WASHINGTON -- Hope. Change. Hope and change. Hope 'n' change. Say the words often enough and they begin to take hold, attaching themselves lichen-like to the psyche.
Soon they take on a life of their own and assume human form. He is the one Democrats have been waiting for -- the agent, the beacon, the Everyman who can change the culture of Washington and restore hope to the disenfranchised.
He even comes from Hope. Arkansas, that is.
How quickly time passes, how urgently things stay the same.
Not so long ago, Bill Clinton was the man of the moment, the one who was going to put Democrats back in power and baby boomers in charge. His defeat of George H.W. Bush with 43 percent of the vote wasn't just a changing of the guard. It was a baton passing from one generation to the next.
The rest you know: the triangulating, the interning, the squandering. Then came Hillary's turn. And then, apparently, it went.
The primaries finally are over, and Hillary Clinton seems to have missed her date with destiny.
And she missed it in no small part because of that man from Hope. Contrary to the braying of the wounded sisterhood, Clinton's defeat hasn't been the result of misogyny. She was defeated by her husband, by her own party and, definitively last weekend, by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee.
Because she's a woman? No, because she's a Clinton.
And because the Obama campaign plainly outmaneuvered the Clintons. Despite Hillary having high-powered friends on the committee, including campaign adviser Harold Ickes, as well as a 13-8 edge in committed members going in, a team of lesser-known members "ate their lunch," as one committee member and Obama supporter put it to me. "They (the Clintons) still have the arrogance of privilege and they underestimated us."
"Privilege" is a far cry from the Clintons' own hope-and-change message from the early 1990s. After decades of winning, they had every expectation of yet another easy victory. But something went terribly wrong. Hillary's once greatest asset -- Bill -- became her greatest liability.
The man who once could woo a mannequin suddenly couldn't get his lines right. In some cases, he couldn't even get anyone to listen.
In Charlotte, N.C., a few weeks ago, he was scheduled to speak at an invitation-only event at a VFW post. About 80 seats were set up in the small room, half of them reserved for invited veterans and their families, the rest cordoned off for media. During an hour wait, while Clinton consumed burgers and watched basketball at a downtown restaurant, campaign workers scouted neighboring shops and eateries for people willing to fill the empty chairs.
The sax-blowing, cheeseburger-eating, barbecue boy -- first "black president" and talker in chief -- is today a gaunt ghost haunted by his own past. Can't a guy get no respect around here?
Once full-throated in courting and defending minorities, Clinton now grows hoarse explaining what he really meant to say, while African-Americans flock to Obama. It's become a trend. Bill misspeaks; Hillary corrects; Bill clarifies; Hillary apologizes; Bill breaks from the trail for a few days.
The latest was Bill's eruption in response to a blistering Vanity Fair profile in which rumors of old behaviors were floated amid insinuations of cognitive disruption possibly stemming from Clinton's heart problems. Bill hurled "scumbag" at the author, Todd Purdum, who happens to be married to Clinton's former press secretary, Dee Dee Myers. Hillary scolded Bill; he said he was sorry.
And so it has gone for months now, while the next generation of hopers and changers throws money at Obama's feet.
Clinton critics used to say, "There's something about Hillary." Now they say, "There's something about Bill." There always was something about both of them -- the narcissism, the grandiosity, the raw ambition. All those aspects are well-known, but they've been on vivid display as the campaign has advanced.
People tend to expose their truest selves when under pressure. Some balk, some excel, some unravel. The narcissist never performs well when the image he expects to see reflected back is not delivered. When one's very identity is tied to the approval of others, defeat feels like an existential crisis.
Thus, the rage we see in Bill Clinton's frequently crimson face is one familiar to parents -- the infant denied.
Democrats apparently recognized it, too.