You know the Clinton campaign is having trouble when it sends the former President to the UW-Madison campus to scold students for being enthusiastic about Obama.
The narrative of the Democratic primary campaign, Clinton told a crowd at the UW stock pavilion on Valentine's Day, is, "Don't you want a new beginning?" The press and the Obama campaign, he implied, are acting as if "there's really no difference between
the 1990s and 2000."
Sounding rather petulant, he summed up Obama's supporters' thinking as, "We have to be exciting and new. You can't have been involved in the struggle before now." Well, fine, go vote for the new and exciting candidate then, the Clinton campaign seems to be saying, we'll just take our marbles and go home.
Looking at the campaign schedule, journalists have concluded that Clinton has given up on Wisconsin. The campaign has made some odd choices as it tries to regroup from its loss of "inevitability" in the primaries. In Wisconsin, which votes next Tuesday, the campaign has sent Chelsea and Bill, while Hillary concentrates on far-away Texas. But now here comes Hillary in the last two days before the vote, to stump in Wisconsin after all. The polls showed her up in Wisconsin until very recently. Then Obama swept the Potomac primaries, held a massive rally at the UW Kohl Center in Madison, and surged ahead by eleven points.
Bill's Valentine's Day appearance at the Ag school barn did nothing to improve the situation. While Obama packed the indoor athletic arena and gave a stem-winder that drew an outpouring from the crowd, Bill stood in a livestock pavilion redolent of manure and gave a rambling, downer of a speech that veered into finger wagging ("You're the boss. You get to decide. But don't be blind to the decision you're making”) and a series of dull policy explications that seemed to bore even him ("I can't remember what I was going to say").
He listed Hillary's accomplishments--from her early days in "a very small-bucks job" at the Children's Defense Fund, where she coauthored a report that Clinton said became the basis for the Children With Disabilities Act, to her work in the Senate on the Children's Health Insurance Program, to winning over Republicans in upstate New York with her nose-to-the-grindstone constituent service as Senator. Message: She's experienced, tested, and knows how to work with the other side.
"You are entitled to say none of that matters," Clinton told the crowd. "But I've been there and it does."
Clinton segued randomly from the details of the health care crisis to small-bore economic facts ("23 million Americans have no bank account) to grand themes couched as asides: "One more thing about the world . . . she wants to bring our soldiers home from Iraq." The crowd, including a group of AFSCME sign-wavers standing behind the podium against two large American flags, lunged for any applause lines. But they were few and far between.
Perhaps in an effort to avoid outshining the candidate herself, Clinton seemed to deliberately downplay himself (on McCain's statement that the U.S. may stay in Iraq for 100 years: "I think he's wrong, and she REALLY thinks he's wrong"). But mainly he seemed not to be trying very hard. The police outside the stock pavilion said it was full, but inside there were many open seats. And despite being billed as a student rally, there were as many middle-aged as young voters visible.
Clinton's visit reminded me of the deployment to the People's Republic of Madison of Barney Frank back in 2000, who came to tell progressives not to vote for Ralph Nader, and stick with Al Gore. The argument then was that Gore might not be exciting, but we needed him to win the election.
There is a similar tension in 2008 between the sensible, establishment candidate and the one who is packing auditoriums with enthusiastic supporters on college campuses. But this time it's not a third party insurgent who's stirring up students. One of Obama's strongest arguments is that he has a better chance to win the White House.
Bill's appearance in the cow pavilion did nothing to refute that.