The harshest thing Hillary Clinton could come up with about Sarah Palin at a Sept. 6 campaign event at Wagner College on Staten Island was that there was no evidence at the convention in St. Paul to suggest Republicans would “guarantee equal pay for equal work for women.”
“I heard nothing!” she said.
Reporters tried to get Mrs. Clinton to talk about John McCain’s running mate at a tiny press conference after the event, but she refused even to mention Mrs. Palin’s name, saying only, “I am campaigning for Senator Obama and advocating on behalf of the Democratic Party and our positions.”
Stop the presses.
With the McCain campaign running tactical circles every day around the Obama outfit—which has failed, somewhat unbelievably, to come up with even a semi-compelling response to the Palin selection—one might think Mrs. Clinton, to say nothing of her sidelined husband, would be a useful surrogate on the counterattack right about now. Apparently, the Obama campaign does not agree.
“My concern is that I see them as totally reactive right now as opposed to getting out there on their own and saying what the hell they are about,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton who has advised Mr. Obama. “They seem to be intimidated by the Palin pick. They seem to be intimidated by how the Republicans are coming at them on change. And you cannot win if you are constantly on defense.”
Mr. Panetta added, “As president of the United States you are going to have to learn how to deal with people you may not particularly like, because if you are trying to get things done, you have got to use everything and everybody that you can to get it done. I do think that they absolutely in this race have got to make use of the Clintons in every possible way, because they need them. He has clearly got some problems out there.”
Depending on who’s doing the telling, the reason the Clintons have been apportioned such a modest role—even as the Obama campaign gets pasted on a daily basis by the opposition—is either that remarkably little has been demanded of them, or simply that they don’t feel up for doing much more.
Most of the former and present Clinton staffers interviewed for this story, as well as Mr. Obama’s campaign, say that the limited role she has taken in advocating Mr. Obama’s candidacy is by design, and that she is doing precisely what is asked of her.
We’re not seeing more of her, in other words, because that’s how they want it.
“If they asked Hillary to do more, she’d be happy to do it,” said one Clinton adviser.
But one source close to the Clintons provided a slightly different version of events, saying that a high ranking Obama staff member indicated to a Clinton counterpart that they would like Mrs. Clinton to take a more aggressive tack, and that the answer was no.
Either way, the fact that it has taken so long for this discussion about the Clintons’ role to occur—while polls show a sharp shift in support toward the Republican ticket—is a source of wonderment in Clintonland. The consensus there, based on conversations with present and former Clinton advisers, is that the Obama campaign has isolated itself both as a result of its desire to break with the Clintons and establish itself as the future of the Democratic Party, and out of primary-victory-inspired hubris.
The effect, they say, has been a disastrous passivity.
“[McCain chief strategist] Steve Schmidt and company organized speeches that basically totally misrepresented Obama’s record—they were basically lies,” said one former Clinton aide. “They aren’t idiots. They know what his proposals are. But they said, ‘Fuck it, we’re just going to go out there and say he is going to raise taxes and do all this bad shit.’ And they got a decent bounce. And then you see the reaction from the Obama people saying, ‘We’re not going to be bullied, we’re not going to let our record be misconstrued.’ The second you start hearing that kind of rhetoric, you are being bullied and your record is being misconstrued.”
The problem, the former Clinton aide said, is that “they don’t have any attack dogs.”
“To address Palin, you need a prominent tough woman,” said another former aide. “I can’t think of any others who really work and who could really zing her with a smile on her face and look really good doing it.”
“Either it says that they don’t think they need him or that they don’t want him or some combination of the two,” said a Democratic operative close to the Clintons, referring to the former president. “I think they want to do it without him—without both of them. A lot of this is psychological.”
For now, Mrs. Clinton is doing enough and no more. She campaigned a full day for Mr. Obama in Florida on Sept. 8, where she said nothing surprising, and will hit the road in battleground states for him again later this month, when she will likely do the same. She will hold fund-raisers for the nominee in Chicago and New York. And she will wait for further requests.
Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton has essentially been left to his own devices, pending a long-awaited meeting with Mr. Obama in Harlem scheduled for Sept. 11 and, according to a source close to the Clintons, ongoing “talks” between their offices about events in the near future.
