Just a few months ago, the 2008 presidential contest seemed predetermined. The New York lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton were far ahead in their respective party polls. And in the one-on-one match-up, Sen. Clinton was all but declared the foreordained winner a year in advance.
But not now.
After Barack Obama’s unexpected surge in Iowa, Bill and Hillary Clinton resorted to chewing him up through their trademark politics of personal destruction. Thanks to Clinton Inc., we now hear almost daily that Obama is inspirational but inexperienced, that he had admitted to drug use, that his middle name is Hussein, that he really was not against the Iraq war, that he consorts with Chicago slumlords, that he spins fairy tales, and that he likes Ronald Reagan.
Hillary found her many voices and pulled out all the stops — screeching, accusing, and nearly crying — until finally Bill Clinton himself was unleashed.
Long gone was Bill’s carefully crafted veneer of ex-president as global humanitarian and bipartisan senior statesmen. Instead, the Bill of old lost his legendary temper at reporters. He shook his finger. He bent the truth. Always he distorted Obama’s record.
Then a funny thing happened. Hillary’s liberal audience jeered at the pro-wrestling tactics of the Clinton tag team. The Democratic referees warned the Clintons to stop the eye gouging. Liberal spectators were bewildered not so much at the familiar Clinton knee-in-the-groin, but that it would be turned on one of their own good guys — and a young, soft-spoken and idealistic African-American at that!
Suddenly, “shocked” Democrats cried foul and recalled the tawdry pardons and impeachment –the tainted Bubba of the 1990s, not the rehabilitated William Jefferson Clinton who helps tsunami victims and presides over the Clinton Global Initiative.
When the Clintons’ return to power crashed into liberal dogmas about race and gender, all sorts of unexpected ironies arose:
Bill, as our first “black” president, had encouraged identity politics among a collective black electorate, so why was he angry that African-Americans might vote collectively for Obama? And had any recent ex-president ever regressed to such nasty character assassination on the campaign trail? As a committed feminist, why was Hillary calling for a male bailout by outsourcing her dirty work to her husband? And whom were we now voting for — Hillary, Bill or some sort of Clinton centaur, her supposedly rational head and torso implanted on his frisky body and legs?
The result of all this has been that while Hillary still polls ahead of the surging Obama in most states, in hypothetical general-election polls she runs behind Republican frontrunner, Sen. John McCain.
End of story?
Hardly. In reaction to McCain’s own surge and the Republican windfall, the conservative base went ballistic. Soon a Republican civil war broke out over how best to lose the election.
Despite McCain’s 82-percent career ranking by the American Conservative Union, and his support for balanced budgets, an end to pork-barrel spending and earmarks, strong support for the war, and expressed regret over once supporting the Bush illegal immigration reform package, McCain was branded by the conservative media as a sellout and a near liberal. Not to mention that he was supposedly too old and hot-tempered to be the Republican nominee. The more McCain was discovered not to be a perfect conservative, the more he was accused of not even being a good one.
Even stranger, the various Republican candidates began invoking Ronald Reagan’s three-decade-old tenure as the new litmus test of the times — apparently to show how moderates like the wayward McCain fell far short of the Gipper’s true-blue conservatism.
Were conservatives supposed to forget that a maverick Reagan raised some taxes, signed an illegal-alien amnesty bill, expanded government, appointed centrist Supreme Court justices, advocated nuclear disarmament, sold arms to Iran, and pulled out of Lebanon — but to remember only that John McCain was not for the original Bush tax cuts or once supported the administration’s offer of a quasi-amnesty?
The Democratic cat-fighters are doing their best to give away a once-sure general election, but the Republicans seem to be doing even more to ensure that they forfeit the unexpected gift they’ve been given.
If Hillary Clinton does end up winning her party’s nomination, November’s vote may hinge on whether moderates and liberals are nauseated enough by the Clintons’ brawling and character assassination to cross over and vote for a decorated Republican war hero — that is, if his own flag-waving party doesn’t destroy him first.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.