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The Incumbent

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, January 25, 2008

On the verge of the Florida primary next Tuesday and the Super Tuesday votes a week later, Republicans remain fractured and fractious. John McCain is either a war hero and critic of excessive spending -- or Sen. "McAmnesty," the friend of Ted Kennedy and the enemy of American sovereignty. Mike Huckabee is either a witty, well-spoken social conservative -- or an economic "liberal" who will "destroy the party." Mitt Romney is either the consensus choice of conservatives -- or whatever identity benefits him most at the moment. Rudy Giuliani is either a tough-minded hero of Sept. 11 -- or a social liberal with a shady past.

But even amid this ideological discord, there are three words that cause nearly every Republican to forget their differences and join hands in common purpose: President Hillary Clinton.

In some ways, this enthusiastic contempt seems disproportionate. Though Clinton is genuinely radical on some issues -- abortion comes to mind -- her campaign policy agenda represents a chastened, incremental liberalism. Her health-care plan, for example, could be the basis for serious discussions with Republican congressional leaders. Her national security team seems more skilled and experienced than Barack Obama's. And her various positions on Iraq have always been slippery enough to avoid specific, hand-tying commitments on troop withdrawals, leaving her the option of responsibility (though, like the other Democratic candidates, she seems incapable of using the word "victory" in a time of war).

But Clinton has three problems that make her the weakest, most divisive Democrat in the race:

First, she is a living symbol of the culture wars of the 1990s and will rally the Republican base like no other candidate.

It is always easier to remind voters than to instruct them. And it won't take much reminding for Republicans when it comes to Clinton and her high-profile husband. Just a few words and phrases are necessary to evoke an entire era: "I didn't inhale." Kathleen Willey. Whitewater. "Two for the price of one." Polling to select vacation sites. Baking cookies. Joycelyn Elders. Hillarycare. "What the meaning of the word 'is' is." Blue dress. "That woman." Lewinsky, as noun and verb.

For many conservatives -- social, economic and otherwise -- that list is the trumpet call to old battles. Clinton may feel victimized by the "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- but she also recruits it, feeds it and sends it to war.

Second, Clinton is the candidate who most muddles the Democratic message of change.

This will undoubtedly be a change election -- about 77 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, the highest number since the 1995-96 shutdown of the federal government. But unlike many past presidential contests, no Republican incumbent or vice president will appear on the ticket. All the Republican candidates are able to run as fresh faces.

It is Clinton who carries the heaviest burden of the past -- who must defend her years of service as a golden era. She is the most backward-looking candidate of either party -- the closest there is to an incumbent in the 2008 election. This could allow a smart Republican to wear at least a portion of the mantle of change.

Third, the Clintons practice a form of politics without honor. Already Clinton's proxies have attacked Obama as a drug user and maybe a drug dealer, and bemoaned politicians who "shuck and jive." These are code words one would expect to overhear from George Wallace at a cocktail party with Lester Maddox. Robo-calls in Nevada made reference to "Barack Hussein Obama." Clinton accuses Obama of defending a slumlord -- and even, God forbid, of defending Ronald Reagan.

Given the Clintons' cultivation of ruthlessness as a political art, none of this is surprising. Obama is the soaring candidate -- the candidate of idealism and aspiration. Clinton's only hope is to bring him down to earth, then bury him in flying dirt. Clinton prefers a war of attrition -- blow for bloody blow -- because her team is better at the tactics of politics. Unable to inspire, Clinton chooses to destroy.

This may work in the primaries since many Democrats seem to prefer a fighter to a lover. But I suspect these tactics will eventually backfire. African American Democrats cannot be pleased to see Obama cut and bleeding from a thousand distorted attacks. And while Clinton is clearly the best partisan in the race, the country does not seem to be in a partisan mood.

A presidential election between, say, McCain and Obama -- both positive and honorable candidates -- would be better for the country. A race between McCain and Clinton would be better for the Republicans.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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