JUST 24 hours after Hillary Clinton mowed down a skeptical Katie Couric with her certitude that she would win the Democratic nomination — “It will be me!” — her husband showed exactly how she could lose it.
By telling an Iowa audience on Tuesday night that he had opposed the Iraq war “from the beginning,” Bill Clinton committed a double pratfall. Not only did he refocus attention on his wife’s most hazardous issue, Iraq, just as it was receding as the nation’s Topic A, but he also revived unhappy memories of the truth-dodging nadirs of the Clinton White House.
Whatever his caveats, Mr. Clinton did not explicitly oppose the Iraq war from the beginning. But Al Gore did unequivocally and loudly in a public speech before the beginning, as did an obscure Illinois state senator named Barack Obama. What if Mrs. Clinton had led an insurrection against the war authorization in the Senate? Might she have helped impede America’s rush into one of the greatest fiascos in our history?
That history cannot be rewritten in any case, by Bill Clinton or anyone else. But future history is yet to be made. In the year to come, it will be written by the candidates and the voters, not by those journalists who, as the old saw has it, lay down history’s first draft.
Election year isn’t even here yet, and already most of the first drafts penned by the political press have proved instantly disposable, from Fred Thompson’s irresistible Reaganesque star power to the Family Research Council’s ability to abort the rise of Rudy Giuliani. The biggest Beltway myth so far — that the Clinton campaign is “textbook perfect” and “tightly disciplined” — was surely buried for good by the undisciplined former president’s seemingly panic-driven blunder last week.
The Washington wisdom about Mr. Obama has often been just as wrong as that about Mrs. Clinton. We kept being told he was making rookie mistakes and offering voters wispy idealistic sentiments rather than the real beef of policy. But what the Beltway mistook for gaffes often was the policy.
Mr. Obama’s much-derided readiness to talk promptly and directly to the leaders of Iran and Syria, for instance, was a clear alternative, agree with it or not, to Mrs. Clinton’s same-old Foggy Bottom platitudes on the subject. His supposedly reckless pledge to chase down Osama bin Laden and his gang in Pakistan, without Pakistani permission if necessary, was a pointed rebuke of both Mrs. Clinton’s and President Bush’s misplaced fealty to our terrorist-enabling “ally,” Pervez Musharraf. Like Mr. Obama’s prescient Iraq speech of 2002, his open acknowledgment of the Pakistan president’s slipperiness turned out to be ahead of the curve.
Now that the Beltway establishment, jolted by the Iowa polls, is frantically revising its premature blueprints for a Clinton coronation and declaring, as Time’s inevitable cliché would have it, that Mr. Obama has “found his voice,” it’s worth looking at some campaign story lines that have been ignored so far. They tell us more than the hyped scenarios that have fallen apart. Indeed, they flip the standard narrative of Campaign 2008 on its head: Were Mr. Obama to best Mrs. Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he may prove harder for the Republicans to rally against and defeat than the all-powerful, battle-tested Clinton machine.
The unspoken truth is that the Clinton machine is not being battle-tested at all by the Democratic primary process. When Mrs. Clinton accused John Edwards of “throwing mud” and “personally” attacking her in a sharp policy exchange in one debate, the press didn’t challenge the absurd hyperbole of her claim. In reality, neither Mr. Edwards nor any other Democratic competitor will ever hit her with the real, personal mud being stockpiled by the right. But if she’s getting a bye now, she will not from the Republican standard-bearer, whoever he may be. Clinton-bashing is the last shared article of faith (and last area of indisputable G.O.P. competence) that could yet unite the fractured and dispirited conservative electorate.
The Republicans know this and are so psychologically invested in refighting the Clinton wars that they’re giddy. Karl Rove’s first column for Newsweek last week, “How to Beat Hillary (Next) November,” proceeded from the premise that her nomination was a done deal. In the G.O.P. debates through last Thursday, the candidates mentioned the Clintons some 65 times. Barack Obama’s name has not been said once.
