Saturday, September 29, 2007

MAUREEN DOWD: The Nepotism Tango



Maybe it’s fitting that a woman who first sashayed into the national consciousness with an equation — “two for the price of one” — may have her fate determined by the arithmetic of dynasty.

The town is divided into two camps: those who think that, after 16 years of Hillary pushing herself forward, the public will get worn out and reject her, and those who think that, after 16 years of Hillary pushing herself forward, the public will get worn down and give in to her.

In his new book, “The Evangelical President,” Bill Sammon interviewed President Bush and his senior aides about the ’08 election. Mr. Bush told the author that Hillary Clinton would beat Barack Obama, because she is “a formidable candidate” and better known — the better to raise money.

Despite all he has done to help Democrats, W. maintains that Republicans can hold the White House. But just in case the Clinton dynasty once more succeeds the Bush one, the Texas president has been sending the New York senator messages to “maintain some political wiggle room in your campaign rhetoric about Iraq,” as Mr. Sammon puts it.

Whoever gets the White House, W. contends, faced with the prospect of a vicious Middle East vacuum, will “begin to understand the need to continue to support the young democracy.”

(As Dana Perino noted on Friday, on a different topic, “The president does not have second thoughts.”)

Some of W.’s advisers were more cutting about Hillary in the Sammon book.

“This process is not going to serve her well,” one said, adding: “She’s going to be essentially saying, ‘Elect me president after I’ve spent the last 16 years in your face. And you didn’t like me much when I was there last. Give me eight more years so I can be a presence in your life for 24 years.’”

Others do not underestimate her relentlessness. As Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, once told me: “She’s never going to get out of our faces. ... She’s like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won’t stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone.”

That’s why Hillary is laughing a lot now, big belly laughs, in response to tough questions or comments, to soften her image as she confidently knocks her male opponents out of the way. From nag to wag.

An earlier generation had the entwined political dynasties of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. Now, as Nancy Benac of The Associated Press wrote on Friday, 116 million Americans — nearly 40 percent of the nation — “have never lived when there wasn’t a Bush or a Clinton in the White House.”

The Clintons try and bat back the dynasty issue by presenting themselves as a meritocracy.

On Friday, Hillary pushed a level-playing-field theme when she proposed giving every baby born in America a $5,000 governmental “baby bond” that would blossom into college tuition or home down payments.

When asked by Tim Russert at the New Hampshire debate about the d-word, as Poppy Bush calls it, Hillary replied: “I’m running on my own. I’m going to the people on my own.”

Without nepotism, Hillary would be running for the president of Vassar. But then, without nepotism, W. would be pumping gas in Midland — and not out of the ground.

At the debate, Joe Biden took a rare poke at the former first lady and pointed out that all the “old stuff” might get in the way of passing legislation. “The special interests, with regard to Hillary,” he said, “they feed on this, you know, this Clinton-Bush thing.”

Obama, tiptoeing gingerly around Hillary, as usual, skittered away from a Russert query about whether his campaign theme of “turning the page” was a reference to the Bushes or the Clintons.

Conceding to Charlie Gibson last week that “dynasties are not good for America,” Bill said: “If you go out and you fight fair, and you win it on your own, that’s not a dynasty. ... You’re not going out to vote for me for a third term.”

Of course, Hillary is never on her own. From the beginning, her campaign has relied on her husband’s donors, network, strategies and strong-arming.

GQ killed a 7,000-word article about infighting in Hillaryland after Bill Clinton’s aide told the magazine that running the piece might imperil access to Bill. The incident, as Howie Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post, reflected pressure tactics that “may be practiced with unprecedented aggressiveness by the tightly controlled Clinton media operation.”

On Friday, Bill gave an interview to Al Hunt dissing Obama’s experience level — a brazen assist to his wife.

We can only hope that Laura Bush’s comments on the crisis in Burma don’t signal a sudden interest in politics. President Laura following President Hillary would be too much, especially with W. back as the second First Laddie.

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