Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Hillary and Bill Show

The race for the Democratic nomination is so facinating, it's hard to focus on British politics. Because the Clintons are back!

The Clintons are particularly fascinating to New Labour because they are New Labour's grandparents. It was from the Clintons that Alastair Campbell learnt rapid rebuttal. It was from the Clintons that Blair learnt to be centrist. It was inspiration from the Clintons that led to New Labour's successful New Deal welfare-to-work program in 1997 and tax-credits.

Obama is a good-looking chap (though a bit too religious for my tastes). If he was running against Kerry or any of the other Dems, he'd be a shoo-in. But against the Clintons? Against the Clintons he seems too much like the Principle Boy in a panto, at once petulant, untried and too perfect.

What is it about the Clintons that is so fascinating? I think it is because they are clearly so flawed and human, but manage through sheer determination and brains to keep going despite everything and succeed. A metaphor for the human condition.

It's interesting too how many of the criticisms leveled at Bill Clinton are now being levelled at Hillary. In 1992, Hillary declared that “If you vote for my husband you get me. It’s a two-for-one blue-plate special.” People howled about it then, but voted them in anyway, and the Clinton presidency was a "two-fer" for the entire eight years - and very successful as a result, with the US federal budget going from deficit to surplus, the US economy booming, unemployment tumbling, innovation bursting out (this was the period when Google and Cisco systems were born and revolutionary technologies were being developed) and the USA an admired, respected and feared superpower at it's zenith.

Now you have the same thing in reverse, with Camille Paglia saying about Bill, “He is not going to sit on the sidelines. He is going to be out of control in office.” But will he? Or will Hillary's famous control and discipline rein him in?

They work so well together because they have complimentary skills - her strategic sense combined with his populist instincts. Her discipline combined with his creative insights. Bill Clinton wouldn't have been as good a president as he was without her. His creative, impulsive side would have run amok. Hillary gains something from his presense too - contact with how messy most of humanity is.

This campaign is also mirroring the 1992 one in that the spouse as defender-in-chief is visible again. Hillary famously defended Bill in 1992 from attack from Gennifer Flowers by going on TV and saying that if she could get over it, everyone else should too, and if they couldn't "just don't vote for him". In her role as defender-in-chief, she drew fire towards herself and away from Bill. Bill is now taking that role on. With his angry interventions, and sometimes self-indulgent spiel, he simultaneously says things that her campaign needs saying while making Hillary look good by comparison. She's calm and not self-indulgent.

Some Americans are saying that the experience of the Bushes means that you shouldn't have family in the presidency. However, while sons often don't inherit their father's skills (the genetic inheritance is a lottery, you don't know which ancestors genes will come to the fore), spouses usually tend to have equal and complimentary talents, and the Clintons' marriage in particular was one between equal intellects. Bush jr also had a rivalry with his father - eg appointing Donald Rumsfeld because he knew his father hated him - that the public were unaware about when they elected him. This rivalry doesn't exist between the Clintons, they are a team. People didn't know much about Dubya when the elected him (and they don't know much about Obama either). But they know everything there is to know about the Clintons in gruesome detail.

The question is who will America go for - the known quantity or a blank slate on which they can project wishes which might not be true? It's interesting that Ted Kennedy has endorsed Obama. That man gets everything wrong and he has the same reputation in America that Arthur Scargill has here. His endorsement just emphasises how centrist the Clintons are. Which is a good omen for Hillary.

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