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Clintonian triangulation comes full circle

The most enjoyable aspect of watching the HMS Hillary take on water is the prospect that Bill -- and his cult of personality -- will go down with the ship too.

Bill Clinton has been stumping for his wife on the Iowa hustings, framing the election as a referendum on his tenure as president. Last month in Muscatine (during the same speech in which he falsely claimed to have opposed the Iraq war from the beginning), he told the assembled Democrats that HMS Hillary could transport America "back to the future."

Last summer, when he first started hawking Hillary like a door-to-door salesman, he told a crowd: "I know, some people say, 'Look at them. They're old. They're sort of yesterday's news.' ... "Well," Slick Willie said, grinning, "yesterday's news was pretty good."

Indeed, Hillary's entire campaign has been grounded in her experience in the Clinton administration of the 1990s, even though that experience mostly involves designing a failed healthcare plan and unsuccessfully hectoring her husband to move to the left. Still, as New York Times editorial writer Adam Cohen noted in a column last week, it was her decision to make the choice between her and Obama a "referendum on a decade."

So if Hillary Clinton loses the race for the nomination -- heck, even if she just loses the Iowa caucuses -- I hope to see this headline somewhere, perhaps in the New York Post: "America to Clinton(s): We're Just Not That Into You."

The rush of schadenfreude would be so overwhelming, the entire Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy would have to hie itself to its fainting couch. For years now, the Clintons' defenders have claimed that the 1990s were halcyon days, thanks to the deft statesmanship of the Clintons. Much of the liberal establishment has become wedded to protecting the memory of the Clintons' stewardship. David Brock's progressive outfit, Media Matters for America, is a prime example. It should be renamed "Hillary Matters for America," given that it is less a media watchdog and more an attack dog for Clinton.

But schadenfreude doesn't really do justice to Hillary's potential downfall. Her career is indisputably a product of her marriage -- no one running on her experience as first lady could claim otherwise. But for most of her life, Hillary had an independent ideological identity that seems to have gone down the memory hole. In her own words, she championed a whole new "politics of meaning" and sought to redefine "who we are as human beings in this postmodern age."

But, bit by bit, she sliced off chunks of her soul. Hillary used to be the personification of hope for the left. On the welfare debate, she was supposed to be Bill's conscience. She was the Eleanor to his Franklin.

But now Hillary is the Democrats' establishment candidate, pitted against the true believer, John Edwards, and the idealist, Barack Obama. Even committed liberals tell focus groups she's too cold, too calculating.

And how did she get that way? She studied at the feet of the master. Bill Clinton cast himself as a champion of the "Third Way," a grandiose political phrase with disturbing intellectual roots. But for Bill, it mostly meant that he could split the difference between any two positions. Any hard choice was a "false choice." When asked how he'd have voted in 1990 on the Persian Gulf War, he said he agreed with the minority but would have voted with the majority. He smoked pot but didn't inhale. Monica Lewinsky had sex with him, but he could swear under oath he didn't have sex with her.

Bill can make those sorts of things work because he really believes them -- or at least he does as the words are coming out of his mouth. Hillary has nowhere near that sort of skill. She's learned the dance moves and she's memorized the lyrics, but she can't hear the music. That was evident in the now-infamous Oct. 30 debate performance during which she said she was both for and against driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and for and against pulling troops out of Iraq.

In this race, she's tried to be hawk and dove, idealist and pragmatist, martyr and hero. But unlike her husband -- a jazz impresario of people-pleasing prevarication -- she's a terrible liar. She comes across calculated because that's all that's left to her: calculation. Jesse Jackson once famously said that Bill Clinton had no core beliefs, he was simply "appetite" all the way down. That appetite seems to have become community property in the Clinton household, such as it is.

Obama is surging because Democrats want idealism and hope. Hillary has jettisoned her idealism, and she's filed down her hope to mere yearning.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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