The Clintons Are Here to Stay

The Clintons Are Here to Stay

By Toby Harnden - August 15, 2008

Get used to it. They are not going away. Anyone who thought that Barack Obama had sent Hillary Clinton back to the Senate to atone for her campaign's sins or banished her husband, baying at the moon, into the wilderness was deluded.

Denver shows every sign of being the Clinton show. Hillary has a prime-time convention slot on the Tuesday. Bill speaks on Wednesday, stealing the thunder of Senator Obama's veep pick. And now that Obama has caved into her demand for a roll call vote, Hillary will be center stage again on Thursday. So much for turning the page.

Fuelled by an unholy brew of victimhood and entitlement, Clinton's supporters threaten to steal the show at the convention. Don't be fooled by the sweetness-and-light joint statement released by the two campaigns. According to one member of Clinton's camp, Obama's "elbow was twisted". Any future negotiations with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will probably seem like a picnic.

Only a political naïf would have agreed to a televised reminder of just how close Senator Clinton came to victory in the primaries. And Obama, schooled in Chicago, is no ingénue. Of course, Clinton - as she is so fond of reminding us - received some 18 million votes this year and came within a whisker of winning. Her husband is the most recent Democratic president. They had to be accommodated.

But the deal Obama struck with Mrs Clinton must have stuck in his craw. The contention, moreover, that it was his idea that her name should be placed into nomination is an insult to our intelligence. By allowing the roll call, Obama has ceded control of what happens on the convention floor.

No doubt Obama decided that a bad agreement was better than none at all but the outcome reeks of appeasement and indicates that, with the polls showing John McCain, improbably, almost level, his bargaining position was weak.

But he was outmaneuvered and the Clinton show in Denver will help lay the foundation for a 2012 presidential bid or, if Obama does emerge victorious, possibly in 2016, when she will still be four years younger than McCain is now.

Even the plan for the former First Lady to cast her own vote for her erstwhile rival and direct her delegates to swing behind the Illinois senator - being spun as a magnanimous gesture of unity - risks undermining Obama. Despite the closeness of the primary battle, he won the nomination; the image of Mrs. Clinton graciously anointing him is exactly what he does not need.

During the primaries, Bill characterized his wife's campaign as "back to the future" while back in January - in Denver, ironically enough - Obama urged Democrats not to "build a bridge back to the 20th Century". But the prominence of the Clintons in Denver will blunt any such message. Despite the undoubted political attributes of the couple, for much of Middle America they represent cynicism rather than hope, the status quo rather than change.

In Mrs. Clinton's non-concession speech, when she first said she was "committed to uniting our party", she famously asked: "What does Hillary want?" The answer is self-evident. She wants to be president. And what is now her most plausible path to the White House? A McCain victory in 2008.

Naturally, for her openly to oppose Obama would be disastrous. Mrs. Clinton needs to play the good soldier, just as McCain did with George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. A far more disciplined, though less inspiring and intuitive, campaigner than her husband, she is capable of pulling this off.

Bill Clinton is another matter. If anyone was in any doubt what he hoped would be the outcome in 2008, during his train wreck of an interview with ABC News in Rwanda he declined to say even that Obama was ready to be president, quibbling that no one was really quite ready. This from the man whose wife ran on a slogan of "Ready on Day One".

Of course, Clinton, with his monumental self-regard, will believe that he should be called upon to "help" Obama campaign in the fall even though at this stage he's barely endorsed him.

Remember 2000? He upstaged Al Gore at the Los Angeles convention with a triumphant entrance and a speech that barely mentioned his vice-president. Less than two years after being impeached, Clinton and his allies spent much of the subsequent few weeks griping to reporters about how Gore wasn't using him and was running away from his record.

This time around, Clinton is not so much nursing a grudge as carrying a whole hospital full of them. There's a Mafioso quality to his world. After Bill Richardson endorsed Obama, despite the gainful employment he'd been given by the former president, Clinton consigliere James Carville branded him a Judas - a political kneecapping.

In the Rwanda interview, House Majority Whip James Clyburn got the same treatment from the Godfather himself. When it was suggested Clyburn was " a friend", Clinton shot back: "Used to be." Doubtless Obama is on his mental hit list. In Pennsylvania, Clinton accused the Illinois senator of playing the race card against him, triggering a towering rage that has clearly not yet subsided.

Does Hillary Clinton really want McCain to win? Well, any presidential candidate worth their salt believes that their election to the White House is the very definition of the common good. And one of her closing arguments during the primaries was that Obama was, as Mark Penn put it, "unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun". Which politician would be unhappy to be proved right?

Even if a McCain victory would damage the Democratic party and the country, if it leads to her winning in 2012, Mrs. Clinton can rationalize, it's all ultimately for the best. She called her 1996 book "It Takes a Village". Sometimes, you have to destroy the village to save it.

The Clinton plan for victory, conveniently leaked to Atlantic Monthly, provides McCain with a road map for defeating Obama. Thus far, he seems to be following it fairly closely.

Which leaves the Clintons able to wait patiently for November. Having sown the seeds for a potential Obama defeat, they can sit back and prepare for the possibility that, despite all the Democratic advantages this year, they will be vindicated by a McCain win.

If Obama does prevail, after welcoming the Clintons into the tent in Denver he'll have to accept that they'll always be looking over his shoulder. Whichever way you slice it, they're here to stay.


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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