Giving ’til It Hurts

How badly does William Jefferson Clinton want his wife to run for president?
Badly enough that it hurts. Badly enough that he hosted a “blogger’s roundtable” at his Harlem office just last week, having a group that’s been harshly critical of his Senator spouse over for finger-lickin’ good fried chicken and some soft talk. Badly enough that he’ll go on Jon Stewart and talk for a solid half-hour. Badly enough that he’ll let New Yorker editor David Remnick follow him across Africa.
No, it’s not exactly hardship duty. But given the Clinton family’s deep and abiding cynicism about the political press corps, this “Bill Clinton – Great American” gig that’s rolled out these past two weeks is pretty amazing. Amazing that no one’s called it what it is: A shrewd, low-key opening gambit for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s “unofficial” presidential campaign. She’s moved to the middle by working with Republicans. He has too, by being a good boy. Slick Willie’s dead! Long live Slick Willie!
The “Clinton Global Initiative” rubric that’s the centerpiece of all this coverage lets the former president present himself as a nice, decent guy trying to carve out a new and interesting role unique to our time, that of the young ex-president with many years left to live and much to contribute to the betterment of our world. It’s a new role for a man who, as Stewart observed only the night before Clinton’s appearance, used to be the main player in stand-up comedians’ oral sex jokes.
Interestingly, it’s got a lot more in common that the role traditionally held by First Ladies than it does almost anything else. In all the coverage of the Global Initiative, Bill Clinton is becoming more like (loyal husband and Noble prize winner) Jimmy Carter. See what he’s doing on AIDS! On global warming! He must be a good husband! Such a nice man!
That’s the emotional pitch, of course, to the moderate female voters who want to look askance at a cheatin’ heart like Bill and use it as an excuse to call them both hypocrites – or worse. But it’s also a clever political play. On two levels.
In a world where many individuals – especially the self-made, wealthy and powerful like Bill and Melinda Gates, who play a supporting role in Remick’s New Yorker profile – think that non-profits and individual charitable actions can (and should) outstrip government, the Clinton Global Initiative reaches out to both sides. It works to keep the Progressive Libertarians in the Democratic tent by tacitly arguing that Democrats like the Clintons do good work. See, it’s not all big government and higher taxes. It also opens up government – led by Democrats who “get it”, of course – to the work and efforts of organizations like the Gates Foundation.
The strategy is to make the wealthy, self-made bottom-line obsessed Progressive Libertarian see that government can still have a purpose – they’re hearing from the former leader of the free world, kinda the go-to guy here – so they’ll be less likely to put their political support behind someone who’s totally in favor of private solutions to public problems. And, of course, this gambit saves Democrats from having to face down this issue as a party. Everyone can do what they want as long as they pull the lever for Hillary Rodham Clinton in November 2008.
Which brings us to that blogger’s lunch. Sen. Clinton has made no secret of her antipathy for the web and web-based journalism. Nor has her husband. And many of those at the lunch have made no secret of their affinity for “anyone but Hillary.” So the idea that this disparate group sat around to talk just about Bill Clinton’s charity with no other agenda – articulated or otherwise on either side – is flat-out laughable.
The purpose of the lunch was for William Jefferson Clinton, possibly the most charming and charismatic politician of our time, to sprinkle a little fairy dust on some political neophytes, people who are – despite what they’re saying now – going to vote Democratic regardless of who the nominee may be. And people who have made no secret of their desire to be courted by the politically powerful and the mainstream media they love to disparage.
Why now? Well, timing. As we’ve seen in Connecticut, these self-styled “progressives” – the lawyers, film producers and political consultants who want to help the Democratic Party return to its “populist” grassroots – can make a lot of trouble. They grab TV air time, they dish opposition research with abandon thinking they’re “breaking news” and generally make professional pols’ lives miserable. They’ve even managed to pushed a former vice presidential candidate – Sen. Joe Lieberman – out of the Democratic Party. If Lieberman wins (it’s too close to call right now but there’s word that internal polling showing the ex-Democrat ahead) there will be one less Democrat in the U.S. Senate. The idea, of course, is to go in the other direction and increase the number of Democratic seats in Congress.
So if you’re trying to run for president, this group is a potential problem that needs addressing – now – while they’re not an issue, while their national platform is confined pretty much to nerdy political shows and the cable networks. Say those folks find a candidate who wants their support, an Al Gore perhaps. Or John Edwards. They can make fundraising and messaging very difficult for the presumptive front-runner. They can be a fatal distraction. It’s a lot less expensive – in a host of ways – to buy a bunch potential critics a nice lunch now, while things are quiet, the stakes small, the political world on slow simmer. You can spread the charm around then watch them all go on TV and happily tell the world how, lovely, smart and charming you are rather than ignore them, wait and have them denounce you later.
Just watch. The criticism of Sen. Clinton – particularly on her vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq – was getting a big heated, wasn’t it? Now that Bill’s had everyone for a little chat and some photo ops, that’ll go away, trucked out in last week’s trash. Just like the chicken bones left over from lunch.