LOS ANGELES – Sometimes the only way to stop traffic is to position yourself in front of an oncoming bus, and stay there. It also helps if you’re bigger than the bus, say the size of an 800 pound gorilla.
It’s not likely to win you praise from bystanders, much less the other motorists, but it will get everyone’s attention. Which is the point.
That is what has happened in the last three weeks in the Democratic race for president. Barack Obama was coming out of Iowa with a head of steam. The traffic, as it were, was heading in his direction. He was driving the big bus.
If Hillary was going to regain her lead, someone had to stop the bus. It wasn’t enough for her to find hes voice, if the traffic kept roaring past. No one would have heard. Someone had to do something, and someone did.
That someone was her husband, the former president of the United States, the 800 pound gorilla of this political generation, the guy who was mad as hell and wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.
When I saw him in Iowa, it was clear that my old friend was not happy about what he saw happening around him. The press, he thought, was giving Obama a free ride. They had been guzzling the Kool Aid-- my words not his, I should add-- since his were a lot stronger than that.
How is he, a mutual friend asked, when I said I had spoken to the former president. Mad, I said. We both knew what that meant. Watch out.
It was, literally, only two days later, from New Hampshire, that the world started finding out just how mad. In speeches, interviews and appearances in New Hampshire, Bill Clinton went on the war path against Obama and the media that was so adoring of him, questioning his experience, decrying his campaign as a “fairy tale,” taking on the press for not scrutinizing Obama’s record and rhetoric with the same intensity they used against his wife.
It wasn’t pretty to watch. Some people, including some pretty big ones, have been saying that it’s beneath him, that it isn’t presidential, that he should stop doing it, and not lower himself to such campaigning.
This week, the press reports have Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. (and former Clinton aide) Rahm Emmanuel, both of whom are technically “neutral” in the race but share many advisers (Kennedy) and roots (Chicago) with Obama, supposedly calling the former president to tell him he is risking his legacy with his attacks on the popular and charismatic black senator.
It’s a waste of their breath. If anyone thinks leaking the so-called neutral advice (which someone other than Clinton certainly did) will increase its impact on him, they don’t know my friend Bill Clinton. Or understand his relationship with his wife Hillary. He is not going to stop so long as it works. He will do whatever works, even if there is some short-term cost involved.
That’s why he got elected president, not once but twice, and every other Democrat in the last 30 years didn’t. Bill Clinton plays hardball. Big surprise. And he is nothing if not loyal to his wife.
Make no mistake. If Obama wins the nomination, Bill Clinton will be out there supporting him in full throat. Before the campaign is over, he’ll be calling Obama the black Bill Clinton and urging his election as America’s second black president. He’ll play the sax and dial for dollars to get the young man from Illinois moved into his old House.
He understands, better than most, that if Obama beats Hillary, it will be essential for both Bill and Hillary to help him beat whoever the Republicans put up against him.
But until then, there are two teams, and the Clintons are one, and Obama is the other. The legacy Clinton wants most is the election of Hillary Clinton, not her defeat at the hands of Obama, and certainly not her defeat at the hands of Obama in a contest in which his record, his reputation, Clintonism and the nineties have figured so prominently.
For him to appear “presidential” while his presidency is under attack by a clamor for “change” is the definition of a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like assuming people won’t pay attention to Willie Horton and Swift Boats and would rather see you run a strong, positive campaign, rather than get in the gutter and beat your opponents back. It’s the un-Clinton move. It’s about losing with dignity, as opposed to winning.
When I saw the president, Hillary was on the verge of losing the Iowa caucus and both of us knew it. And she did. Since then, she’s won two straight. Obama is expected to win South Carolina, but he has become “the black candidate” in the process, at least to a significant extent, and in the long run, say two weeks, “the black candidate” is not who you want to be.
Not when most voters on Super Duper Tuesday are white and Hispanic. So the former president is out there, hat in hand, campaigning for black votes in South Carolina. He may lose in the short run, but win in the long run, and for Team Clinton, the long run is what counts.
Bill Clinton is willing to take a licking -- or get hit by a bus -- if that’s what it takes to win.
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.