It should come as no surprise that Democratic Party officials haven’t exactly been rallying to Hillary Clinton in her time of need.
While most Democratic voters remember Bill Clinton’s presidency with fondness, as the era of peace and prosperity and two straight wins in presidential elections, more than a few elected officials and Democratic leaders remember him as the selfish careerist who, time and again, threw them all under the bus.
Sure, he won reelection in 1996—the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt—but at a steep price for the party.
When he came to power, Democrats enjoyed overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate, marking only the second time since the end of L.B.J.’s presidency that the party controlled both the executive and legislative branches. But when he left, the G.O.P. owned both houses of Congress, the presidency and a majority of governorships—and within two years, Republicans gained a majority of seats in state legislatures for the first time in five decades.
While he was still in office, his would-be Democratic critics mostly stewed in silence. Bill was too popular with the masses to oppose, so they were stuck with him—even at the height of impeachment, when his approval rating was still almost twice what George W. Bush’s now is.
But now, their chance to get the last laugh seems to have arrived.
Whatever chance remains of a Clinton restoration in 2008 depends on Democratic superdelegates siding with Hillary Clinton, erasing what now looks almost certain to be an advantage for Obama in pledged delegates. There will be nearly 800 superdelegates at this summer’s convention (about 20 percent of all delegates) and right now Clinton leads Obama among them, 257-185. A late, mass shift of 350 or so could well swing the election her way.
In other words, her fate is in the hands of many of the same Democratic insiders who remember the first Clinton presidency largely for its missed opportunities. They’ve stayed neutral in this race because of their natural tendency to play it safe, and until very recently, Hillary seemed like the safe choice. If she survived the primaries, they’d swallow hard and side with her, just like they did with her husband a decade ago.
Obama’s dominant February, though, has turned that calculation on its head: Suddenly, he is supplanting Hillary as the safe choice, the one insiders flock to for fear of alienating a possible soon-to-be president.
Their grievances with Bill (and Hillary) go beyond the hit that the party’s down-ballot candidates took at the polls in the ’90s. If that had happened because Bill was out fighting the good Democratic fight, it would have been forgivable. But all too often, he seemed perfectly willing to serve up his own partisan allies, presenting himself to the public as the centrist hero between the extremes of the left and right—“triangulation,” this was called.
It reared its head in 1995, when he was on the comeback trail to re-election. Appearing before a group of wealthy business leaders, Bill Clinton brought up his 1993 budget, a tax hike and (modest) spending cuts package that had cost his party dearly at the polls. Not a single Republican in the House or Senate had voted for it, and Democrats across the country went down to defeat in 1994 because they had dared to defy public opinion and to stand with their president.