Howard Fineman says the attention garnered by Hillary Clinton’s new book is not good for the Democrats:

White House political guru Karl Rove couldn’t have planned it any better. Just as the Democrats and their candidates are gearing up for the 2004 campaign (their first “straw poll†is next week in Wisconsin), along comes the Clintons to steal the spotlight and send the party plunging back into an era of chaos and recrimination everyone (except Republican operatives) would just as soon forget.

Of course, there are positive things about the Clinton Years that Democrats want to brag about: 20 million new jobs, record run-ups in the stock markets, rapidly dwindling federal deficits and nearly a decade of entrepreneurial innovation. Al Gore̢۪s failure to run on that record is one of the reasons why he lost in 2000.

But rehashing the impeachment era isn’t a net winner for the Democrats, however much many (including many in the media) now regret the political harshness of that time. There are two prerequisites for the Democratic candidate in 2004: in the post 9-11 world, he or she needs to be “strong†on defense; and in the post-Lewinsky world, he or she needs to seem personally mature. Yes, it’s true that voters don’t judge a political party based on the personal lives of its leaders. But why risk antagonizing voters if you don’t have to?

Fineman’s point is valid, although overstated. I’d be truly surprised if anyone is still talking about Hillary’s book a week from now, let alone months.

The second half of the article is more telling, in my view:

Once upon a time—until only a few decades ago—the tradition was for presidents and their kin to go quietly into the good night, speaking softly and only when spoken to, writing memoirs after a decent interval and enveloping their words in a haze of impersonal historicity. They rarely if ever criticized the policies of their successors and never put their own dirty laundry out in bookstores. Even the saltiest of old dogs, Harry Truman, more or less bit his tongue until he let loose in Merle Miller’s “Plain Speakingâ€Ã¢€”20 years out of office.

But the Clintons are not only front and center, they are in our face and will be until we (and they) cease breathing. Why? Well, one reason is the kind of society we inhabit, a society that the Clintons embody as much as anyone. Reticence, patience, good grace, all such qualities seem unthinkable. It̢۪s a Cash-In world, the more embarrassing the turpitude the better for paddling up Amazon.

Like every other superstar with something to confess, the Clintons know that their “inside story†is a perishable commodity. The dish has to be served hot. Their saga would be worth even less if a Democrat manages to win the White House next year.

Did the Clintons consider that “telling all†now—in the lead up to the ’04 election—might damage the Democrats’ chances? Maybe. Did they care? I doubt it. And certainly not after they considered that $16 million in advances was at stake.

Hillary has another reason to make a big splash now: to get “it†out of the way before she runs for president. She needs to be as blunt and candid as possible about her relationship with Bill to render the topic a boring nonstory by the time she announces her candidacy. Could that be this fall? I seriously doubt it. But you never say never in politics, especially where the Clintons are concerned.

While I dismiss a “Hillary in 2004” candidacy as silliness, I find the rest quite compelling.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kelli says:

    I’m gonna go out on a limb here and predict that the book will flop. Do you know anyone salivating to buy and/or read it? I plan to give a wide berth.

    But on the subject of Dems imploding, care to comment on the double whammy in today’s Wapo re. the open warfare between power centers in the left wing of the party, and between left and center? Makes me wish the Greens had actually managed to establish themselves as a permanent whacko fringe party, thus drawing off some of the more debilitating humors from the Dems. Now the Dems are just a dumping ground of has beens who are NOT Republicans. This is depressing. Hillary’s book is only drawing attention because a) it reminds Dems of the good old days when they were in power fighting the OTHER PARTY, not each other and b) it’s more amusing than the cat fights and hissy fits currrently center stage.

    But mark my words, whichever publisher forked over all those millions to Hillary will be begging the forgiveness of its shareholders within a year.

  2. Xrlq says:

    I’ve heard some argue that Hillary actually wants the Dems to do badly – or at least not too well – in 2004. The theory is that she knows she won’t be viable in 2004, but thinks she may have a shot at an open seat in 2008.