Is Bill Clinton out-of-control? Or is he wily like a fox?


Why was Bill Clinton out on the trail running amok?

Simple answer: after Iowa, the Clinton campaign found itself (and it remains thus) in an extremely desperate situation.

The Second Coming of JFK transformed the political landscape. The Clintons did almost everything right between 2000 and 2008 to insure the election of Hillary Clinton. They worked hard to solidify their network of admirers, contributors, and powerful friends. Hillary kept the media at arm’s-length, and they came to accept her aloofness and her inevitability as facts of life. She acquitted herself well in the Senate, earning the praise of almost every objective observer.

Following the time-tested Clinton strategy, Senator Clinton positioned herself as a moderate (centrist) Democrat. She waxed empathetic to those in need, showed herself mindful of the plain folks who wanted government to be helpful but not intrusive, and stood strong on defense during a period of international risk.

It was a perfectly executed long-term strategy.

What went wrong? Two wrinkles in the plan:

1. The war in Iraq, which Mrs. Clinton had taken great pains to support in dramatic fashion, tragically and unexpectedly, spun out of control. The "slam dunk" went terribly awry, and the scramble that ensued left the American electorate, once united in support of an aggressive projection of national strength, splintered, frustrated, and anxious to single-out politicians for blame.

Mostly, the public blamed George Bush (aka "Mr. 29 Percent"). But the majority of her political tribe is not content to blame George Bush alone for the fiasco in Iraq. Mrs. Clinton’s vote in favor of the war remains a festering wound and continues to plague her with the Democratic base. According to her plan, Iraq should have been a distant and misty-colored memory at this point in the American present. But it is not, and her remarkable challenger, mostly through good fortune, is on record as opposing the war back in 2002.

Why? Mostly because he was toiling outside of the national spotlight at the time when all the decisions were made. As an Illinois state senator representing a district in which the vast majority of his constituents were instinctively suspicious of US intentions and jealous of American largesse to foreign lands, Obama found it politically expedient to agree with the voters he represented. As he said in 2004, who knows how he might have voted if he had been in the big leagues and cast a vote that actually counted? But that much nuance is irrelevant in a front-loaded, media-driven, national campaign. Bottom line: Obama was against the war; Hillary was for it. End of story.

2. Obama himself. He is a remarkably charming candidate (perhaps a hundred-year storm), who has fortunately caught a popular wave of unfocused discontent, uninformed optimism, and naiveté.

So, what to do if you are the Clintons?

First, hope you can finesse your “Iraq problem.” Say some ugly things about the President. Cast some high-profile destructive votes in re the war. Revise history when possible. And hope your base will forgive you in hopes of backing a winner.

Second, hope that "kid" fades. Folks will see that he has no experience, right? This insurgent candidacy needs to draw an inside straight; he will make a mistake; he will tire; he will show some frustration. We will be okay. Don't worry. We're going to be okay.

But then Iowa happened. Then the polls in NH went absolutely crazy. What in the hell is happening here?

The original plan was for the Clintons to run to the middle, for Hillary to take the lead, and the campaign to hold Bill in reserve mostly, sparingly employing him to strengthen the core constituencies where he plays very well. Early on, this strategy was on display. Bill was fairly quiet and absent from the day-to-day contest. Every once in a while--like when Edwards looked like he might be a threat in Iowa back in the summer--Team Clinton would roll out Bill to remind the faithful of the glorious struggles and triumphs of the Clintonian past.

But when Hillary stumbled into third place in Iowa, and New Hampshire looked lost, and the brain trust sheepishly looked around at one another in disbelief, and the mainstream media began the drumbeat of "the fall of the House of Clinton," Bill and Hill asked for the ball.

You got to want it to win it, and they want it more. Bill and Hill stepped up and moved forward. What to do? Hit back. What to do? Take this to the people. What to do? Take on the media and the establishment and play the underdog.

Is Bill Clinton out-of-control? Or is he wily like a fox?

Here is how he is wily like fox.

Bill hit hard and fast and created a lot of questions concerning his wife's opponent. By the end of the week, he had the formerly calm, cool, and collected Barack Obama slinging mud and playing the race card. Was Bill winning any popularity contests? Absolutely not. Even some of the strongest Bill fans were running for cover. But he changed the conversation. More importantly, none of the trash talking seemed to be coming out of his wife's mouth.

The timing was also significant.

Wild Bill grabbed the headlines during a week in which Hillary had little chance of winning the South Carolina primary. What have we heard from Bill this week? Almost nothing. Hillary is back in front of the cameras smiling and promoting a positive message. Bill is in the background. But everything Bill said last week is still in play this week.

Having said that, Bill may also be out of control.

I am convinced that he cannot help himself sometimes. He must know that his propensity to focus on himself leads to an impression that his wife is running for his third term. When Bill is leading with "I," we too often see the Hillary campaign as "Ma Clinton," running to extend the reign of "Pa Clinton."

The bottom line: much of the red-faced, cranky Bill is a well-choreographed sideshow--but not all of it. This is the real Bill.