As "inoculations" go, Hillary Clinton?s interview was reasonably successful, at least for the time being. She not only addressed the issue of her husband?s infidelity and dishonesty, she managed to do so in a way that placed it (and her role in it) firmly in the past. Even more remarkable, she did so in a way that suggested that she and her husband had emerged from their 19th nervous marital breakdown with rekindled affection and renewed respect.
This last bit was especially important because Hillary?s candidacy is largely dependent (financially and politically) upon the perception that she remains influential with her husband. As former Clinton strategist Dick Morris pointed out in the Post, no one is going to give money or support to the president?s ex-wife?s Senate campaign. She would have no juice when deals went down.
Large numbers of interested parties, however, will give freely to the Senate candidacy of the president?s wife if they think she can get him to pay attention to their issues or, better yet, get him to do what she says. Mrs. Clinton left the distinct impression that she had her husband?s full attention. The President?s pardon of 16 Puerto Rican terrorists (against the advice of all law enforcement agencies and officials) supports this assertion.
The interview was also successful in that it allowed Hillary Clinton to restrike her most winning political pose, that of victim. Who dares shoot at the wounded? Certainly not the New York press corps. Even Phil Weiss of the Observer, whose reporting on the Clintons has been fearless and true, found himself unable, in the wake of the Talk interview, to ask Mrs. Clinton the most troubling question she has never addressed: "Do you believe Juanita Broaddrick?" Playing the victim helps Mrs. Clinton keep many unpleasant questions at bay.
The question is whether this stance can be sustained. An avowed feminist can hardly dismiss credible accusations of rape out of hand. She has a moral obligation to discuss them. A candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York can?t appeal to the electorate on the grounds that she has been wronged but that we can make it right by sending her to Washington. She has to connect; she has to convince us that she "gets it."
At some level, Hillary Clinton just doesn?t get it. Her campaign is rigorous and precisely planned, but there?s no spirit to it, no upbeat tempo to tap your feet to. In person, it?s a grind. The Secret Service come in. Mrs. Clinton follows. She does the drill and leaves. Someone writes the thank-you notes on the ride to the next drill. She signs them. The 1968 Nixon campaign looks like a Grateful Dead concert by comparison.
The spiritless character of Mrs. Clinton?s campaign has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, there?s a growing sense of buyer?s remorse on all sides of her candidacy. Democrats who once thought it a magic solution to their Moynihan replacement problem are now saying privately that they wish Hillary would drop out and make way (at least in their dreams) for former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Hillary herself has the look of someone who wishes she was somewhere else, doing anything else but what she is doing. And voters seem disinterested. No one wants to talk about it.
Part of Mrs. Clinton?s problem is that the political terrain has shifted since her candidacy was first "announced." Four months ago, most political people assumed that New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani would face a tough primary fight all the way to mid-September of next year. It was also assumed that Gov. Pataki and former Sen. Al D?Amato would do everything in their power to derail Giuliani?s candidacy along the way. It is hard to overstate how difficult it is to win a general election if 80 percent of a candidate?s time and resources are eaten up in a bloody primary battle.
It now seems likely, however, that Giuliani will have no serious opposition in the primary phase of the campaign and will thus be able to run a general election campaign from the moment he officially announces his candidacy. Gov. Pataki?s endorsement and the subsequent "stand-down" by Rep. Rick Lazio have made Hillary?s task much more difficult.
But the larger problem of Hillary Clinton?s joyless candidacy is that she lacks a rationale. There probably is a double-secret rationale, which is that she needs the "credential" to run for the presidency in 2004 (assuming Gore loses). But she can?t say that, at least publicly. She has to pretend that she?s interested in us. The truth is she couldn?t care less.
The Talk interview made this plain. She never discussed the impact of her husband?s behavior on the country or the culture or the political process. She only discussed its impact on her, as if she were the only person affected by it. That?s an astonishingly myopic view of criminal misconduct by the president of the United States, and it?s emblematic of Mrs. Clinton?s shortcomings as a politician. At some level, she just doesn?t get it.
The question that lingers about her candidacy is whether she really will go through with it. Dick Morris and MUGGER and others argue that she will drop out sometime this fall. Others say she will see it through to the end. Her conduct on the campaign trail to date seems to indicate she has not fully committed herself; she loves the attention but dislikes what it entails.
In the near term, her handlers are likely to concoct a cover story for her disconnection, one that has her on an "existential journey." This is what Bobby Kennedy?s people came up with when he couldn?t make up his mind about running for president in 1968, and the Clintons are famous for living off Kennedy family borrowed interest. The "existential journey" will do for a time, but eventually Mrs. Clinton is going to have to get down on the killing floor and make her case or drop out of the race.
She?d be well advised to drop out. In Hollywood, it is said that certain movies are "hits before they?re made," because they happen to connect with the zeitgeist. The Bill and Hillary movie is now into its eighth year and they are no longer of the moment. He?s over. She?s over. We just want them to go away.
This was the real impact of the Talk interview. It made you realize you never wanted to read another word about these people again.