Sarah Sands: To win, Hillary needs to kill Bill

Obama was the 'change' candidate in Iowa, and won. As the 'experience' candidate, the former First Lady needs to distance herself from the very thing that has helped create her
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The Independent Online

Strategists for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign have come to dread the rustle of conversation among the back rows of audiences during the final lap of her speeches. I feared that her husband, standing behind her as she took to the podium in Iowa, might be stifling a yawn as he thrust out his jaw. Hillary's voice has been so decontaminated of tell-tale feeling that it flatlines.

By contrast, Barack Obama's victory speech had the lyricism and potency (although not the radicalism) of Martin Luther King. Bill Clinton's advice to his wife has been to bring "joy" to her campaign. Obama's speech was an ode to joy, accompanied by boisterous applause. Hillary's performance could have been an advertisement for senior health care. The line-up behind her General Wesley Clark, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton was impressive but dog-tired. Her husband suddenly resembled the sort of Hollywood star who hobbles on to the stage at the Oscars to receive the lifetime achievement award.

Early in the campaign, Hillary's strategist, Mark Penn, did some focus groups among women voters. White suburban women were the most hostile. They described her as " threatening and unwomanly", "ruthless and greedy for power". Penn concluded that Hillary's personality was " just too big a mountain to move" and that her campaign therefore should concentrate on issues and competence. Hillary's stately progress, bolstered by a polished election machine and establishment funds, seems invincible, so long as she is kept away from voters. This is what appears to have gone wrong for her in Iowa. Suddenly political pedigree and clout counted for less than an outstretched hand.

To see Hillary lose on emotional intelligence must have wounded Bill Clinton greatly. Didn't the sly old entertainer long to push her aside and win back the audience with his bashful charm? Yet he is as constrained as she. They are each other's political soulmates or two drowning swimmers who can't cut themselves free. Obama played on this with all his cunning sweetness. He thanked his wife, Michelle, "love of my life", "the rock of the Obama family", knowing that Hillary could not mention her husband by name without raising all the dust of their marriage. The name Clinton is so potent with conflict that it has been banned from the campaign.

The woman whose refusal to take her husband's name alienated her from traditionalists and whose submission to it infuriated feminists, has now ditched it altogether and appears only as Hillary. Obama, healer of the nation, showed no mercy towards his rival's wounds. He said that his campaign stood for change against the stale status quo, ordinary people against those with money, hope over fear, reconciliation over division.

Does anyone in particular come to mind as an establishment candidate, backed by big money, polarising voters and promising to weather the storms of a dangerous world? Finally Obama obliquely addressed the greatest charge that Iowa is a political blip of no consequence which will be wiped out by New Hampshire. This, he declared, was "a defining moment in history: ... this is the moment when it all began", when Hillary's momentum juddered and failed.

A particular idiosyncrasy of the female reaction to Hillary is that women prefer her when she is down. The height of her popularity followed her public humiliation by her adulterous husband. It was this tide of sympathy for a woman betrayed by her husband that allowed her to run as New York Senator. There was another spasm of support for her after the other presidential candidates dealt roughly with her during a televised debate. Her campaign team were quick to brief that six men against one woman did not seem a fair fight. Once it looked as if Iowa was going to turn out as badly her campaign team raised the woman question again. Surely women voters should show solidarity towards Hillary in New Hampshire after watching her on the ropes in Iowa? Wouldn't that be the right thing to do?

The problem with summoning the female vote is that it remains so ambivalent towards her. It is not merely a divide between modern women and surrendered wives. It is feminists particularly who wrestle with their feelings towards Hillary. They wince when she talks about her long record at the White House, because she was never elected to be there.

I think this may be hard on Hillary. Benazir Bhutto came to power through her father. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina took over from her husband, just as Eva Peró* once did. No one can question Hillary Clinton's intelligence, her application, her will. She is perfectly qualified to be president. It is just that she has had her turn. If it were the co-presidency that she once claimed, then eight years is constitutionally the limit. Obama skewered his rival on Friday with his talk of change. While she was politically adept enough to have appointed herself the candidate for change by the time she reached New Hampshire, her credentials are really based on baby boomer nostalgia. As Barbra Streisand longingly sang it: "The Way We Were".

Obama's win in Iowa came on a sea of first-time voters. It was the young rising up against the old. The reason that Hillary has to look back is that she must avenge and restore her husband's legacy. He left the White House with a wounded cry of rage and self-pity. His wife was as furious. They inexcusably denied Al Gore their whole-hearted support because he understandably tried to distance himself in his election campaign from the lewd vices of his predecessor.

The couple are still in a vortex of unfinished business. Newspapers speculate about the fragility or falseness of their marriage but it is the sincerity of it that concerns me. They are wholly bound to each other by a much stronger bond than fidelity it is a shared political purpose. They live it and breathe it.

In Sally Bedell Smith's thoughtful biography of the couple, For Love of Politics, the author sets out Bill Clinton's priorities for the 2000 election campaign, fought on behalf of the Democrats, let us remind ourselves, by the Vice-President Al Gore. She writes that Bill Clinton "wanted to airbrush his image for posterity, to fulfil Hillary's ambitions, to gratify his immediate need to be loved and admired and to secure a foothold for a return to the White House, albeit as a junior partner to his wife."

I am sure Clinton was not politically treacherous enough consciously to will Gore to lose, but his defeat was nevertheless convenient, making space for Hillary's long-term ambitions. Frankly, Clinton has not spared Gore's feelings in the past. When Clinton first came to office in 1992, he was asked whom he needed in the room to make big decisions. He answered without hesitation: " Hillary." Al Gore joked: "When people ask me what it's like being number two at the White House, I tell them she seems to enjoy it."

Hillary was undoubtedly a tough and clear-thinking adviser to her husband. Not just because she had his interests at heart. More powerfully, she had their interests at heart. The beam of purpose lit up the White House. Imagine the rawness of her misery when Bill risked not merely their marriage but their co-presidency.

Obama's call for change makes things very difficult for Hillary. Should she, as Gore tried to do, now distance herself from her husband? Bill's role in her campaign was tentative at first, but Hillary has had to call on the genie of his charm. Recently the bumper stickers have grown more confident: "Vote Hill, Get Bill". Hasn't he been her greatest advocate? Out on the stumps, his big hands clasp the crowds, he looks into their eyes and tells them what a wonderful wife he has, with the bitter-sweet certainty of someone who has betrayed her. Yet my favourite quote from Iowa was the voter who said of Bill's praise of Hillary: "It's like my mom saying how great I am."

Of course Bill Clinton's support for Hillary's presidency is built on love and guilt, and perhaps even a youthful deal. He reportedly said to his friend the journalist Sidney Blumenthal that "trashing me is fine, if it helps Hillary". This may be the moment for Hillary to cut the cord and test whether she can survive on her own. In New Hampshire, Hillary is just ahead in the polls. She must show herself as more than a political construct or a marriage. Hillary Clinton needs to be bigger than the sum of her history.