So far in the campaign, Barack Obama has generally refrained from going after the most critical weakness of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy: the fact that the Clinton whom Democrats really like is Bill, while Hillary, who now presents herself as the voice of experience, got most of that experience as First Lady, first of Arkansas, then of the United States. Until now, no one has ever suggested that being married to a former President constituted a qualification for the office.
Today, Obama took the gloves off. He attacked Hillary’s support for NAFTA, and Hillary responded by trying to distance herself from her husband’s policy during the 1990s. Obama finally called Hillary on the fundamental contradiction of her candidacy:
Sen. Barack Obama said today Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton presents herself as if she was “co-president” from 1993 to 2000.
Mr. Obama, holding a town hall forum at a wall board manufacturing plant here, said his criticism of her position on the North American Free Trade Agreement is fair because she includes her time as first lady for eight years as part of her claim to “35 years of experience.”
“She has essentially presented herself as co-president during the Clinton years,” the Illinois senator charged during a press conference after the town hall concluded. “Every good thing that happened she says she was a part of, and so the notion that you can selectively pick what you take credit for and then run away from what isn’t politically convenient, that doesn’t make sense.”
That’s exactly right. Hillary’s candidacy has always relied largely, but usually implicitly, on claiming credit for her husband’s presidency. Her campaign’s response to Obama admitted, however, that she can’t make her claim to a “co-presidency” explicit:
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson responded to the co-president remark on a conference call later: “I don’t accept that charge.”
“There’s no question that Senator Clinton … was a key and valued adviser to her husband [and] took the lead in several significant areas,” he said, but, “that [co-president] is not a title that Senator Clinton or her husband would accept as valid.”
Which, really, pleads guilty to Obama’s charge: that Hillary selectively takes credit for whatever aspects of her husband’s presidency are now politically helpful, on the theory that she wasn’t “just” a First Lady, but rather a “key and valued adviser.”
The Clintons were never really able to solve the central dilemma of their campaign: who is the candidate here, Bill or Hillary? It’s true, as Mark Steyn says, that Hillary represents the Clintons with their pants on. In another sense, though, when she talks about her experience, she is the empress who isn’t wearing any clothes. Obama’s willingness to point this out, however gently, is another nail in Hillary’s coffin.
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