LOS ANGELES – Bill Clinton played peacemaker at the Democratic Leadership Council this week, ending the first spat between the party’s two frontrunners by noting that there are many ways to be diplomatic.
That is not, of course, what Hillary’s team had suggested last week, when they described rival Barack Obama’s willingness to meet with the leaders of hostile nations as “naïve.” The question that had pundits chattering, given that everyone acknowledges that the former president doesn’t do anything accidentally, and that his political judgment is unparalleled, was why he decided to end the fight.
Was it because it was hurting Hillary? Was it a sign that Obama, who shot back by accusing Hillary of being inconsistent and attacking her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, had won? Did it signal some weakness in the Clintoncamp?
The latest polls, including the most recent one from the Wall Street Journal, suggest a different explanation. Hillary is doing just fine, actually better than fine. In the last six months, her lead over Obama among Democrats has gone from 5 points to 21. Better yet, she is now beating Rudy Giuliani, the closest thing the Republicans have to a frontrunner, instead of the other way around.
On critical measures of competence, experience, and toughness (the test that usually hobbles women in races for governor), Hillary is flying high. Meanwhile, Obama, impressive as he is in fundraising and first impressions, has yet to score decisively as a second date. His claim in a supposedly closed door session before the people with the biggest mouths in the world at the Time Warner center that he was the most qualified candidate to handle foreign policy issues because he lived abroad for four years as a pre-teen had even some of his supporters wincing.
Come again? Four years in Indonesia 30 years ago, compared to Hillary’s 15 in Washington, eight by her husband’s side in the White House and seven in the Senate. That’s not a comparison that works for the man from Illinois.
The person Obama is hurting, if you look carefully in the polls, is not Hillary but the third candidate in the top tier, John Edwards. To the extent that there is an anti-Hillary vote in the Democratic party, it is neatly divided between Edwards and Obama. To the extent Hillary faces a serious challenge in any of the early states, it is not from Obama, who the press has decreed to be her closest rival, but Edwards.
Hillary can comfortably survive a second place finish in Iowa if Obama places third; the question then will be who the real un-Hillary is, which is a debate that weakens Obama more than it hurts Hillary. In that sense, Obama and Edwards are hurting each other far more than they’re hurting Hillary.
The one thing that could hurt Hillary, and this has been true from the beginning, is a fight over the war in Iraq that puts her out of step with the liberals who dominate the party’s nominating process. Throwing a punch that highlights Obama’s inexperience in foreign policy is one thing; turning it into a long-term fight about who was right about the Iraq war is quite another.
It is no accident that this is the first presidential year I can remember in which none of the candidates even bothered to show up for what used to be considered a key stop on the way to the nomination, the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC, once headed by Bill Clinton and founded in response to the perception that the party’s repeated nomination of liberal losers needed some counterbalancing, might have been expecting the other Clinton to come, in normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances.
In a normal year, the liberal candidates might want to prove that they really were electable by showing strength in front of an audience that has traditionally been more conservative, more male, and whiter than the activists and ideologues who dominate the Party (when it was founded, the DLC was sometimes called, not so affectionately, the “white boys’ caucus” because of the perceived preoccupation of its leaders with the “takeover” of the party by feminists, minorities, and gays).
But this is a year when the “liberal” position on the most important issue to the electorate is also the position most Americans share: the issue is the war in Iraq, and the only place to be is against it.
According to the most recent Wall Street Journal poll, the one question where Hillary fares least well among Democrats is not about personality or warmth or authenticity, which is what her opponents relentlessly attack her on, but her position on the issues. That’s code for Iraq. That’s the fight she doesn’t need to have when she’s 21 points ahead of Barack Obama in the polls. And that is, not coincidentally, where the spat was headed when Bill Clinton stepped in to end it by appearing to be offering an olive leaf to Hillary’s rival.
One last point. Remember “voodoo economics.” That was how George Bush the first described Ronald Reagan’s economic platform in the 1980 nomination fight, words that came back to haunt both of them (although not enough to cost them the election) when Reagan selected his nearest rival as his runningmate.
The rumblings about a dream ticket of Clinton-Obama are already being heard in Democratic circles. If Obama wins enough support in this contest, Hillary, like Reagan, like John Kerry in 2004, may find herself with only one real choice for the second spot on the ticket if she wants to unite the party and win the support of her opponent’s loyalists. In which case the last thing she needs is a Republican ad featuring her attacking his foreign policy competence.
Could anyone be thinking that far ahead? When you’re talking about the smartest strategist in politics in my lifetime, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.