This weekend brought two reminders that what happens in politics is often, more than anything, about the past.
On Friday, Robert Reich formally endorsed Barack Obama, a decision that was greeted as noteworthy since Reich was an old Oxford chum of Bill Clinton’s and served as the 42nd president’s first labor secretary. He also scored a date with a young Hillary Rodham back in 1966, when, as the freshman class president at Dartmouth, he asked Hillary, his counterpart at Wellesley, to meet him for “a presidential summit” in Hanover. (There was no second date.)
Reich, in disclosing his endorsement decision on his blog, dutifully played up this sense of conflict, writing about “the pull of old friendships” but concluding that “my conscience won’t let me be silent any longer.”
In truth, his endorsement was a mere formality, more than 10 years in the making. Numerous times this campaign season, Reich has chimed in to side with Obama—and against Hillary.
And, as some members of the press noted over the weekend, Reich earned the enmity of Bill Clinton when he left the administration after the 1996 election and published an unusually frank memoir, Locked in the Cabinet. From the sidelines during Clinton’s second term, he intensified his criticism, decrying “the interminable Clinton scandals,” branding the president “utterly disgraced,” and charging that under Clinton’s centrist leadership, the Democratic Party has “expired and gone to meet its maker.”
But the history is even deeper than that. Just consider the timing of Reich’s move, on the eve of what could be Hillary’s last stand. Reich was clearly calculating that the news generated by his endorsement—Clinton loyalist jumps ship!—would only further the perception of Obama’s inevitability, thereby perhaps convincing wavering Pennsylvanians to give up on the Clintons once and for all.
Call it payback, because Bill Clinton once played the same trick on Robert Reich. Back in 2002, Reich, who had returned to academia and even co-hosted a public television show in Boston with former Republican Senator Alan Simpson (The Long and Short of It) after leaving Washington, entered the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts. Instantly, he became one of two front-runners in a five-way race, vying for the lead with State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.
Then Bill Clinton came to town, ostensibly to prop up his friend Steve Grossman, who had been his handpicked D.N.C. chairman during Clinton’s second term. Grossman was one of the also-rans vying with Reich and O’Brien for the Democratic nomination, and his doomed campaign (which he abandoned shortly thereafter) was barely registering in polls. Clinton’s real reason for visiting, of course, was to slide the knife into Reich.
First, Clinton made clear to reporters that he hadn’t urged Reich to enter the race, as Reich had suggested: “I didn’t like the implication that somehow I encouraged him into the race when you already had one guy in the race (Grossman) that had supported my policies, and at critical points he didn’t.”
Then he insinuated that Reich was disloyal and a quitter, noting that Grossman, unlike Reich, “helped us when we were down and out and didn’t leave us and believed in what we were doing all the way. And it’s hard to quarrel with the results.”
“He has a right not to support my policies and to leave and say whatever he wanted to,” Clinton said of Reich.
But the kicker came when Clinton—unprompted by anyone—began talking up O’Brien, Reich’s real competition for the nomination. As the Boston Herald reported at the time: “At four separate points during the 15-minute session with reporters, Clinton mentioned O’Brien with no solicitation. Twice, Clinton called O’Brien a ‘very impressive woman,’ and noted that she was leading the other four candidates in opinion polls.”
It was a humiliating day for Reich, who ultimately lost the primary to O’Brien by eight points. The Clinton visit was hardly the main reason for his defeat, but might it have been on Reich’s mind when he sat down to write his blog entry last Thursday night?
Another grudge seemed evident on Sunday morning, when Bill Bradley and Jon Corzine appeared on CNN’s Late Edition for one of the “dueling surrogates” segments with which television producers seem so enamored. On the surface, it was a dull and predictable exchange. Neither Bradley nor Corzine are known for their magnetism, and they both hewed to familiar, pre-approved talking points—Corzine for Clinton and Bradley for Obama—that anyone who’s followed this campaign even casually could probably recite on cue.
But the argument between Corzine and Bradley was about Clinton and Obama less than it was about two rivals who each wanted to look better than the other on national television. In fact, some of those who know Corzine well insist that, in his heart, he prefers Obama to Clinton, but that a sense of obligation to the Clintons (who both lent considerable assistance to his 2005 gubernatorial campaign) and the persistence of Bill (who maintained almost daily phone contact with Corzine last year while he weighed his endorsement options) compelled him to side with Hillary.
The differences between the two stem from the radically different paths they pursued in the New Jersey political world, where old-school patronage machines still tend to dominate both parties.
Bradley was an outsider through and through, a man who spoke and lived the credo of the reformer. His strength came from the popular support he accrued as a star basketball player at Princeton and with the Knicks, and he won his Senate seat in 1978 without the support of any major county organizations—and almost unheard-of feat. In his three Senate terms, he largely ignored the state’s Democratic establishment, among whom he was—and remains—thought of as arrogant.
Corzine played the game differently: He spoke like a reformer, too, but he dipped into the fortune he made at Goldman Sachs and essentially purchased that same party establishment, one county chairman, one consultant, and one union leader at a time, showering them with cash and promising them whatever they wanted, so long as they’d back his campaign.
The Bradley approach and the Corzine approach came into conflict in 2000. Bradley was running for president. Corzine had just jumped into the race for an open Senate seat. The New Jersey establishment that despised Bradley decided it was time for revenge and lined up with Al Gore, embarrassing Bradley with stories about widespread home-state defections. They told Corzine he should go along with them. And he did.
One of the very few powerful New Jersey Democrats to stick with Bradley that year was Richard J. Codey, who was then the party’s State Senate leader and who would become the Senate president and acting governor a few years later. When Corzine ran for governor in 2005, he pushed Codey—then the acting governor—out of the way. In the fall campaign, Bradley agreed to do one high-profile event with Corzine—a photo-op at a basketball court. Codey was also present and Bradley used the occasion to sing Codey’s praises to the press and to publicly suggest that Corzine, upon being elected as governor, appoint Codey to replace him in the U.S. Senate—not exactly on-message and about the last topic that Corzine wanted to deal with at that point.
Eight years after Corzine teamed up with the New Jersey Democratic establishment to help derail his presidential ambitions, Bradley is seemingly on the verge of returning the favor: If Obama does win the nomination, he will have defeated the candidate backed by Corzine and the party establishment.