There’s an old joke people here in the capital like to tell about Charles E. Schumer, the New York senator, and over the years I’m sure it’s been used to describe other politicians, as well: The most dangerous place to stand in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a bank of television cameras.
Well, that may be, but it seems to me that the most dangerous place to be in the rest of the country is between the Clintons and an elected office.
Just this weekend, after all the recent attacks against Barack Obama involving his kindergarten essay and cocaine, the “fairy tale” of his antiwar stance, we found out that the Nevada teacher’s union with ties to the Clintons is suing to keep workers on the Vegas Strip from being able to caucus in their workplaces, since most of those workers belong to unions that have endorsed Mr. Obama.
Meanwhile, Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, made yet another elliptical reference to Mr. Obama having used cocaine. Mr. Johnson tried to walk it back yesterday by saying that he was only referring to Mr. Obama’s days as a community organizer when he said Mr. Obama “was doing something in the neighborhood — and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in the book… .” Sure, because community organizing is not the kind of thing you’d want to speak of in public, with children around. Better to let people find out on their own.
What’s most confounding about this latest turn into ugliness, though, is the Clintons’ remarkable capacity to cast themselves as the victims in every fight. And so here is Hillary Rodham Clinton accusing Barack Obama of somehow injecting race into the campaign, because she found herself in a world of trouble for her own comments about Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. Now, I really do think she was intending only to make a sensible point about the value of experience in the White House, but look, the Clintons embody the generation that invented identity politics and political correctness. If Mrs. Clinton couldn’t guess at how that comment was going to land in the black community, then she must have been suffering amnesia.
I wrote last week about how Mr. Obama was facing a perilous moment in his campaign. It seems to me that the same is true of the Clintons, and they may need to step back and briefly reflect. Both Clintons now find themselves in an unfamiliar reality, the kind of all-out war for the nomination that Bill Clinton twice managed to avoid. They will get all kinds of advice from people whose career opportunities are at stake and who will do or say anything to win. They are surrounded by overzealous politicians and interest groups willing do whatever it takes to shut down Barack Obama and deliver their states to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It must be a kind of nightmare for both Clintons to be running, at this moment, against a talented black man, to be caught in an existential choice between losing their mythical status in the black community or possibly losing to a candidate they feel certain does not deserve to win. But only they can afford to be concerned right now with their own historical legacy, about seeing all that they have accomplished on behalf of their party and its commitment to fairness and equality blown away in the space of a few months. No one else is going to protect all that for them. No one around them is going to take the long view, because that’s not the way supporters think.
No one expects Mrs. Clinton to stand down and let Mr. Obama make his case unchallenged. She could, however, send a clear message to the cogs in the machinery she’s built that there is a line she will not cross. She could tell her Nevada allies that the job of the Democratic Party she grew up in is to make it easier for people to caucus, not harder. She could tell Robert Johnson that he needs to apologize, the same way she forced Bill Shaheen, her New Hampshire co-chairman, to resign last month. She can make it plain to all those people trying to get jobs in the next Clinton Administration that there is way to win—a rough and combative way, even—that nonetheless won’t destroy all the good that the Clintons, at least for a lot of Democrats, have come to represent.