The Clintons play by their own rules

Bill's playing of the race card and Hillary working in Florida show disdain for party

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The Gazette, Friday, February 1, 2008

In the last week, the Clintons have reminded Americans of two of their important character traits as a couple. First, that they will say and do anything to win, and second that the rules of the game apply to other people, but not to them.

First, it was Bill Clinton playing the race card in South Carolina, with reckless disregard for the consequences. Then, it was Hillary's turn, going into Florida in the last two days of a primary that all candidates had agreed not to contest at the request of the Democratic Party. But rules are for other people. The Clintons make their own.

In South Carolina last week, Clinton said Hillary didn't stand a chance in last Saturday's primary because Barack Obama had the black vote sewn up. Then the former president tore into reporters for torquing up his comments. Which is also typical of the Clintons - they never take responsibility for anything.

But this time Bill Clinton got caught, not just by the pundits and outraged Democratic officials, but by the voters of South Carolina, who responded to his intemperate and polarizing comments by delivering an unexpected 2-1 landslide to Obama.

Among those who were appalled by Clinton's comments was John Kerry, the party's 2004 nominee, who accused Clinton of abusing the truth and debasing his statesman's currency as a former president. Clinton's playing of the race card was also reported as a tipping point in Ted Kennedy's decision to endorse Obama on Monday.

The backlash against the Clintons was evident in the outcome in South Carolina, where Obama's victory far outpaced even his best showing in the polls.

As late as Saturday morning, the Zogby nightly tracking poll for Reuters and C-Span noted a two-point overnight surge for Obama to a 41-26 lead over Clinton - an impressive 15 points. But it was nothing like Obama's final 55-27 victory, by a huge margin of 28 points.

Both black and white voters broke to him right at the end, and Bill Clinton's comments were clearly a big negative. In the last Zogby poll on Saturday, Obama had 62 per cent of the black vote and 19 per cent of the white vote. In the actual vote, Obama won 78 per cent of the black vote, surged to 24 per cent of the white vote and, in exit polls, won among all voters under 30 years of age.

But Bill Clinton still didn't get it. For the second time, he compared the Obama campaign to Jesse Jackson's failed presidential campaigns of the 1980s, which were never about winning the nomination so much as winning seats in the inner councils of the Democratic Party. Jackson's campaigns were entirely based on his black base. Obama's campaign transcends race.

And then in Florida, where all candidates had agreed not to campaign, Hillary Clinton turned up for a fund-raiser on Sunday, and was in the state again on Tuesday, where she addressed a campaign rally after the polls closed, thanking Floridians for their support and promising she would do everything in her power to get its delegates seated at the convention.

But that was the entire point of the party asking the candidates not to campaign there - it was punishing the state party for moving up its primary out of the Super Tuesday lineup so the spotlight could be entirely on Florida. (The Republican National Committee had no such problem with recognizing delegates elected in its winner-take-all primary, won by John McCain by five points over Mitt Romney).

Asked about this as late as a Sunday morning television appearance, Obama said he would respect his commitment, play by the rules, and stay out of Florida.

Someone should have told him he wasn't in Kansas anymore, though on Tuesday he was, while Clinton was in Florida. And there she was at her Florida campaign rally Tuesday night, claiming a completely empty victory in a beauty contest over Obama, which she won easily by 18 points.

The Clinton campaign was clearly attempting to generate its own momentum forward to Super Tuesday next week, in the hope of countering Obama's surge out of South Carolina, and Monday's powerful endorsement of Obama by Caroline Kennedy and her uncle Ted.

There are party rules. And then there are Clinton rules. They make them up as they go along, moving the goal posts with them.

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