Hollywood mogul David Geffen, a supporter of Barack Obama, knew he was setting the Democratic nomination contest ablaze when, in an interview with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, he characterized his once-close friends Bill and Hillary Clinton as liars. For good measure he added that the former president was "reckless" and can't be expected to change his behavior while the New York senator has been overprogrammed by advisers "who are covering every base."
Mrs. Clinton's surrogates went into full attack mode to discredit Mr. Geffen, who during the 1990s helped raise some $18 million for various Clinton causes. They demanded — and didn't get — an apology from Mr. Obama, who pointed out that Mr. Geffen holds no formal position with his campaign.
Team Clinton's overreaction came from its conviction that any discussion of the scandals that swirled around Bill Clinton's eight years in office are completely off-limits during Hillary's own run for the White House. When a Newsweek reporter broached the subject of future Clinton scandals last December in an interview with a Hillary adviser, the reaction was quick and cutting. "If that's what you want to talk about, I'm hanging up right now."
A strategy of avoidance may be effective in squelching doubts and questions in the short run, but it carries the danger of eroding Mrs. Clinton's carefully cultivated image of moderation and reasonableness during a campaign that still has almost a year to run before the first primaries. Observes blogger Mickey Kaus:
Does Hillary realize that this taboo-enforcement strategy plays into the worst aspect of her public image — the dogmatic PC enforcer whose loyal aides seem, at least in public, to live in zombie-like fear that too much candor could incur her wrath? . . . Your fellow Democrats are tolerant, but they wonder what the deal (with your husband) is. That isn't the "politics of personal destruction." It's due diligence. Attempting to repress this discussion only assures that it will quickly come to the surface.
Mrs. Clinton has other challenges. While some people are focusing on the possibility that Bill Clinton might embarrass his wife, pollsters I talked to say that another remark of Mr. Geffen's points to an even bigger problem for her chances to become president.
Mr. Geffen told Ms. Dowd that he found Mr. Obama "inspirational" and fresh: "He's not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family." The dynastic nature of recent presidential elections is bound to be a major issue this time around. After all, everyone agrees that Jeb Bush, a successful just-retired governor of a large swing state, would be a natural candidate for president if he had a different last name. Should Mrs. Clinton win and serve two terms, the presidency will have been held by members of two families — the Bushes and the Clintons — for 28 years. (That could be good news for Jeb Bush, who will be only 63 in 2016.)
Mrs. Clinton herself drew attention to the dynasty problem last Friday, when she told a group of voters that her husband was "the most popular person in the world right now" and said that when she reaches the White House, "I will continue the tradition of using former presidents" in key diplomatic missions.
"Her comments needlessly revive memories about the 'two for the price of one' sales pitch that Bill Clinton used in 1992," says a former Clinton aide who is not working on Mrs. Clinton's campaign. "Mrs. Clinton didn't help by being involved with health care and the Justice Department during the first two years of the Clinton administration. Having Bill playing a similar role carries the danger of reminding people this might be a sequel they'd rather skip." The prospect of Bill Clinton formulating policy and living in the White House again also has the potential of firing up the GOP base that pushed for Mr. Clinton's impeachment in 1998.
That's why it's important for Democrats to take Mr. Geffen's unkind comments seriously and have a candid discussion about them now rather than later, when they are wedded to her as a nominee. It's entirely possible that Mrs. Clinton's many strengths outweigh her drawbacks. But ignoring the issues Mr. Geffen raised or dismissing them, as Mrs. Clinton did, as "the politics of personal destruction" only delays the day when they will have to be addressed forthrightly.
Mr. Geffen might have identified Hillary Clinton's greatest vulnerability with Democratic primary voters. It's that she won't apologize for her vote in favor of the Iraq war. It's that as powerful as the Clinton name remains, many voters view it as stale. "The Clintons were fresh once," write Bob Herbert of the New York Times yesterday. I remember the exhilarating bus tour they took with Al and Tipper Gore right after Bill Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination in the summer of 1992. . . . Almost 15 years later, Hillary Clinton has to fight the perception that she is chasing yesterday's dawn."
Mrs. Clinton is betting she can excite voters with the prospect of electing the first female president. But Mr. Obama is the first black candidate with a realistic shot at the presidency. And he carries a lot less historical and ethical baggage.