07/10/2007 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton's Heirs

Barack Obama recites his best line with trademark understatement. "It's time to turn the page" he says and each time he does, audiences erupt. Some think he's taking aim at George Bush but his target is Hillary Clinton.

Before a ballot is cast, the Democratic race is narrowing down to just two horses. To steal a phrase from Bob Dylan, for Edwards, Dodd, Richardson and Biden, it's not dark yet but it's gettin' there. When the race is over for them, the show will be over for Kucinich and Gravel. We'll miss all of them when they're gone.

Some debate it will be then. Obama and Clinton prefer metaphors to risky, boring policy prescriptions. All politicians do, but in message as in money these two chart new territory. It may work; Republicans have voters so scared they're ready to take whatever's behind door number two.

Obama implies that if we all got along things would get better, though he doesn't say which things. He says it's time to heal old wounds, to change not just parties but generations and that by temperament and merely by age, he's the guy to do it.

Conveniently, the generation he would overthrow is Clinton's. His campaign is a wager that Democrats aren't as nostalgic for the Clintons as they are weary of them. The best strategists on each side know that's one very close call.

Thus far, Clinton is the only candidate in either party who has proved ready for prime time. She's the Pete Sampras of politics grinding out game after game in a style that excites no one but wins grudging respect and, not incidentally, matches.

In a contest with Obama it's to her advantage that George Bush gave inexperience a bad name. To her disadvantage, lots of people don't like her. She blames it on bias against women generally and a fifteen year right wing jihad against her specifically.

She has a point. In the history of presidential politics no candidate has ever been so hobbled by the charge of ambition, one reason being all the others were men. Over time right wing attacks penetrate beyond right wing audiences. The right's serial vilification of her -- she was a radical 'feminazi' and then a crook before morphing at last into a power hungry pol -- shapes everyone's view of her, not just Rush's ditto heads.

This should get her more sympathy, but not necessarily more support. To Democrats 'electability" is all and it's still their biggest concern about her. She's safe for now; it's hard to argue that the candidate leading every poll is unelectable. It may be true; it's just a hard case to make.

Hillary's strategy is simple. She wants us to like her. To that end she has rolled out her big gun, mister popularity himself, Bill Clinton. As Barack whispers that the Clintons are so over, Hillary promenades about, husband in tow, seeking to establish herself as his rightful heir.

Obama, if he chose, could make a strong case that he's the rightful heir to the man Toni Morrison called our first black president. The Oxford fellow and the Harvard Law Review president are both superb speakers and listeners with charisma to burn. Obama is often compared to a rock star; Clinton's code name was Elvis. Each is even a little Irish. Each knows something about addiction.

Neither man knew his biological father. William Blythe died before Clinton was born. Obama Senior deserted his family when Barack was only two. The two young boys were devoted sons of unconventional mothers. Each spent time in the care of relatives before rejoining his mother in a new and less than ideal family.

Along the way both men developed preternatural talents for conciliation. It's a valuable skill but if you need a new energy or health care system you may want a leader who isn't so driven to get along with absolutely everyone. Big corporations are beyond any mere mortal's power of persuasion and couldn't care less about bipartisanship.

Like Howard Dean and Ned Lamont, whose anti war crusades set the grass roots on fire, Obama is a relative political novice with a centrist history. His story is compelling but the reason he out-raises even Dean on the web is simple: he's the un-Hillary.

Hillary's ambition is transparent. Obama's easy warmth and fluid style lead the eye away from his ambition. But nobody falls on top of the mountain. At 47 he'd be our fourth youngest president, a year older than that other Clinton, who shot up through the social classes about as fast. No, Obama isn't Hillary. He's Bill.

It's ironic that for an alternative to Clintonism many Democrats look to yet another of Clinton's heirs, albeit one never comfortable in that role. But for Al Gore to trade in his well earned status as global celebrity activist Hillary must stumble, which is about as likely as Pete Sampras double faulting on a match point.

If your concerns are deeper than just being tired of the Clintons, if you worry that both parties are in hock to the same crowd and can't recall the last time a Democrat made a promise worth keeping, you'll have to act quickly. The clever politicians arranged to hold the 2008 election a year early. By Columbus Day there may be no second tier.

So write a check to Chris Dodd or a plaintive letter to Al Gore. Knock on a few doors for Richardson or Biden. Tell a friend about Edwards' health plan. Do it now or settle in for a long and highly metaphorical battle of succession.