by Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker, September 10, 2012
The Clinton circle blames Obama’s decision to go negative for the subsequent nastiness of the 2008 Democratic primaries. Bill Clinton fumed that the press failed to call out Obama for running on a message of hope and change while attacking Hillary as untrustworthy. In New Hampshire, on January 7th, he made his most famous remarks of the race, calling Obama’s record on Iraq “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen!” He added, “The idea that one of these campaigns is positive and the other is negative, when I know the reverse is true and I have seen it and I have been blistered by it for months, is a little tough to take.” Clinton urged Hillary’s campaign to fire back, and, when it wouldn’t, at least to his satisfaction, he did so on his own.
The result was an internecine war that the two men have struggled to overcome. In South Carolina, Obama’s campaign suggested that Clinton’s “fairy tale” comment had racial overtones. (It was read as a subtle rejection of the idea that an African-American could become President.) A few days later, in Nevada, Obama compared Bill Clinton unfavorably to Ronald Reagan. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he said. No doubt the rhetoric was partly strategic. Every Presidential candidate must distinguish himself from his party’s previous President, especially if the predecessor’s spouse is an opposing candidate. But Clinton “didn’t see it as a tactic,” Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write in “Game Change,” their account of the 2008 race. “He thought that Obama might actually believe that Reagan’s tenure had been superior to his own.”
Bill Clinton’s attacks hurt Hillary as much as they did Obama. The Times denounced Clinton’s fairy-tale comment as a “bizarre and rambling attack” and as exemplifying a campaign that was “perilously close to injecting racial tension” into the conversation. At a press conference in South Carolina the morning after Obama won the state, Bill Clinton seemed to dismiss the victory as a fluke of local demography. “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88,” he said. “Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” Tim Russert told me that, according to his sources, Bill Clinton, in an effort to secure an endorsement for Hillary from Ted Kennedy, said to Kennedy, “A few years ago, this guy would have been carrying our bags.” Clinton’s role in the campaign rattled Obama. He told ABC News in an interview that Clinton “has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling.”