Friday, February 15, 2008

Dear Hillary: How To Bow Out Gracefully

Dear Hillary: How to Bow Out Gracefully

Dear Stumped,

I am running for leader of the free world, seeking to replace a deeply unpopular president. I am the spouse of his very successful predecessor. To the extent that my opponents want to make this election a referendum on the 1990s and my husband's administration, we've thought we'd be in good shape. My chief opponent is an unvetted neophyte colleague of mine in the Senate, who probably couldn't tell the difference between Kyrgistan and Uzbekistan. And yet he trounced me in the Iowa caucus, and now some of my advisers are second-guessing my decision to deploy my husband on the campaign trail and tap into people's warm, fuzzy memories of his time in the White House.

Time is running out, and I am not sure what to do. What do you think? My husband was very successful, and I was part of his team. On the other hand, people want change. But there is a personal issue here, too -- I mean, how can I tell my husband he is a liability and needs to lie low? Our marriage has been through a lot, and I don't want to hurt him.

-- Anonymous in New Hampshire

Dear Hillary -- I mean, Anonymous,

Okay, you didn't really write me. But you should have. You need some good advice, not to mention a reality check.

Here's the problem: Americans don't want to see the presidency turned into a dynastic club with two families monopolizing the White House for 30 years or more. (After all, there's always Jeb to follow you.) I know you are qualified in your own right, and you've worked hard to get where you are, and you've been all about change since before Barack Obama was born, etc., etc. But don't you see that what you're trying to pull off is deeply un-American?

One of the disquieting aspects of this campaign is that the dynastic issue is only obliquely raised. You talk about your "experience" in the White House while Obama mocks it, and you both talk of change. You may think your opponents and the press have been rough on you, but I think for the most part you've gotten a pass. Yes, Obama and Edwards talk about moving forward and changing the ways of Washington, but they don't come out and say, "Hey, America -- do we really want to return to dynastic rule? Isn't that one of the main reasons we fought a revolution?"

Your problem, frankly, is that voters are saying that. (Okay, maybe not verbatim. But they feel it in their gut.) As much as this campaign may be about the possibility of electing the first woman or black president, it's also a referendum on whether we want to devalue the presidency, and make it, like plenty of lesser offices around the country, a family business. Your campaign's strategy of preemptively overwhelming opponents by seeming to be the inevitable choice, and your sense of entitlement, only magnify this sense that you see this as a dynastic restoration, not a democratic campaign.

I know what you're thinking: What about George W. Bush? Well, Anonymous in New Hampshire, to quote another president from another dynasty, life is unfair. In fact, Bush's election in 2000 makes it more difficult for you. Two members of the same family as the 41st and 43rd presidents can be deemed a quirk of history; make the 42nd and 44th presidents also related to each other, and it begins to look like the way of the system.

As for your immediate query: It's worth remembering that Bush was savvy by running in 2000 less as the familial heir to Bush than as the political heir to Reagan. I concede that your husband was a very successful president -- far more so than Bush the Elder -- but this talk of whether he should be out there campaigning is irrelevant. More than that, it's insulting to voters, because it's a tactical discussion that ignores the larger point: You are asking Americans to ratify the notion that the White House has become a royal domain, the preserve of dynasties.

And now for the good news: This isn't personal. It's not about whether people like you, or like Bill, or whether they find you competent. Get over all that. Instead, relish these final moments of your first -- and possibly last -- national campaign (and take comfort in the fact that you're still a powerful senator). Enjoy yourself. The next few weeks may be the farewell tour of the Clinton duo on the national stage. Make it a victory lap, not a sour-grapes extravaganza. Don't concede the race before you are ready, and you have every right to stay in at least through Super Tuesday. And by all means, take Bill on the road.

But stay positive about your Democratic opponents. Tell us about your qualifications. Engage in some nostalgia for the '90s -- the oncoming recession helps you. Bash Bush to your heart's content. And when the day comes for you to bow out, do so gracefully. People will applaud you. Let no one say that, when the time came, the Clintons had to be dragged kicking and screaming from the national stage.

[Editor's note: Just to reiterate, Hillary Clinton did not send in this question. She's a little busy today. But you're not too busy -- especially if you've made it this far! We need your advice questions. Send them here.]

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