Asked after the Staten Island event on Sept. 6 about the extent of the campaign role she envisioned for her and her husband from now until Election Day, she told The Observer, “You’ll have to just watch what we do. We’re going to go out. We have said that we will do what we’re asked to do, and we intend to help in any way we can.”
It is clear that there was never any sense of urgency within the determinedly harmonious Obama campaign, at least not until now, about enlisting the help of the two Democrats who are arguably more capable than any others of creating news and changing, or at least displacing, unhelpful narratives.
Instead of being deployed to go make news, the Clintons, whose ability to sow doubts about Mr. Obama kept the primary going until the bitter end, have instead been asked to talk about the middle class in Florida and equal pay in New Mexico, according to a Clinton adviser.
All the while, the McCain campaign is drawing blood, defining Mr. Obama as a vacuous, long-winded celebrity light on practical experience, and Mrs. Palin’s high-profile entry into the race has only hastened that process.
“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” Mrs. Palin said in her fawned-over debut convention speech, “except that you have actual responsibilities.”
Then, on Sept. 5, Mrs. Palin delivered the campaign’s weekly radio address, saying, “Our opponent in this election supports plans to raise taxes on income, payroll, investment income, business income, and altogether would increase the tax burden on the American people by hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The Obama campaign’s response had been both inconsistent and anemic. At first they attacked Mrs. Palin on her lack of experience, then, after it became clear that it wasn’t working, they calculated that it would perhaps be better to ignore her in an attempt to tie her in with Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush as enemies of change.
“John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time, and he and Sarah Palin will continue Bush’s economic policies, his health care policy, his education policy, his energy policy, and his foreign policy,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a response to a Sept. 8 McCain ad titled “Original Mavericks.”
A former Clinton aide recounted Mrs. Clinton having said a week after her campaign ended that “whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to do, as long as it is in good conscience.”
The aide added, “I’m sure going after an inexperienced pro-life Republican to help the Democrats win the presidency is not outside of Hillary’s conscience-ability to do.”
Instead, Mrs. Clinton unironically welcomed Mrs. Palin to the contest in an Aug. 29 statement, saying, “We should all be proud of Governor Sarah Palin’s historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Senator McCain. While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Governor Palin will add an important new voice to the debate.”
At the Sept. 6 event, it was more of the same.
Mrs. Clinton arrived late to a breakfast before the Labor Day parade, where union leader Stuart Appelbaum mocked Mrs. Palin as the governor of a state “with a population one quarter the size of Brooklyn.” He then set Mrs. Clinton up beautifully for any shots she might wish to take at the Republican vice presidential nominee. “Hillary Clinton is a friend of ours,” he said. “And Sarah Palin, you are not Hillary Clinton.”
Mrs. Clinton took a pass.
Wearing a blue blazer over a light blue shirt, she said that “no one has more at stake” than workers and urged the group to elect “a Democratic president this November for our country.” She said that Mr. Obama and Senator Joe Biden understand them, while “Senator McCain and Governor Palin did not.” She added, “No way, no how, no McCain, no Palin.” Rah.
Soon after the breakfast adjourned and Mrs. Clinton joined other New York officials on the sauna-like street, where nurses along the route shouted, “Hillary! Hillary!” and where David Paterson, the governor of New York, told The Observer he thought the Obama campaign would ask Mrs. Clinton to do “a lot.” Asked if Mr. Clinton would also contribute significantly in the fight for the White House, he said, “He should and he will.”
Mrs. Clinton marched a few blocks of the parade and then climbed back into her car for a campaign appearance for a local Congressional candidate at Wagner College in Staten Island. She offered an impassioned plea about better bus routes. She also did her part for Mr. Obama, telling the crowd “Change is coming!” and repeating her “No way, no how, no McCain, no Palin.”
Asked by The Observer if she felt underutilized, Mrs. Clinton said, “They want to win and they are going to win. And we are going to make as strong a case as we can. You know, it’s not just me. There are thousands of people campaigning on behalf of this ticket, and we have to make the case, but I think we’ll make it effectively and I think we’ll win in November.”