Before we all get too excited about ex-presidents and the level of decorum that we should expect from them, let's first take a deep breath and remember this little nugget from former President Harry Truman:
"Nixon is a shifty-eyed goddamn liar, and people know it. He's one of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides."
Suffice it say that nothing Bill Clinton has said on the campaign trail in 2008 has quite reached that level of invective.
In yesterday's Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall presents the You Tube video of Bill Clinton "discounting Barack Obama's expected victory in South Carolina by explaining that Jesse Jackson won the state twice". Marshall's headline: "Try to Explain This".
Well, OK, Josh, I'll take a swing at it. I'd say that Mr. Clinton was doing what candidates and their surrogates have done since this ridiculous era of sequential primary elections commenced in the 1970s. He was spinning expected bad news in an effort to make a crushing defeat appear less damaging. Or, to use your own words, he was "discounting Barack Obama's expected victory in South Carolina".
And he succeeded brilliantly, by the way. Obama's winning margin in the Palmetto State stunned most casual observers and even some experienced pundits. He was supposed to win by about 10-15 points; he won by 28. Bill Clinton, however, effectively applied the asterisk to what was otherwise Obama's most triumphant moment to date. "Wow," people will say, "Barack Obama just blew Hillary out in South Carolina." But now a lot of them will add, "Of course, Jesse Jackson won that primary twice."
On one level, then, Bill Clinton played the expectations game with all the skill of a gifted, lifelong politician. Think of South Carolina as an outlier, he told the press, and not a bellwether. Don't give Senator Obama momentum that he hasn't yet earned. John McCain's people did the same thing a couple of weeks ago in Michigan, rationalizing their loss to Mitt Romney by noting that the latter's father was once governor of the state. The early primaries are all about spin.
Still, this is not just any year, and Barack Obama is not just any candidate. Politicians in the 1980s could patronize Jesse Jackson (and did they ever) knowing that he had no realistic shot of winning the nomination. Obama, on the other hand, represents a legitimate threat to Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. This puts her and her husband in the uncomfortable position having to weigh the potential impact of their comments on African American voters, who remain a critical part of the Democratic Party's electoral base. If they stay home in November, the country is in for an additional four years of Republican rule.
In that sense, Bill Clinton's gambit was a risky one. He had to know that the press has an insatiable appetite for stories about race and racial division. He must have anticipated that he would be accused of playing the race card and dismissing Obama as "the black candidate". Bill Clinton has built up a strong reservoir of goodwill among African Americans, but even the most robust support can evaporate if handled carelessly. Should Hillary Clinton win the Democratic nomination, bridges will obviously need to be rebuilt, and Bill keeps adding to the number of forthcoming reconstruction projects.
On the other hand, at what point does it become unreasonable to expect politicians not to speak about what is openly and obviously true? The African American vote in South Carolina is one of the largest in the country. According to exit polls, roughly 80% of black voters supported Senator Obama. Thus, the senator's Palmetto State victory doesn't necessarily portend success in states with dissimilar demographic circumstances.
Perhaps I should say that the fact of Obama's victory may be unremarkable. The extent of that win, however, should legitimately worry the Clintons. Despite Bill's controversial words, Obama far exceeded anyone's expectations in South Carolina. He would have won even with a substantially smaller African American turnout. He did not win the white vote, but he did surprisingly well. Bill Clinton's pre-debate spin may have been accurate, but his argument simply does not account for the margin by which Senator Obama defeated his wife.
Returning to Clinton's remarks, though, it remains unclear why there is anything inherently improper about questioning the representativeness of a given state's electorate. Here's what Time magazine said about Mike Huckabee just prior to the Iowa caucuses:
"A second place finish for Huckabee also raises the unflattering specter of another evangelical minister, Pat Robertson, who placed a surprise second in the Iowa Republican caucus in 1988, only to have his presidential campaign peter out soon after."
I don't recall anyone accusing Time of playing the "Evangelical Card".
If Bill Clinton compared Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson, then Obama compared the former president to Richard Nixon during his recent discussion of the Reagan legacy. It is clear to me which is the greater insult. In fact, I wouldn't consider being equated with Reverend Jackson to be any kind of insult at all.
Finally, on the question of decorum and how ex-office holders ought to comport themselves, who really cares? America loves Harry Truman despite his comments about Nixon. Hell, they love him even more because of those comments. And does anyone think that Dick Cheney's memoirs (tentatively entitled, "How I Dragged America into a Ditch and Beat Her Senseless") will betray even an iota of dignity? Former presidents and vice presidents come in all varieties. That's a good thing.
Politics is a big kids' game, and it's time for the pearl clutchers on the cable news networks to grow up. Not every allusion to race is racism. What Barack Obama is facing right now is a mere appetizer to the full menu of indirect and direct racializing his candidacy will receive from the Republicans this fall should he win his party's nomination.
Increasingly, it appears that he can take it, which is perhaps the best news of all for the Democratic Party.