What's Next for (Bill) Clinton and the Anti-Obama Attack Machine?

| Sat Jan. 26, 2008 9:28 PM EST

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is an interesting race." So said former President Bill at a campaign rally in Independence, Missouri, on Saturday night, while Barack Obama was cleaning his wife's clock in South Carolina. Well, Bill Clinton has done his best to make the contest more interesting—and more down-and-dirty. Campaigning in South Carolina, he drew Barack Obama into a mudwrestle and sucked up plenty of oxygen. Though Clinton failed to stop a much-anticipated Obama win in the Palmetto State—and might have even pushed voters toward Obama—he certainly helped shaped the race to his wife's benefit. Obama has been campaigning as an unconventional and inspirational leader against a conventional and divisive politician. Yet the ex-president managed to turn the contest into a face-off between two acrimonious camps, which undermines Obama's preferred narrative: a transformational candidate versus a Washington rerun. And today—before the vote-counting began—Clinton compared Obama to Jesse Jackson. It was tough not to read Clinton's remark as an attempt to dismiss Obama as the black candidate who cannot win.

Clinton's hit-man role has peeved some Democrats. Two days ago, Robert Reich, who was Clinton's labor secretary, blogged that "Bill Clinton's ill-tempered and ill-founded attacks on Barack Obama are doing no credit to the former President, his legacy, or his wife's campaign." But should the Clintons care if they lose Reich but gain the nomination?

Short answer: no. But there will be recriminations. Clinton's South Carolina rampage will not be forgotten by Democrats and liberals. And it remains to be seen if B. Clinton will continue his anti-Obama crusade in the coming days, as Supersaturated Tuesday approaches. The day before South Carolina Democrats voted for Obama over Clinton by a two-to-one margin, I asked a senior Clinton campaign aide if the campaign had any reservations about Bill Clinton's actions in South Carolina. This aide looked pained. "He cannot be controlled," s/he said. I remarked that it looked as if Clinton had been deployed in a strategic manner. "Not for some of us," the aide said. But the campaign could have decided not to send him to South Carolina, I noted. "Yeah, Mr. President, we have some important campaign rallies for you to attend in Alaska," the aide replied—sarcastically.

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Can it be that Bill Clinton is a rogue operative? I doubt it. He still has to answer to his wife, and she has an influential role in the campaign. But it might be that within the Clinton campaign there are those who will do much to win and those who will do whatever it takes to win. Hillary Clinton often decries the Republican attack machine (and sells herself as a candidate tough enough to survive its blasts). But she has an attack machine of her own. And it has cooked up some rather audacious if not bogus charges against Obama—including, most recently, the accusation that Obama is soft on Ronald Reagan.

In a triumphant victory speech on Saturday night—one of his best adressess—Obama lashed back:

We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as President comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House. But we know that real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose—a higher purpose.

We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner; it's the kind of partisanship where you're not even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea—even if it's one you never agreed with. That kind of politics is bad for our party, it's bad for our country, and this is our chance to end it once and for all.

But will "that kind of politics" cease? Will the Clinton camp ratchet down after South Carolina? Will the leash on the Big Dawg be tightened? Not if the Clinton crew (at the top) view South Carolina as a battlefield loss but a strategic success in their effort to de-Obama Obama.