Hillary Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island left many on the right gleeful at the prospect of Democrats deploying against one other the identity politics they’ve so effectively used against Republicans for so long. But whatever the advantages accruing to the GOP from the Democrats’ internecine warfare, it was impossible not to feel a twinge of dismay at Hillary’s political resurrection.
For years, the Clintons have been a cancer on the body politic. Almost from the time that they emerged on the national scene in 1992, America has endured corrosive partisanship and a deterioration of behavioral and rhetorical standards that has degraded national politics. Now, it appears that the Clinton venom is poised to infect even the body that first hosted them – the Democratic Party.
This week, Hillary Clinton came after her primary opponent hammer and tongs. “I have a lifetime of experience that I will bring to the White House,” she said. “Senator John McCain has a lifetime of experience that he'd bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002." With that argument, she made it clear that if she can’t herself run as the party’s nominee, she cares not at all whether her party wins. The maneuver was vintage Clinton.
Certainly, there is plenty of blame to go around for the bitterness and division that has characterized American politics since 1992. Republicans loudly denounced the Clintons’ shortcomings throughout eight scandal-laden years, sometimes with undue vitriol. But the Clintons actually welcomed the attacks, realizing that in order to survive scandals that would have sunk earlier presidencies, their supporters needed to have someone (and something) to detest even more than them and their behavior.
With the unwitting complicity of Republicans and the benefit of occasional GOP missteps and overreaching, the Clintons successfully stoked and redirected Democrat fury – and, as a result, decent people found themselves defending behavior that they otherwise would have condemned, were it not for their loathing of the Clintons’ adversaries. If their own survival required the Clintons to sow partisan hatred, and to make sure that many Americans believed that “every President does it” (whatever the definition of “it” happened to be), so be it.
They left America a political tinderbox, and when George Bush won election by a hair’s breadth, Democrats – who had been whipped into a frenzy of enmity toward the Republicans – were understandably embittered. Leaving The White House, the Clintons managed to poison the well for its next occupant, and even more significantly, for a country that would soon have to go to war.
That’s why it’s hardly surprising to see Hillary Clinton offering sound bites that would significantly undermine Obama’s presidential candidacy should he win the nomination. And it’s no wonder Hillary Clinton’s spokesman compared Obama to Ken Starr last week; demonizing the mild-mannered Starr was the Clinton Administration’s greatest feat of political jujitsu – and for the Clintons, there really is no difference between the two. Anyone who stands in their way – Democrat or Republican – is, quite simply, a blood enemy.
With the escalating aggressiveness of the political rhetoric on both sides, the Clintons have finally succeeded in their objective of dragging Barack Obama – the icon of “hope” and “change” – into the mud with them. They have done it without any apparent concern that it might mean sacrificing the party’s best chance to win The White House, destroying the sense of uplift and inspiration Obama has engendered in many young voters, and inciting ill will among and between loyal, long-time Democratic constituencies. If the Clintons can’t win, they just don’t care about the mess they leave behind; if they can, they are willing to do so at any cost.
Never say that the Clintons don’t know what it means to love. They do. But their affections begin and finish with their own obsession with political power, at the expense of every finer principle – and the well-being of America itself. In their willingness to say and do anything just to hold on, they’ve convinced a generation of voters that destructive, smash-mouth politics is simply the natural order of things. That is their legacy, and it is a sad one.
A race between Barack Obama and John McCain will be close and hard fought. But there’s at least a chance that it can trascend the ugly and debased partisan mud-wrestling that has profited the Clintons so much. A campaign based on issues – where neither nominee hates the other, nor encourages such hatred on the part of his supporters – might, in the end, be the only real antidote to the Clinton poison.