Not Again

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

That Hillary Clinton's one tough gal. As everyone knows, in the last debate some very bad boys did everything but push her to the sidewalk and steal her purse. Each time they hit her, she got back up. Among American politicians only her husband, the king of pain, seems more resilient.

Her rivals now pursue more aggressive strategies, meaning they say out loud what their staffs have long whispered to reporters. Everyone questions her vote setting the table for a move on Iran. Barack Obama and John Edwards attack her character. Courtlier Chris Dodd questions her electability.

In a prior debate Clinton unveiled a new strategy of her own-- looking past the primary to the general election. Big mistake. On foreign policy it drives her further to the right and on domestic policy, deeper into an insipid centrism. Worse yet, it makes her seem presumptuous, a danger for any candidate but especially her. When folks are already grumbling about dynasties is hardly the right moment to play the heir apparent.

In the last debate her tough talk on Iran and her Social Security dodge gave Edwards and Obama their openings. They squandered them by attacking her personally; she then bailed them out by acting as if it was somehow unfair to ask her any questions at all.

Dodd had the right tone; pointed but respectful. He stays alive in Iowa and New Hampshire by taking specific, concrete stands on issues that matter, from privacy to energy to Iraq. It's the smart way to answer Clintonian generalities-- not with ideology or ad hominem attacks, but with specificity.

Clinton seems to think she can shuffle and tap dance her way back into the White House. It's as if she and her team learned nothing from Gore and Kerry, who also worked hard to obliterate the very differences they should have run on. The similarities don't end there. Her personality and background leave her vulnerable to the same charges of elitism that cost them so dearly.

Making that charge stick is what Republicans do best. It's impressive, really; three times they've convinced us that some Democrat was more elitist than the Bushes. Thus the world comes to doubt our seriousness as a nation. Still, there's no getting around a simple fact: in politics, they have to like you. Would it be so wrong to nominate somebody who could run the country and tell a good story? It worked so well for FDR and JFK, to say nothing of that other Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is smart and, like Gore, warm and funny in private. She's also ambitious-- just like every man who ever ran for president. Obama's and Edwards' attacks on her sound hollow. When Obama vows to "turn the page" he's trying to turn it back, not ahead, to the culture wars in which Clinton, by the way, was a victim, not a culprit. But if she is indeed unelectable it doesn't really matter if it isn't her fault.

Given how much Democrats think about electability, it's amazing they can't recognize it when they see it. In 2004 I thought Dick Gephardt was the most electable Democrat. I had noticed that Republicans run only one good play- - a humdinger called isolate the Democrat culturally- -- and I didn't think it would work on Gephardt.

After a lifetime in Washington Gephardt still looked and sounded like Missouri. His blue collar roots didn't need touching up. And he had the most experience. Picking the guy with the best credentials may seem a little European, even Republican in a pre-Bush sort of way, but voters, I thought, might appreciate the gesture.

Gephardt got nowhere and bowed out after Iowa. John Kerry seemed like the last guy to force Republicans into whatever their plan B was. He was famously for and against the war, had a health care plan strangely like Bush's and had apparently spent his life cultivating the very accent the Bushes worked so hard to shed. Democrats picked him anyway and thus the worst president in history got a second term.

Why stir up old memories? In the hope Democrats will think things through in the short time left before the nutty primary calendar forecloses all their options. Enough of Clinton's campaign recalls the mistakes of campaigns past and the weaknesses of the men who led them as to be downright eerie. Obama isn't much better. What makes Clinton and Obama high risk isn't race or gender but style and strategy.

From the look of it, Clinton for sure is planning a general election just like the last two. The country may be smart enough that, handed the choice of Gore v. Bush or even Kerry v. Bush to do over, it would choose more wisely.

The problem is the Republicans aren't nominating Bush. As things stand, it would be more accurate to think of 2008 as Rove v Schrum III; the fear mongering libelers versus the haughty, multiple position taker. Is the country smart enough to see through that on the third go around? Maybe, but I wouldn't want to put it to the test.

Right now the question is how smart the Democrats are. Chris Dodd may be the Dick Gephardt of 2008. He's shrewd, eloquent, experienced and charming enough to talk a dog off a meat wagon. For the first time since 1992 the Democrat would be the guy people wanted to have a beer with; for the first time in memory, Democrats would be running on a blueprint and not just catch phrases. Have Democrats smartened up enough to give such a candidate the consideration he's due?

Hillary Clinton isn't unelectable, just hard to elect and off on the wrong course. Barack Obama once seemed a great threat to her. He proved a gift: a challenger who was so much like her, only less experienced. He drew money, media and energy others might have used to spark the debate the Democrats and the country, desperately need. He might grow into a winner but it won't happen with this process.

All of the second tier candidates deserved a fairer shake in the debates. One of them will finish fourth in Iowa and get the chance to fight on. I hope it's Dodd. Democrats shouldn't be attacking each other's character. But Hillary should face a seasoned candidate in a real debate on real issues. It's how you get real change, and a nominee worth the effort of electing.