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Why They’re Both Running Against Bill

5 minute read
Joe Klein

Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will make their presidential intentions known in the next few weeks. They’re probably running–but with greater reservations than you might imagine. These are serious, judicious people; neither has the untrammeled ego that enables some politicians to see past their own limitations. Obama knows he is inexperienced, and he knows that every wave eventually crashes–and that he’ll need a second, more substantive act when, after his umpteenth visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, he is no longer a novelty. He has never experienced a tight, tooth-and-claw political marathon where even the tiniest of decisions, the smallest of slips, can have profound consequences. And he knows that Clinton has. The junior Senator from New York has spent much of her career trying to stay sane in the midst of a political tornado. And now, having finally achieved a measure of happiness and respect in the Senate, she faces the prospect of jumping into the tornado again, knowing that she won’t merely be opposed but also ridiculed and reviled.

So we have two leading Democrats who are as vulnerable as they are formidable. And while much has been made of the fact that Obama and Clinton face the challenge of being potential presidential firsts–African American and woman–I suspect neither Senator worries overmuch about those innate hurdles. Both have a more immediate and intimidating problem: each will spend the next year running against the most formidable living Democratic politician, Bill Clinton.

Obama is doing it literally, running against the Clinton machine, which presents a multitude of problems. There is, first of all, the loyalty and affection that the Democratic fund-raising community has for the former President. This is truer in New York than in Hollywood; on Wall Street, especially, there are fond memories of Clintonism’s fiscal discipline and global sophistication. “You hear a lot of, ‘We’ve got to do this for Bill,'” says a prominent Democratic fund raiser. “Everyone respects Hillary, of course, although most people I talk to are hoping she’ll decide not to run. But when Bill Clinton calls and asks for a commitment, it’s impossible to say no. People are interested in Obama. They’ll write him a check. But most of the old Clinton crowd won’t have parties or make phone calls for him. For now, at least.”

Obama will also be running against the best political strategist in the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton will be able to help his wife in three crucial areas: the framing of issues, timing the dramatic arc of the campaign and damage control. Clinton is the world’s best focus group: he has an innate sense of what average folks think is important and how to explain complicated things in the most accessible way. He also understands the weird chronology of presidential politics, the patience needed to last through interminable house parties and candidate forums, the fierce compression of time that will take place a year from now when Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina spin through their elections in a matter of weeks. “But his greatest strength is playing hurt,” says James Carville. “You just can’t go through one of these things without making mistakes, and there is no politician I know who has handled tough times better.” His ability to think clearly–to actually think better–under pressure will be an enormous boon to her campaign.

He will also be a terrific spokesman for her cause, but that is a double-edged sword–and this is how Hillary Clinton will also be running, metaphorically, against her husband. She will never have his performance skills, an especially daunting deficit because the presidency is the office where the ability to lead and inspire is part of the job description. No one doubts Hillary Clinton’s substance; even potential Republican opponents like Newt Gingrich and John McCain have praised her ability to understand tough issues and find the best answers. But if being smart about policy were the most important quality in a President, Al Gore would now be completing a successful second term.

Clinton has two performance-related problems that will be difficult to overcome. She is not a very good speaker, especially in big rooms where the need to emote exposes a harshness in her voice. A more serious problem is also her greatest source of strength: she is prohibitively rational, unclouded by undue emotionality. She doesn’t get misty and bite her lip in public. She doesn’t feel your pain; she understands it. Rationality breeds caution, and caution breeds a lack of spontaneity, which can make her seem cold and calculating. And even if her husband puts his charisma in storage for the campaign, Clinton will be running against a politician, in Barack Obama, who has a public ease and eloquence unmatched by any candidate since … well, Bill Clinton. To win the future, Hillary Clinton will have to defeat her own past. Because, just like the Clinton who won in 1992, Obama will represent a new generation of leadership, a freshness that Senator Clinton will not be able to claim. She will have to hope that experience trumps charisma, which isn’t often a winning hand in American politics.

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