Sunday, February 10, 2008

Strange things afoot

So here's the grand irony to the 2008 presidential race, as I see it:
Hillary Clinton is in a position comparable to that of Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic primaries.

How's that for an attention-getter? I'm gonna be the most famous blogger ever.

Anyway, Mrs. Clinton was the ordained frontrunner fairly early; by all external indicators it was/is her race to lose. For convenience's sake we'll ignore 1992's Tom Harkin Iowa showing. I crack me up.

But here's the thing: Four years ago, the party honchos decided that it would be a Good Thing (TM) to let a senatorial candidate from Illinois give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. This Mr. Obama, who ended up running against Alan Keyes (!) for the senate seat he now holds, nailed it. Nailed. It.

Now flash back to 1988. I remember watching the keynote that year as well, freshly aware at age 14 that I held different political views than those of my parents (I did have a Bush/Quayle bumper sticker on my notebook that my French teacher, a small-time Republican party operative, gave me. It was adolescence, I was confused.). It was a massively long speech, but one delivered by the governor of a small Southern state, one Bill Clinton. The sheer length of his speech (it took him an hour to introduce Michael Dukakis) at that convention got him an invitation to guest on Letterman, and his brilliant performance on that show went a long way in rewriting world history for the last 15 years.

I saw Mr. Clinton speak four years later(twice!) in the smallish, shuttered steel mill town where I went to college, and was very much moved. By then the nominee, he spoke to hope, to common purpose, and I absolutely ate it up. To this day I have a problem being objective about those years, to be honest. I shared his view that that Congress and the media were, to put it abrasively, acting like total assholes, and that he was simply fighting against them, and believe that his motivations were more or less pure while he held that office. I'm a sucker that way.
But I digress.

My point is that now, the once anti-establishment Clintons (and I am hesitant to refer to them as the same entity) are the insiders, even though their years in Washington hardly put them on the same level as a Preston Bush/George H.W. Bush/George W. Bush level. People forget the amount of contempt the 'establishment' had for the Clintons in those years.

Mr. Obama has strong parallels to the 1992 Bill Clinton. While people like to talk of Mr. Obama as if he's this magnificent pure character, independent of party and whatnot, the truth is that people in the Democratic party have had an asterisk by his name for a while. Now that establishment is in a bit of a quandary, with the seats of power necessarily being divvied up between Clinton-era pols, whose outsider approach earned them the Presidency (and seats on the DLC), and the more recent netroots sort of folks, whose influence has been made clear through the installation of Howard Dean as the DLC chair.

Which ultimately brings me to my point:
Hillary Clinton essentially has to run against her husband. Someone who fits all the descriptors that applied to Mr. Clinton in 1992: inexperienced, no substance, blah blah blah. But the guy can talk. And that's exactly the sort of thing that makes a good president, and I can only hope that underneath Mr. Obama's inspirational persona, someone as wonky as Clinton lurks.

Wonkiness aside, Mr. Clinton's ability to distill popular opinion into concrete talking points, combined with a studious application of classic oratorial technique, were enough to motivate a people to give him the reins, and also make a Congress who HATED the guy to do almost whatever he wanted (health care excepted) legislatively.
So how's it all going to end? God knows. The Republicans were never able to fully defeat Mr. Clinton (2000, arguably, but if he was on that ticket he'd have won), and I don't know if the Clinton camp has it in them to defeat this year's version of its 1992 self. And I don't know if I want them to.