The Billary Road to Republican Victory

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The New York Times

The Billary Road to Republican Victory

by
Frank Rich

In the wake of George W. Bush, even a miracle might not be enough for the Republicans to hold on to the White House in 2008. But what about two miracles? The new year's twin resurrections of Bill Clinton and John McCain, should they not evaporate, at last give the G.O.P. a highly plausible route to victory.

Amazingly, neither party seems to fully recognize the contours of the road map. In the Democrats' case, the full-throttle emergence of Billary, the joint Clinton candidacy, is measured mainly within the narrow confines of the short-term horse race: Do Bill Clinton's red-faced eruptions and fact-challenged rants enhance or diminish his wife as a woman and a candidate?

Absent from this debate is any sober recognition that a Hillary Clinton nomination, if it happens, will send the Democrats into the general election with a new and huge peril that may well dwarf the current wars over race, gender and who said what about Ronald Reagan.

What has gone unspoken is this: Up until this moment, Hillary has successfully deflected rough questions about Bill by saying, "I'm running on my own" or, as she snapped at Barack Obama in the last debate, "Well, I'm here; he's not." This sleight of hand became officially inoperative once her husband became a co-candidate, even to the point of taking over entirely when she vacated South Carolina last week. With "two for the price of one" back as the unabashed modus operandi, both Clintons are in play.

For the Republicans, that means not just a double dose of the one steroid, Clinton hatred, that might yet restore their party's unity but also two fat targets. Mrs. Clinton repeatedly talks of how she's been "vetted" and that "there are no surprises" left to be mined by her opponents. On the "Today" show Friday, she joked that the Republican attacks "are just so old." So far. Now that Mr. Clinton is ubiquitous, not only is his past back on the table but his post-presidency must be vetted as well. To get a taste of what surprises may be in store, you need merely revisit the Bill Clinton questions that Hillary Clinton has avoided to date.

Asked by Tim Russert at a September debate whether the Clinton presidential library and foundation would disclose the identities of its donors during the campaign, Mrs. Clinton said it wasn't up to her. "What's your recommendation?" Mr. Russert countered. Mrs. Clinton replied: "Well, I don't talk about my private conversations with my husband, but I'm sure he'd be happy to consider that."

Not so happy, as it turns out. The names still have not been made public.

Just before the holidays, investigative reporters at both The Washington Post and The New York Times tried to find out why, with no help from the Clintons. The Post uncovered a plethora of foreign contributors, led by Saudi Arabia. The Times found an overlap between library benefactors and Hillary Clinton campaign donors, some of whom might have an agenda with a new Clinton administration. (Much as one early library supporter, Marc Rich's ex-wife, Denise, had an agenda with the last one.) "The vast scale of these secret fund-raising operations presents enormous opportunities for abuse," said Representative Henry Waxman, the California Democrat whose legislation to force disclosure passed overwhelmingly in the House but remains stalled in the Senate.

The Post and Times reporters couldn't unlock all the secrets. The unanswered questions could keep them and their competitors busy until Nov. 4. Mr. Clinton's increased centrality to the campaign will also give The Wall Street Journal a greater news peg to continue its reportorial forays into the unraveling financial partnership between Mr. Clinton and the swashbuckling billionaire Ron Burkle.

At "Little Rock's Fort Knox," as the Clinton library has been nicknamed by frustrated researchers, it's not merely the heavy-hitting contributors who are under wraps. Even by the glacial processing standards of the National Archives, the Clintons' White House papers have emerged slowly, in part because Bill Clinton exercised his right to insist that all communications between him and his wife be "considered for withholding" until 2012.

When Mrs. Clinton was asked by Mr. Russert at an October debate if she would lift that restriction, she again escaped by passing the buck to her husband: "Well, that's not my decision to make." Well, if her candidacy is to be as completely vetted as she guarantees, the time for the other half of Billary to make that decision is here.

