By A. B. Stoddard - 10/11/07 09:51 AM EDT
But after watching Clinton's campaign unfold this year, as she managed to throw her former liberal/paranoid/defensive/polarizing baggage over her shoulder like it was simply this morning's cold bagel, you have to wonder if it is indeed the president who makes Clinton look so good. The answer is yes, but it isn't former president Bill Clinton, her rock star philanthropist husband. It's actually our current president, the beleaguered George W. Bush.
Oh sure, President Bush could probably make anyone look good. And President Clinton owes Bush for making the 1990s seem like the glory days to voters in both parties. But Hillary Clinton benefits from Bush more than any other Democrat does. As she worked to become someone new, to shake the perception that she has just been flying on her husband’s coattails, there was no greater foil for Mrs. Clinton than President Bush. His bungling has been her boon.
It is hard to imagine Clinton with this good a shot of joining the line of Bushes and Clintons in the presidency that began in 1988 — considering the strong resistance to this across the electorate — had our 43rd president not become an embarrassment to the Republican Party and to America as well. The argument for continuing with the “monarchy,” so goes the selling point, is that only Clinton's experience can clean up the mess. And she won't make rookie mistakes; after all, she has been a senator and her proximity to the presidency trumps Bush's — doesn't a spouse see and hear more of the Oval Office than a son does?
Did Hillary Clinton ever think she could beat President Bush in 2004? It isn't likely. But in the three years hence, as the Iraq war grew unpopular, mistake followed defeat which followed oversight which followed flub which followed failure which followed more misadventures. Social Security reform, Harriet Miers as Supreme Court nominee, the Dubai Ports World episode, the outing of Karl Rove as Valerie Plame leaker, the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the firing of U.S. attorneys, and the warrantless surveillance program, which became the basis for a bad soap opera starring former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as the thug willing to pressure a sick John Ashcroft in his hospital bed. It was worse than Claude Allen stealing radios at Target. And where were those weapons of mass destruction? Bring back Whitewater, Charlie Trie and Monica Lewinsky — those were the good old days, right ?
President Bush has even helped to rescue Clinton from her greatest political liability, her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Since becoming a presidential candidate Clinton has managed to pop a wheelie on the war, and the Democratic primary voters who favor her in large majorities are along for the ride. Apologize for her vote? Never. She was simply trying to help the inspectors continue their work and didn't know she couldn't trust this president with that authority.
In her newest role as Conversationalist and leader of a future centrist coalition, Clinton calls Bush's partisan rule, which catered only to conservatives, a “tragedy.” She's got a point, and she must be thrilled. Had Bush actually been the uniter, as he promised, could Hillary have sold herself as a centrist?
If the war in Iraq had gone reasonably well, and if Bush's presidency had been successful — known for tax cuts, a prescription drug benefit that is working, six years without a terrorist attack and sustained economic growth, instead of all the blunders — would Democrats and Big Business be turning to Clinton? Would they believe that she could beat a Republican in battleground states and take back the White House for the party? It might have been risky. But now that everything is such a mess, Clinton is no longer a risky proposition, Obama and Edwards are. Democrats have decided these are scary times, that real change will have to wait for another year, and this is no time to second-guess a safe bet.