Will the Party of Clinton ever become the Party of Obama?

It has now been more than two months since Barack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, yet here we are, still fascinated with Bill and Hillary Clinton and what they’re up to. Why?

The latest round of Clinton mania was precipitated by Joshua Green’s article in The Atlantic on a Clinton campaign riven by unresolved factional disputes, as well as the online publication of a trove of internal memos portraying a staff in strategic and tactical gridlock.

The notion of the Clinton campaign as a Jets-and-Sharks knife fight is hardly new. Members of the campaign’s high command were leaking so furiously against each other that Clinton loyalist and lawyer Robert Barnett was moved to write an early March memo (unearthed by Green) declaring: “STOP IT!!!! … This makes me sick. This circular firing squad that is occurring is unattractive, unprofessional, unconscionable, and unacceptable.”

Still, it’s always entertaining to learn so quickly after the fact who said what to whom in the middle of a fierce campaign, and the memos suggest why Obama is having difficulty in moving the Clintons gently offstage and seizing control of a party whose nomination he won fair and square.

The memos make clear that once Clinton lost her standing as the inevitable nominee, her strategy was based in part on delegitimizing Obama’s victories. Because the Clinton campaign failed to anticipate the importance of delegates elected through caucuses rather than primaries, her operatives regularly argued that Obama’s caucus triumphs lacked the same weight as her primary victories.

Because Obama overwhelmed Clinton in many staunchly Republican states, he was said not to be the choice of real Democrats and swing voters in states such as New York and California, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Some of the memos suggested, without quite saying so, that Clinton’s voters were more inherently virtuous than Obama’s. After all, she was the candidate of the constituency her pollster Mark Penn labeled the “Invisible Americans,” the descendants of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” The white working class, especially less well-to-do women, was with Clinton. Obama had the well-educated voters, that crowd Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew saw as “effete,” and, of course, African-Americans who would have been part of Clinton’s base against any rival except Obama.

And there is that Penn memo that speaks of Obama’s “lack of American roots.” Clinton thankfully declined to take up this idea, but John McCain’s ads are now subtly toying with it.

The more Obama’s victories were cast as less than real, the more passionate Clinton’s own supporters became about the injustice of her defeat. A minority of her supporters threaten trouble at the Denver convention unless Obama gives her a roll-call vote in which never-say-die Clintonites could express their loyalty one last time.

Obama has already given the Clinton forces a night for Hillary and part of a night for Bill. In truth, he has little choice in a nearly 50-50 party, but the Obama people have to be frustrated with the Clintonites for not recognizing how far he is going to give them their due.

Yet some of the Clinton folks still think that Obama has not been respectful enough of the Clintons and their historical contributions. Bill Clinton is clearly put out. This perceptive politician has to be more aware than anyone of the mistakes he and his wife’s campaign made. That makes the whole thing harder, for him and for Obama.

All this leads you to wonder who will write the new memo that would begin with the words: “STOP IT!” Both Hillary Clinton and Obama have a lot to lose if the spirit of the rest of the memos affects her thinking now.

If bad blood between the Clinton and Obama camps persists, it’s highly unlikely that an Obama defeat this fall would lead inexorably to a Clinton nomination the next time. Obama’s shrewd announcement Wednesday of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner as the convention keynote speaker has a bearing on this. It not only gives a central role to a moderate Democrat from a swing state, it also points to a future that transcends the Clinton-Obama feud.

Clinton must know that she could have won the Democratic nomination with a more coherent strategy. And her own campaigning for Obama suggests she understands that the actual nominee should not have to inherit her campaign’s circular firing squads. Much depends upon whether she can now persuade her followers to grant Obama’s nomination a legitimacy that her own campaign worked so hard to deny him.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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