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The Hill-Bill Show

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The reason Clinton doesn’t want that is simple: A full roll-call vote would be widely, and correctly, interpreted as serving no other purpose than to embarrass Obama. And that, in turn, would be used by her critics to blame her if Obama loses in November. For WJC, the rage he feels over the tarnishing of his legacy on matters racial has at times overridden the partisan imperative to play nice with Obama, so the question of how stirringly eloquent he will be in Denver on the nominee's behalf is tantalizingly open. (“He certainly has the capacity, and hopefully he will,” says the old Clinton hand. “There’s nothing in the past nine or ten months that would give you a lot of confidence, but I think he will; there’s a lot at stake here.”) For HRC, however, who plainly intends to run again in 2012 should Obama fall, reducing the extent to which she’s held culpable is a paramount priority. Thus will her speech on Tuesday night be every bit as steadfastly supportive as her endorsement speech was in June. And thus will she stump for him this fall tirelessly, flawlessly, uncomplainingly—albeit insincerely.

By insincerely, I don’t precisely mean that Clinton is rooting for Obama to lose. The truth, say those who know her best, is that she is profoundly ambivalent about her erstwhile rival. “I’m sure there are days when she wakes up and says, We’ve got to have a Democratic president,” reports one friend. “But there are times when she wants nothing more than to be proven right.” Proven right, that is, that Obama is a fatally flawed candidate, doomed to be defeated by McCain. In recent weeks, the same friend says, as McCain has gone negative on Obama to considerable effect, and Democrats have begun to wring their hands over their nominee’s prospects, Clinton’s sotto voce mantra has been, “Well, we knew that this would happen.”

The rejoinder from Obama’s fans will be: Sure you knew—because your campaign came up with the very arguments that McCain is now using to undermine Obama. The claim that he is too inexperienced to lead. The insinuation that Penn infamously advocated (but that Hillary did not employ) that Obama is insufficiently “American” to occupy the White House. Yet any Democrat who believes that McCain and his crew wouldn’t have found their way to this strategy on their own is either high or dreaming, for Obama’s political vulnerabilities are as glaring as his strengths. “There are two fundamental issues he faces: black and green,” says a veteran Democratic operative. “Is he too black? And is he too green?”

As Obama learns more each passing day, these will not be easy questions to answer. His first step in doing so, strange as it sounds, is to introduce himself to the country. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage of the Democratic race this past winter and spring, the truth, according to people familiar with Obama’s internal polling, is that most voters have precious little idea who he is. In this, ironically, his situation is similar to Bill Clinton’s at this stage in 1992. When Clinton arrived in New York that summer for the Democratic convention, much of the electorate believed that he had grown up a rich kid, privileged and pampered, that he was an elitist with fancy degrees from hoity-toity institutions that had been handed to him. The goal of that conclave was to acquaint the nation with the facts: that Clinton had come from a broken home, was raised on the wrong side of the tracks, had worked his way through college and law school, etc. He walked into Madison Square Garden in third place. He walked out in first and never looked back.

Obama and his people will be aiming for something similar this week. If they succeed, his convention will be remembered for that achievement, and for the stem-winder he uncorks on Thursday night that will be so pivotal to it. The performances of the Clintons, by contrast, will be recalled only if Obama loses (and even then, I have my doubts). And herein lies a lesson that applies more broadly, beyond the confines of the convention. To transform the Clintons from scene-stealers to bit players—and, even sweeter, to force them to admit that they were wrong about him—Obama only has to do one thing. All he has to do is win.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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