bang, a splashy press conference planned for Wednesday. Clinton could have looked presidential, criticizing the president's plan to surge troops into Iraq having just visited and - presumably - talked to troops and commanders there. Once again, the obstacle was Obama and his timing. Coincidentally (?) Wednesday was the day Obama chose to announce the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. Clinton was forced to cancel her big presser and her trip is now old news.

Obama's announcement of a presidential exploratory committee - presaging a formal announcement scheduled for early February - must have elicited a Howard Dean-like reaction from Sen. Clinton because one of his key points was aimed at her. In the video posted on his website, Obama said we were, "...mired in a tragic and costly war that should never have been waged." Clinton voted for the war in Iraq and has yet to follow Edwards and others in apologizing for the vote. This places her on the opposite side of most Democrats, as a CBS News poll showed earlier this month. CBS reported Tuesday that, "A CBS News poll taken earlier this month found that 77% of Democrats surveyed wanted a decrease or full withdrawal of troops from Iraq. And another CBS poll asked viewers of Bush's Wednesday night speech if they supported the plan to send more troops to Baghdad. 82% of Democrats opposed it." Obama and Edwards opposed the troop surge before Clinton, and she could only fall in line behind them. Hillary Clinton isn't one to play catch-up for long.

Obama's announcement included the fact that he's planning a formal announcement of his presidential bid on February 10, giving Clinton only a few weeks to regain the momentum she thought she had and probably accelerating her plans to announce her candidacy. She's caught in her own quagmire, stuck with the foundational strategy that won her husband the presidency twice. She has to maintain the moderate pose while pushing a liberal agenda. She faces the growing pressure from Obama, Edwards and the Cindy Sheehan wing of her party that are shoving her uncomfortably leftward. Clinton knows that if she gives in, she loses the Clinton Cloak and will have to seek the presidency as just another one of a crowd of antiwar liberals. And she can't win that way, because - as the 2006 post-election polls showed - either party's nominee will depend on the truly moderate voters of both parties to grant the margin of victory. So what will Clinton do?

Hillary Clinton will do what she and her husband have always done. When they speak of the politics of personal destruction, they aren't really complaining of how they're being treated. Psychologists call this "projection." When they speak of it, the Clintons are talking about another fundamental element of their politics.

Barack Obama may not be immune to these attacks but Clinton -- concerned about his ascendance --may have already used her best ammunition. In a mini-memoir written a decade ago, Obama spoke of his use of illegal drugs. This long-forgotten story was reborn in a January 3 Washington Post piece that may have been another Clinton maneuver to cut into his momentum. What else is there? Team Clinton will make sure we find out. For Clinton, whatever there is won't be enough to make up for her sliding scale position on the war. The Democrats are so far gone on that issue that Clinton will have to toe the Jack Murtha-Nancy Pelosi line sooner or later. The longer she waits, the harder the antiwar faction will be on her. The only other weapon she can use is her pals in the 527 Media. Rumsfeld got off easy compared to how Sen. Obama may fare.

The cynics among us might believe that Hillary used the Associated Press like a rented mule in her "Rumsfeld refused to testify" play last summer. And they would also believe that the AP's gushing review of Terry McAuliffe's book - a Clinton puff piece - might also have been maneuvered by Hillary's AP pals. But even those who aren't cynical will understand the connection when the New York Times's troika - publisher Pinch Sulzberger, Managing Editor Jill Abramson and columnist Maureen Dowd - begin whittling away at Obama. If Hillary sounds the alarm, they will not be alone in challenging Obama. The urgency of her SOS will be measured two ways.

First, the articles and columns questioning Obama's qualifications will go from trickle to flood. (Obama's are no less than Clinton's and aren't encumbered by her reputation of being, as William Safire once put it, a "serial liar.") Second, the editorials and columns praising Clinton's "reasoned moderation" on the Iraq war will evolve leftward as her position does. The 527 Media will play remoras to Hillary's shark. Barack Obama isn't a big enough fish to defend himself from what's in store.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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