The Second Clinton Ascendancy

BY Laura S. Washington

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Impeachment is a tantalizing prospect for some, but I am salivating at the prospect of the Democrats reclaiming the middle.

On a post-election edition of PBS’s “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” presidential historian Richard Norton Smith told Lehrer: “The Democrats clearly have an opportunity to demonstrate that they’re the Bill Clinton party. You know, historically, I think the real winner this week is Bill Clinton.”

Smith, a scholar in residence at George Mason University, argued that in recent years “we saw the Democrats veer off” to the wilderness of the left, much to the delight of the Bushies. But the 2006 election sweep, according to Smith, gives the Democrats “an opportunity, particularly with a new crop of moderate and relative conservatives, to reclaim plausibly the middle of the road. And if they succeed at that, I’m telling you, Bill Clinton looks like a prophet with honor.”

Got it. When I noted Smith’s point to my leftie friends, they all had to agree, though grudgingly.

So let’s acknowledge this Second Clinton Ascendancy, and move on.

Next: What does this move to the middle mean for Hill and Bill? In 2008, will it translate into a Hillary victory or a Clinton calamity? I surmise it will be a little bit of both. A nomination, but no coronation.

Speaking of coronations, Clinton faces the little problem of the “skinny guy with the funny name.” In 2004, Barack Obama was a lowly state legislator from the South Side of Chicago. In 2008 the freshman U.S. Senator has a good shot at becoming the first black president of the United States. The tea leaves are overwhelming me with their predictions. There is no doubt that he is going to make his presidential bid official in the next few months. No surprises here, but look for his top political guru, David Axelrod, to orchestrate a Wagnerian drama.

One troubling tea leaf for Obama could be the loss of another black rising star. In his run for one of Tennessee’s senate seats, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis was defeated, by 51 percent to 48 percent, by former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. Ford was vying to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.

Ford’s loss might indicate that he fell victim to the sentiments of Southern whites who still can’t stomach an African American in high office. That’s bad news, the logic goes, for a black candidate who needs some Southern states to win the White House. Indeed, an election exit poll by the Associated Press found that 40 percent of white voters in Tennessee voted for Ford, compared with 95 percent of the state’s black voters.

But another culprit may be afoot here. Ford ran well to the right of his party. He carved out conservative positions on abortion, immigration and Iraq. He even voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. He catered to the holy rollers. Tennessee pundits and activists called Ford a phony. That might have been a key factor in his narrow defeat.

Obama could be headed in the same direction. He is also shifting to the right. Listen beneath the barrage of adoring arias in the national media and you’ll detect grumblings from the Democratic left. They are infuriated by some of the centrist stances he’s taken. For example, they say, he is ducking support of gay marriage in favor of civil unions. And earlier this year he voted for the federal Secure Fence Act of 2006, which will create a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Still, I predict that by 2008, the whiners will be vanquished. Obama is in the right place on what will be the signature issue of the 2008 presidential contest–the war in Iraq. On that, there is a clear choice between him and the Democratic Party’s other leading light. Even before the Iraq debacle began in 2003, Obama was a staunch opponent. Meanwhile, Clinton continues to backpedal on her 2002 vote for the war.

In the meantime, watch out, Washington. Look for the state of Illinois, particularly Chicago, to dominate the seats of power. Obama is just one of a wide and deep pack of clout-heavy characters from the Prairie State.

Take Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who headed the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee. The Deaniacs may caterwaul, but I give Emanuel full and unconditional credit for the 2006 Democratic “thumping.” This Israeli ballet dancer-turned-White-House-operative is expected to snare the chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus.

Joining him is Sen. Dick Durbin, who becomes the Number 2 Senate leader. Jan Schakowsky, Jesse Jackson Jr., and Luis Gutierrez are also in line for leadership slots in the U.S. House. The Land of Lincoln is about to become the Home of the Heavies.

They all face a key challenge. They must resist using their newfound clout to exact partisan revenge. Impeachment is a tantalizing prospect for some, but I am salivating at the prospect of the Democrats reclaiming the middle, and letting the Bushies swing, ever so slowly, in the wind.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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