But much like the Clinton campaign itself, the Republicans have fallen into a trap by continuing to cling to the Hillary-is-inevitable trope. They have not allowed themselves to think the unthinkable — that they might need a Plan B to go up against a candidate who is not she. It’s far from clear that they would remotely know how to construct a Plan B to counter Mr. Obama. The repeated attempts to fan “rumors” that he is a madrassa-indoctrinated Muslim — whether on Fox News or in The Washington Post, where they resurfaced scurrilously on the front page on Thursday — are too demonstrably false to survive endless reruns even in the Swift-boating era.
Part of the Republicans’ difficulty in countering Mr. Obama, should they have to, is their own cynical racial politics. For the most part, race has been the dog that hasn’t barked in this campaign despite the (largely) white press’s endless fretting about whether the Illinois senator is too white for black voters and too black for white voters. Most Americans aren’t racist, most Republicans included. (Those who are won’t vote for the Democratic presidential candidate even if it’s not Mr. Obama.) But the G.O.P., by its own doing, is nonetheless saddled with a history that most recently includes “macaca” and Katrina, Mr. Bush’s appearance at Bob Jones University in 2000 and the nonexistent black population of its Congressional delegation.
As the Republican leadership knows, this record is an albatross, driving away not just black voters but crucial white swing voters, too. Ken Mehlman, the former G.O.P. chairman, and Mr. Rove, as recently as in that Newsweek column, have implored their party to reach out to minorities. So have Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp. But not even conservative leaders of this stature could persuade their party’s top 2008 presidential contenders to show up for a September debate moderated by Tavis Smiley for PBS at the historically black Morgan State University.
It’s not because those no-shows are racists; it’s because they are defensive and out of touch. With the notable exception of Mike Huckabee, most of the party’s candidates have barricaded themselves from African-Americans for so long that they don’t know how to speak to or about them. As sure-footed as these Republicans are in attacking the Clintons and Streisand — or in exchanging fire with Al Sharpton and hip-hop moguls — they are strangers to the mainstream multiracial and multicultural America exemplified by an Obama or an Oprah.
An Obama candidacy would force them to engage. Or try to. A matchup between Mr. Obama and Mr. Giuliani, who was forged in the racial crucible of New York’s police brutality nightmares of the 1990s, or between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, who was shaped by a religion that didn’t give blacks equal membership until 1978, would be less a clash of races than of centuries.
But there’s another, even more fascinating hidden story line in the 2008 campaign that speaks to the potential prowess of an Obama candidacy. Despite the thuggish name-calling of a few right-wing die-hards (e.g., Rush Limbaugh mocking “Barack Hussein Odumbo”), the dirty secret of a number of conservatives is that they are disarmed by Mr. Obama even though they know his record is more liberal than Mrs. Clinton’s.
The drumbeat of approval has been remarkably steady. Last year Mark McKinnon, a top adviser to both the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns, admiringly called Mr. Obama “a walking, talking hope machine” who “may reshape American politics.” Andrew Ferguson devoted pages in The Weekly Standard to raving about “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Obama’s memoir, before dismissing its political sequel, “The Audacity of Hope.” Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, keeps trying to write anti-Obama articles but they’re so mild that they never really contradict his judgment of a year ago that the senator from Illinois “is the only presidential candidate from either party about whom there is a palpable excitement.” Even Tom Tancredo, the most virulent immigration demagogue of the G.O.P. presidential field, has spoken warmly of Mr. Obama.
Perhaps most striking is the case of Shelby Steele, the archconservative scholar who shares Mr. Obama’s mixed-race heritage. Though he has just written an entire book, “A Bound Man,” to argue (unpersuasively, in my view) that Mr. Obama “can’t win,” he can’t stop himself from admiring the guy throughout. Peggy Noonan wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek when she wondered in The Wall Street Journal last month whether Mr. Obama “understands the kind of quiet cheering he is beginning to garner from some Republicans.” In her view “they see him as a Democrat who could cure the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton sickness.”
Or at least they do in the abstract. Should Mr. Obama upend the Beltway story line by taking Iowa, the Republicans will have every reason to be as fearful as the Clinton camp is now.