We begin, as one always must now, again, with Bill Clinton. The past week he has traveled South Carolina, leaving discord in his wake. Barack Obama, that “fairytale,” is low, sneaky. “He put out a hit job on me.” The press is cruelly carrying Mr. Obama’s counter-jabs. “You live for it.”
In Dillon, S.C., according to the Associated Press, on Thursday Mr. Clinton “predicted that many voters will be guided mainly by gender and race loyalties” and suggested his wife may lose Saturday’s primary because black voters will side with Mr. Obama. Who is raising race as an issue? Bill Clinton knows. It’s the press, and Mr. Obama. “Shame on you,” Mr. Clinton said to a CNN reporter. The same day the Web site believed to be the backdoor of the Clinton war room unveiled a new name for the senator from Illinois: “Sticky Fingers Obama.”
Bill Clinton, with his trembly, red-faced rage, makes John McCain look young. His divisive and destructive daily comportment—this is a former president of the United States—is a civic embarrassment. It is also an education, and there is something heartening in this.
There are many serious and thoughtful liberals and Democrats who support Mr. Obama and John Edwards, and who are seeing Mr. Clinton in a new way and saying so. Here is William Greider in The Nation, the venerable left-liberal magazine. The Clintons are “high minded” on the surface but “smarmily duplicitous underneath, meanwhile jabbing hard at the groin area. They are a slippery pair and come as a package. The nation is at fair risk of getting them back in the White House for four years.”
That, again, is from one of the premier liberal journals in the United States. It is exactly what conservatives have been saying for a decade. This may mark a certain coming together of the thoughtful on both sides. The Clintons, uniters at last.
Mr. Obama takes the pummeling and preaches the high road. It’s all windup with him, like a great pitcher more comfortable preparing to throw than throwing. Something in him resists aggression. He tends to be indirect in his language, feinting, only suggestive. I used to think he was being careful not to tear the party apart, and endanger his own future.
But the Clintons are tearing the party apart. It will not be the same after this. It will not be the same after its most famous leader, and probable ultimate victor, treated a proud and accomplished black man who is a U.S. senator as if he were nothing, a mere impediment to their plans. And to do it in a way that signals, to his supporters, How dare you have the temerity, the ingratitude, after all we’ve done for you?
Watch for the GOP to attempt swoop in after the November elections and make profit of the wreckage.
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As for the Republicans, their slow civil war continues. The primary race itself is winnowing down and clarifying: It is John McCain versus Mitt Romney, period. At the same time the conservative journalistic world is convulsed by recrimination and attack. They’re throwing each other out of the party. Republicans have become very good at that. David Brooks damns Rush Limbaugh who knocks Bill Kristol who anathematizes whoever is to be anathematized this week. This Web site opposes that magazine.
The rage is due to many things. A world is ending, the old world of conservative meaning, and ascendancy. Loss leads to resentment. (See Clinton, Bill.) Different pundits back different candidates. Some opportunistically discover new virtues in candidates who appear at the moment to be winning. Some feel they cannot be fully frank about causes and effects.
More on that in a moment.
I saw Mr. McCain this Tuesday in New York, at a fund-raiser at which a breathless aide shared, “We just made a million dollars.” What a difference a few wins makes. There were a hundred people outside chanting, “Mac is back!” and perhaps a thousand people inside, crammed into a three-chandelier ballroom at the St. Regis. When I attended a fund-raiser in October there was none of this; perhaps 200 came, and people were directed to crowd around the candidate as if to show he had support. Now you had to fight your way through a three-ring cluster. (When I attended a Giuliani fund-raiser this summer I saw something I wish I’d noted: The audience was big but wasn’t listening. They were all on their BlackBerrys. That should have told me something about his support.)
Mr. McCain is in the middle of a shift. Previous strategy: I’m John McCain and you know me, we’ve traveled through history together. New strategy: I’m the old vet who fought on the front lines of the Reagan-era front, and I am about to take on the mantle of the essentials of conservatism—lower spending, smaller government, strong in the world. He is going to strike the great Reagan gong, not in a way that is new but in a way that is new for him.
In this he is repositioning himself back to where he started 30 years ago: as a Southwestern American conservative veteran of the armed forces. That is, inherently if not showily, anti-establishment. That is, I am the best of the past.
Mr. Romney, on the other hand, is running as I Am Today. I am new and fresh, in fact I’m tomorrow, I know all about the international flow of money and the flatness of the world, I know what China is, I can see you through the turbulence just as I saw Bain to success.
It will all come down to: Whom do Republicans believe? Mr. Romney in spite of his past and now-disavowed liberal positions? Or Mr. McCain in spite of his forays, the past 10 years, into a kind of establishment mindset that has suggested that The Establishment Knows Best?
Do conservatives take inspiration from Mr. Romney’s newness? Or do they take comfort and security from Mr. McCain’s rugged ability to endure, and to remind?
It is along those lines the big decision will be made.
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On the pundit civil wars, Rush Limbaugh declared on the radio this week, “I’m here to tell you, if either of these two guys [Mr. McCain or Mike Huckabee] get the nomination, it’s going to destroy the Republican Party. It’s going to change it forever, be the end of it!”
This is absurd. George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues.
Were there other causes? Yes, of course. But there was an immediate and essential cause.
And this needs saying, because if you don’t know what broke the elephant you can’t put it together again. The party cannot re-find itself if it can’t trace back the moment at which it became lost. It cannot heal an illness whose origin is kept obscure.
I believe that some of the ferocity of the pundit wars is due to a certain amount of self-censorship. It’s not in human nature to enjoy self-censorship. The truth will out, like steam from a kettle. It hurts to say something you supported didn’t work. I would know. But I would say of these men (why, in the continuing age of Bill Clinton, does the emoting come from the men?) who are fighting one another as they resist naming the cause for the fight: Sack up, get serious, define. That’s the way to help.