A Nomination to be Earned


I'll tell you what I liked about Hillary Clinton, and liked a lot, back in 1999, when she started her first Senate campaign. She worked really hard because she knew she had to work really hard. If she was going to persuade New Yorkers to accept an out-of-stater as their senator; if she was going to learn about how federal policy played out, in all its complexity, in the city, suburbs, and upstate regions; if she was going to hack her way through the obstacle course placed before her by a crazed right wing and a frenzied media -- her answer to all those challenges was hard work. Showing up, repeatedly. Being accessible to voters. Acknowledging, as she did at her maiden appearance at Pat Moynihan's farm in July 1999, that she had a lot to learn, and then learning it.

She was, in a word, humble. When she finally won, most of the experts ignored the evidence of how she'd won and immediately began predicting that she'd be an arrogant senator, using her celebrity and Secret Service detail to remind her 99 colleagues of their fundamental inferiority.

I was virtually alone, if you'll permit me a little toot of my own horn, in predicting the opposite, which turned out to be the case. She was humble again, and a real worker. She certainly did not show the leadership on Iraq that one would have liked, and that flag-burning business … well, it was what it was. But she was, by the standard, non-ideological measures, an excellent senator -- it's hard to argue with the drubbing she handed a nobody opponent (the fact that the New York GOP couldn't persuade any A-listers to take her on spoke volumes) when she sought reelection.

So given all this, what is it about Clinton's nascent presidential campaign that I'm not so crazy about? Oh, she's still working hard -- discipline is her strong suit. But there's a disturbing air of entitlement about the campaign, a quasi-monarchical assumption that the nomination is her right and that for anyone else to presume that he could or should wrest the nomination from her is almost an act of partisan apostasy.

This attitude came through in the Clinton camp's high-handed attempt to make Barack Obama knuckle under in the David Geffen dust-up. The idea that Obama should have had to apologize for words spoken by Geffen was preposterous. David Geffen is a national figure in his own right, and Obama bore no responsibility whatsoever for his words. Howard Wolfson, the normally very nimble press aide, badly overplayed his hand by going on television and calling Geffen an Obama "finance chairman." Obama won the Geffen fight, and he won it because of the Clinton camp's arrogance.

It also comes through in certain press reports. Yes, I know not to believe everything I read about the Clintons. But my Clinton b.s. detector is rather refined after all these years, and Patrick Healy's Times piece for March 31, about how heavily Bill Clinton was leaning on donors to choose Hillary over Obama, rang pretty true. The article referred only to comparisons the former president was making between his wife and Obama on Iraq. But two donors were quoted (on one the record and one on background) as being surprised at the intensity of the Clintons' anti-Obama tactics. One considered the pressure "vulgar," and the other said the Clintons were clearly shocked that they were having to work this hard.

Now that we know Obama raised $25 million in the first quarter, nearly matching her dollar-for-dollar and almost certainly out-raising her in primary dollars, the question for the Clinton folks is simple: Are they going to act like this is some sort of effrontery, or are they going to realize that we live in a democracy and this is just how things go sometimes?

I understand, in a way; if I were an intense Clinton partisan, I might well be incredulous that this upstart with so little experience would think he could make a better case for leadership than a woman who is, as one friend smartly put it to me the other night, "freakishly qualified" to be president. I might also be quasi-apoplectic at the idea that my candidate's claim on history, to be the first woman president, had now been overtaken in the minds of most people by Obama's claim, to be the first black president.

But I'm not an intense Clinton partisan. I'm not, either, an intense Obama partisan. His rhetorical posture meshes with my whole common-good thing, and I think the lack-of-experience argument is bogus. But he doesn't walk on water and he still has much to prove. John Edwards and perhaps even others -- notably Bill Richardson, but others too -- will have something to say about who wins the nomination before it's all over.

The Hillary Clinton of 1999 and 2000 won New Yorkers over, despite the very deep misgivings of many, because, for all her celebrity and money, she never, ever assumed that the Senate seat was hers by right. That Hillary needs to rematerialize. There's a reason people don't cheer for overdogs.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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