Up Close and Public

Suzanne Fields

5/16/2008 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Power, money, sex, politics. Hillary Clinton is the ex-wife at the table where her ex-husband sits with his new wife. They've come together for the sake of the children to iron out as amiably as they can the specifics of separation. Hillary's the lady in distress. As odd woman out, she must show strength without the help she has grown accustomed to. It's a new and uncomfortable role.

Presidential politics has a lot in common with sexual politics. Power and money are instrumental, and Barack Obama's got more of both. Hillary's blowout in West Virginia, though continuing to show Obama's difficulty in attracting and reassuring white voters, probably doesn't change anything. Now both Hillary and Barack will find out which of their friends will remain good friends and which ones will go to the other.

There's another scenario drawn from sexual politics to describe the power changes in the relationship between Hill and Bill. She saved him once, forgiving his manifold sins, and he saved her with gilt by association. Now he's morphed into just another powerless spouse. Was that a tear Bill was wiping from his cheek while he stood behind her after her slender victory in Indiana?

Analogies abound. The Clintons, observes The Wall Street Journal, have begun separation from the Democratic Party, which was only a marriage of convenience anyway: "Like all divorces after lengthy unions, this one is painful and has had its moments of reconciliation, but ... a split looks inevitable. The long co-dependency is over."

This campaign exposed the big lie that the Clintons were victims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." They were instead victims of a vast conspiracy, but one against themselves. In their overreaching, they were able to postpone the inevitable, but only for a little while. They're like Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for years of delicious service, but who in his final hour desperately tried to postpone the descent into the darkness of defeat.

The pundits speculate about an Obama-Hillary ticket, but this, as one wit puts it, "would require Obama to hire a food-taster." If John McCain and Barack Obama head the tickets, as they seem destined to do, each will choose a boomer as a running mate. But it's the top of the ticket that frames the debate, and these two men represent two dramatically different generations.

John McCain grew up in the '40s and '50s, when it was clear that our enemies in the hot and cold wars wanted to kill us. We knew how to fight back. Obama is a post-boomer who inherited an optimistic view of the world when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. That was shattered on 9-11. Together they carry two different perspectives into the political debate that could foreshadow a less polarized Washington, if -- a big if -- Obama's legacy as a grandchild of the '60s doesn't haunt his campaign.

In their book, "Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power," John Harwood and Gerald F. Seib interview two once powerful politicians, one a Democrat and one a Republican, who say it's possible to bring bipartisanship back to Washington with a fresh perspective that eluded the boomer presidents. Robert Strauss, the Democratic national chairman in the 1970s, and Ken Mehlman, the Republican chairman who managed the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, are now partners as Washington lawyers.

Washington was polarized late in the 20th century, the two argue, because both parties had accomplished the big things. That left them backbiting over the small ones -- or, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger's description of faculty-lounge politics, the debates are vicious because the stakes are so small. Democrats established the New Deal, social-welfare programs, civil rights and women's rights. Republicans built a strong defense to defeat the Soviet Union and lowered tax rates, created welfare reform and reduced crime rates.

"If you look at the challenges we face today," says Mehlman, "challenges are once again the big things -- the war on terror, the need to expand access and reduce the cost of health care, whether you come at it from an environmental perspective or a national security perspective, the need for energy independence. Those are three huge issues, all of which I think are very amenable to bipartisan solutions."

John McCain understands war up close and crosses the aisle in search of solutions. Obama prescribes more cross-party cooperation to change the way Washington works. Fans and followers of the Clintons and George W. perpetuate polarization. "People," says Strauss, "are not as foolish as sometimes they act." We can hope he's right.