It is a truism that a month is an eternity in electoral politics. It seems scarcely longer than a month ago that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was considered assured, and John McCain’s final push for the White House was “running on fumes.” Now, the only questions left seem to be how nasty Mitt Romney is willing to get in order to try to win this thing (and fail, spectacularly), and which of the two leading Democratic hopefuls lines up better against McCain in November. It’s all happened very fast, too fast, and the front-loaded primary season has, if anything, made careful political deliberation even more difficult.
The Super Bowl helped put our electoral process in a different frame for me, since both are media spectacles now, and thus quite literally “spectacular.” The shocking margins Obama posted in South Carolina were as great a shocker as the Giants’ performance on Sunday. Quite suddenly, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy looked stalled, and vulnerable. Her husband had a lot to do with that, and therein lies a tale. They’ve never figured out how best to use him; my argument is that, ultimately, they can’t.
To be sure, the shift of focus on the campaign trail in the past month—away from a flurry of confusing chatter about previous votes on the Iraq War, to Health Care and broader economic reform—generated renewed interest and thoughtful conversation. The question of prior experience came to the forefront, and that seemed, on the superficial level, to help her cause enormously. After all, “she’s been there,” and, as she has unerringly reminded us for months, she’s not only been there before, but she has learned from her mistakes.
That’s the problem, in a nutshell. Not her past mistakes, but her past. It is simply unimaginable that the Democratic Party, in the wake of the disastrous second term of a second Bush presidency, would field a candidate who herself represents a dynasty. If the U.S. electorate is to learn anything from the second Bush presidency, it is that returning to the same family for a second presidential candidate is always a bad idea. The reasons for that should have been obvious.
The current president Bush brought into his inner circle any number of central figures from his father’s previous tenure as president. Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense under the first Bush, became Vice President. Former Secretary of State James Baker helped him win his case essentially to cancel a re-count and thus be declared the winner against Al Gore; he has served repeatedly to put a sober face on policies and strategic decision that seem wildly Bacchanalian, on the face of it. Colin Powell, member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Pentagon spokesperson during the First Gulf War, became Secretary of State. Donald Rumsfeld, a former Reagan/Bush advisor and founder of the “Project for a New American Century” (already counseling the forceful ouster of Saddam Hussein), became Secretary of Defense. And so on. You knew from the day the second Bush was inaugurated that we’d eventually be at war with Iraq again, to finish the job these same people had failed to finish the first time around. They’d simply need to find a reason.
And they did. First it was the threat of non-existent weapons programs. Then it was the omnipresent threat of an amorphous enemy called Al-Qaeda. It was always, vaguely, “regime change.” Whatever the reasons—and they continue to shift, to this day—a second Bush president took us into a second Gulf War.
That is the problem with legacy presidents: the far-too-casual circulation of elites and their linkage to a previous presidential agenda. Their candidacy’s very legitimacy hinges on their association with their predecessor. Sure, Hillary (and we use her first name because if we were to refer to her as “Clinton” we’d never be sure who we really meant) has been a senator, and a good one. The second Bush was a successful state governor (as well as a fortunate baseball team owner and failed businessman). The point is that there are plenty of governors and plenty of senators with a similar record of relatively distinguished public service who would never be considered for the nation’s highest office (that Obama is so considered is one source of the fascination). It is largely the name and the family connection that makes these candidates frontrunners. And there is something fundamentally at odds with the principles of democratic politics about this.
Democratic politics hinges on the suspicion of the centralization of power. Democracy hinges on holding such power accountable. Democracy is virtually synonymous with anti-aristocratic, anti-elitist attitudes that counsel against the creation of a professional political or military or merchant class. Democracy refuses kings and queens. By that same logic, it refuses legacies, or at least it ought to so refuse.
We failed to make this argument when the current president ran for office. And we have paid dearly for that colossal misstep. He was a legacy candidate if ever there were one. It is unconscionable that the Democratic Party, the people’s party, should offer the American public another one as an alternative to this regime’s relentless assault on civil liberties, however well-intentioned, and however inspired by their commitment to security and anti-terrorism. The fact remains that, intentions aside, they have waged this War on Terror as the second wave of the first Gulf War that most of them remember personally. And the dirty secret behind that way of waging this war is that it is a shared legacy. The second Bush team has used weapons President Clinton put in their arsenal, the USA Patriot Act most dramatically (Clinton wanted it and could not pass it; the Bush team pulled it out of the presidential drawer immediately after 9/11). We fail to remember that Clinton was more than willing to lob missiles of his own, causing riots that extended from Athens to Bucharest.
To be sure, questions of character matter in democratic politics. They should. Any elected official will face problems unimagined in the election season. All we can reasonably hope is that they possess the practical wisdom, and the subtle art of political timing, to see them through the inevitable rough seas ahead. Hillary fails that test before her ship leaves port. Now is not the time to run a legacy presidential campaign. Only reckless ambition, coupled with the fear that she will not be able to wait another four or eight years to run, could have caused her to decide that now was the time to announce a second Clinton candidacy—as a legacy candidate running against a legacy.
The problem with legacy candidates is that there is no real accountability. When it suits her purposes, as it so clearly does in the health care debate, Hillary will play up her personal connection to a previous president. She was his wife; that is why she was nominated to chair his task force. But she will artfully dodge any attempt to link her campaign to her husband’s presidency or his policies. And she will be right, properly reminding us that in the 21st century a woman should be judged on her own record, not on that of her husband.
The problem is that you cannot have it both ways; that’s what she learned the hard way in South Carolina. And that is the secret, but fatal, flaw lying at the heart of any legacy presidential campaign, in any healthy democracy, in a time of war.