Death, Taxes and Mrs. Clinton

I will never forget that breathtaking moment when, in the CNN/YouTube debate earlier this fall, the woman from Ohio held up a picture and said, “Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards, this is a human fetus. Given a few more months, it will be a baby you could hold in your arms. You all say you’re ‘for the children.’ I would ask you to look America in the eye and tell us how you can support laws to end this life. Thank you.”

They were momentarily nonplussed, then awkwardly struggled to answer, to regain lost high ground. One of them, John Edwards I think, finally criticizing the woman for being “manipulative,” using “hot images” and indulging in “the politics of personal destruction.” The woman then stood in the audience for her follow up. “I beg your pardon, but the literal politics of personal destruction—of destroying a person—is what you stand for.”

Oh, I wish I weren’t about to say, “Wait, that didn’t happen.” For of course it did not. Who of our media masters would allow a question so piercing on such a painful and politically incorrect subject?

I thought of this the other night when citizens who turned out to be partisans for Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards asked the Republicans, in debate, would Jesus support the death penalty, do you believe every word of the Bible, and what does the Confederate flag mean to you?

It was a good debate, feisty and revealing. It’s not bad that the questions had a certain spin, and played on stereotypes of the GOP. It’s just bad that it doesn’t quite happen at Democratic debates. Somehow, there, an obscure restraint sets in on the part of news producers. Too bad. Running for most powerful person in the world is, among other things, an act of startling presumption. They all should be grilled, everyone, both sides. Winter voting approaches; may many chestnuts be roasted on an open fire.

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In New York I find more and more people who think this week’s political scandal, Rudy Giuliani and the cost and means of payment of his visits to the Hamptons, following so closely the indictment of his former police commissioner, will fatally damage his candidacy. I don’t know. The specifics on both stories aside, I’m not sure scandal is what it used to be.

Two things are true in the modern media environment, and they collide with each other and may tend to cancel each other out. One is that a scandal makes its way around the world and into the bloodstream right away and with full force, through the Internet and cable. The other is that a lot of scandals have made their way around the world and into the bloodstream in the past 10 years. Immediacy and broad knowledge collide with sheer glut. Everyone has heard so much about so many. At some point, don’t voters start to see all of public life as one big polluted river? And if they do, don’t they stop saying things like “That’s a busted tire floating by” and “That’s an old shoe”? If they’re familiar with the principle, as Thoreau said, don’t they become less attentive to its numerous applications?

Add to that the fact that in the past decade, concurrent with the rise of new media, the Clintons perfected a new method of scandal management that starts with “These are lies spread by a partisan conspiracy,” proceeds to “That’s old news,” and ends a few years later, when detailed books come out, with “That’s rehash for cash.” This strategy is not a constructive contribution to our political culture, but it has worked in the new environment. They’ll teach it in political science media management courses in the future.

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Mrs. Clinton is acting as if she’s scared. She insists to Katie Couric that she’s the next president—“It will be me”—and she’s back to using the language of aggression — there’s been a lot of “beat,” as in they’ve been trying to “beat me.” In the first 60 seconds of her Couric interview she used some variation on the word “attack” five times. If Mitt Romney talked like this, they’d be asking who put the Red Bull in his milkshake.

She continues her political kleptomania in terms of themes from the 1988 presidential campaign, which seems to preoccupy her. A few months ago she was saying she was born in the middle of America in the middle of the century, which is what George H.W. Bush said of Dan Quayle. She proceeded to call herself famous but unknown, which is what was said of Mr. Bush at the time. Now she calls herself ready from day one to be president. Old Bush’s tag line in his ‘88 commercials was “Ready on day one to be a great president.”

This is the first time she’s faced a real threat, in Barack Obama, and it’s left me thinking about how being The Inevitable is a high-risk game. You can get far being the inevitable choice. A lot of people will believe it and support you, especially the weak, and the pragmatic. They give you early support and early money. Others see the endorsements and contributions. Another level of giver and supporter kicks in. It starts to show in the national polls. Everyone knows you’re inevitable.

But there are two problems with this strategy. One is that your support is by definition broad but shallow. You have a lot of people, but they won’t crawl over broken glass for you. When I talk to Hillary supporters they mostly enact a facsimile of what they think passion is, and are reduced to a dulled aggression. “We’re gonna win.”

The second part of the inevitability problem is that once you seem no longer inevitable—once the polls stop rising or start to fall, once that air is out of the balloon and the thing that made everyone fall in line is gone—well, what do you do? If the main argument of your candidacy is you’re inevitable and suddenly you’re evitable, where does that leave you? What does it leave you with? Mere hunger. Insistence: “It will be me.”

And anger at this nobody who wasn’t even in the Senate when you took the big votes, this cream puff who was a functionary in Chicago when you were getting your head beaten in by Ken Starr. What does Mrs. Clinton do when she’s feeling angry? What has she done in the past? Goodness, this won’t be pretty.

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Inevitable is a good game to play until it doesn’t work anymore. A while back I was speaking to a Democrat who supports Mrs. Clinton, and I mentioned in passing that Obama might win the nomination. “Nothing is written.” The Clinton supporter said, “Well I would love to support Obama if that happens.” It was a standard thing to say, and yet the Clintonite said it awful quick.

In any case, there’s something that comes like relief, like a boost, when politics turns out to be surprising, when the inevitable gets evitable, when the machine is slowed. It reminds you who really runs the place, that for all our mess it still comes down to the person in the precinct walking to the caucus site on ground that crunches from the cold. Here’s to surprise. It’s a great antidote to cynicism.