Quietly in bloom

So who won the South Carolina “smack-down” on Monday evening? Quite possibly a man who wasn’t even there — Michael Bloomberg. It is clear the New York mayor is laying the foundation for an independent run for president should a real opening present itself. If the two leading Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), continue to mud-wrestle their way through Super Tuesday, the mayor may see the running room he needs.

Polls over the past two years have shown an increasing voter frustration with the petty partisan squabbles that have created policy gridlock in Washington. Given the option of voting for an independent candidate in a three-way race between Clinton and any of the likely Republican nominees, roughly a quarter of the voters pick the independent in most polls. The reason is frustration with the divisiveness of American politics in the last two administrations.

For much of the long run-up to caucuses and primaries of 2008 it appeared as though we might be entering a new era. Obama promised a fresh approach, a politics of unity and inclusion. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) took a harsh tone with special interests but avoided personal attacks on his opponents. Even Sen. Clinton generally took the high road and limited her criticisms of Obama to well-turned phrases and left-handed compliments that were more sophisticated and clever than mean-spirited.

The cold war turned hot in the snows of New Hampshire. Suddenly there were two Clintons on the trail, the New York senator and the former president. The criticism grew sharper. The attacks on Obama were no longer veiled. Both of the Clintons and their allies turned to the opposition research the campaign had carefully compiled and went after Obama with a vengeance. Hillary Clinton has long said that she knows how to fight back, and she proved it in New Hampshire and Nevada, scoring “upsets” in both states — upsets only in that all of Washington’s talking heads had predicted Obama would win, ignoring the fact that Hillary had long led the horse-race polling in New Hampshire and, as Mark Mellman pointed out Wednesday in his column in this newspaper, Obama won exactly the vote most polling had predicted. Clinton’s numbers under-reported her support for any number of reasons, including methodology.

No matter what really happened, those running the Clinton campaign decided that what won for them was the kind of aggressive politics that has always saved them in times of crisis. No one is better at the take-no-prisoners game than Bill and Hillary. All-out political warfare is their forte and became a hallmark of President Clinton’s administration. Many were beginning to forget the psychodrama and dysfunction of those days and were recalling the former president with fondness, especially in his evolving role as a world statesman. The attacks that began in New Hampshire sent a clear message that nothing had changed. As South Carolina’s largest newspaper wrote in endorsing Barack Obama, “the Clintons’ joint career in public life seems oriented toward securing victory and personal vindication.” No one ever doubted Hillary Clinton intended to win — she made that clear with her announcement mantra of “in it to win it.” But that the former president would see her campaign as a referendum on his presidency came as something of a surprise. Bill Clinton does not need to trash Barack Obama to secure his place in history.

Finally, for whatever reason, Obama took the bait. If the exchange on Monday is a preview of what is to come, winning the nomination may well not be worth the effort. The American people are simply not ready for another four years of the rancorous deadlock we’ve suffered through in two administrations. If we face a bitter partisan divide going into the general election, Mike Bloomberg just may see the running room he needs to provide an alternative. And if he makes the race, many more than 25 percent of American voters may well decide we’ve had all of the bitterness we need and opt for a middle way.

Some of America’s most astute and respected Democratic leaders have reportedly pleaded with the Clintons to tone down their attacks. Obviously, the campaign has not listened. One fears that Sen. Obama may have become tone-deaf as well. If neither side is willing to hear the message from Democrats who want to win, they may hear it from the voters and Michael Bloomberg next November.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com