The credibility of a major Clinton campaign plank, health care, depends on it. In that same debate, Mrs. Clinton told Mr. Russert that "all of the records, as far as I know, about what we did with health care" are "already available." As Michael Isikoff of Newsweek reported weeks later, this is a bit off; he found that 3,022,030 health care documents were still held hostage. Whatever the pace of the processing, the gatekeeper charged with approving each document's release is the longtime Clinton loyalist Bruce Lindsey.

People don't change. Bill Clinton, having always lived on the edge, is back on the precipice. When he repeatedly complains that the press has given Mr. Obama a free ride and over-investigated the Clintons, he seems to be tempting the fates, given all the reporting still to be done on his post-presidential business. When he says, as he did on Monday, that "whatever I do should be totally transparent," it's almost as if he's setting himself up for a fall. There's little more transparency at "Little Rock's Fort Knox" than there is at Giuliani Partners.

"The Republicans are not going to have any compunctions about asking anybody anything," Mrs. Clinton lectured Mr. Obama. Maybe so, but Republicans are smart enough not to start asking until after she has secured the nomination.

Not all Republicans are smart enough, however, to recognize the value of John McCain should Mrs. Clinton emerge as the nominee. He's a bazooka aimed at most every rationale she's offered for her candidacy.

In a McCain vs. Billary race, the Democrats will sacrifice the most highly desired commodity by the entire electorate, change; the party will be mired in déjà 1990s all over again. Mrs. Clinton's spiel about being "tested" by her "35 years of experience" won't fly either. The moment she attempts it, Mr. McCain will run an ad about how he was being tested when those 35 years began, in 1973. It was that spring when he emerged from five-plus years of incarceration at the Hanoi Hilton while Billary was still bivouacked at Yale Law School. And can Mrs. Clinton presume to sell herself as best equipped to be commander in chief "on Day One" when opposing an actual commander and war hero? I don't think so.

Foreign policy issue No. 1, withdrawal from Iraq, should be a slam-dunk for any Democrat. Even the audience at Thursday's G.O.P. debate in Boca Raton cheered Ron Paul's antiwar sentiments. But Mrs. Clinton's case is undermined by her record. She voted for the war, just as Mr. McCain did, in 2002 and was still defending it in February 2005, when she announced from the Green Zone that much of Iraq was "functioning quite well. " Only in November 2005 did she express the serious misgivings long pervasive in her own party. When Mr. McCain accuses her of now advocating "surrender" out of political expediency, her flip-flopping will back him up.

Billary can't even run against the vast right-wing conspiracy if Mr. McCain is the opponent. Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay hate Mr. McCain as much as they hate the Clintons. And they hate him for the same reasons Mr. McCain wins over independents and occasional Democrats: his sporadic (and often mild) departures from conservative orthodoxy on immigration and campaign finance reform, torture, tax cuts, climate change and the godliness of Pat Robertson. Since Mr. McCain doesn't kick reporters like dogs, as the Clintons do, he will no doubt continue to enjoy an advantage, however unfair, with the press pack on the Straight Talk Express.

Even so, Mr. McCain hasn't yet won a clear majority of Republican voters in any G.O.P. contest. He's depended on the kindness of independent voters. Tuesday's Florida primary, which is open exclusively to Republicans, is his crucial test. If he fails, his party remains in chaos and Mitt Romney could still inherit the earth.

That would be a miracle for the Democrats, but they can hardly count on it. If Mr. Obama has not met an unexpected Waterloo in South Carolina - this column went to press before Saturday's vote - the party needs him to stop whining about the Clintons' attacks, regain his wit and return to playing offense. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, he would unambiguously represent change in a race with any Republican. If he vanquishes Billary, he'll have an even stronger argument to take into battle against a warrior like Mr. McCain.

If Mr. Obama doesn't fight, no one else will. Few national Democratic leaders have the courage to stand up to the Clintons. Even in defeat, Mr. Obama may at least help wake up a party slipping into denial. Any Democrat who seriously thinks that Bill will fade away if Hillary wins the nomination - let alone that the Clintons will escape being fully vetted - is a Democrat who, as the man said, believes in fairy tales.

Frank Rich is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

© 2008 The New York Times

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