No one better understands both the subtle politics of race and the acute sensitivities of Democratic primary voters than Bill Clinton.
Why, then, did the politically dexterous former president raise the issue of race during the South Carolina primary in a manner offensive to many blacks and whites, putting his wife's presidential bid into a potentially fatal downward spiral? And why did he incite the animus of countless voters by appearing to angrily and cavalierly dismiss Obama's anti-war credentials?
The question of motivation, always a minefield, will very likely go unanswered -- but consider this possibility:
Bill Clinton either does not want his wife to become president, or he is deeply ambivalent about the prospect of Hillary taking over the Oval Office where he once held court.
Bill Clinton's distinctly negative role first became apparent on January 7 when, in what the Guardian described as a "red-faced, finger-wagging rant," Clinton called Barack Obama's claim of consistent opposition to the Iraq war "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen" -- a remark seen as gratuitously contemptuous and interpreted/spun by Obama supporters (and some neutral observers like Democratic analyst Donna Brazile) to suggest that the former president had dismissed Obama's qualifications for higher office.
A few days later, preceding the January 26 South Carolina primary, Bill Clinton infuriated some black leaders -- and many white Democrats -- when he sought to downplay the significance of a prospective Obama win.
Clinton compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, noting that "Jackson won South Carolina twice," in 1984 and 1988 -- but did not get anywhere near winning the White House. In 1984 and 1988, however, Jackson received less than 10 percent of the white vote in South Carolina -- far less than Obama won this year. In addition, Bill Clinton said that his wife and Obama "are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender -- that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."
The comments provoked anger because Clinton appeared to be trying to marginalize Obama as a "black" candidate whose main, if not exclusive, appeal is to African American voters, and not as a candidate with the ability to draw universal support.
Obama crushed Mrs. Clinton in South Carolina by a bigger margin than expected, 55-27, tying her among white men, and picking up 24 percent of the overall white vote. As her husband predicted, Mrs. Clinton did indeed win white women 42-22.
Posing the question of Bill Clinton's motivations to a number of Democratic and Republican political analysts produced a wide range of answers.
Some did not want to venture into the murky area of motivation. All three of the top partners at the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, for example, begged off:
Bill McInturff, "Above my pay grade as a pollster"; Glen Bolger, "I'm not the best person to speculate about Bill Clinton's state of mind on this, so I'll have to respectfully decline"; Neil Newhouse, "OMG - so her win diminishes him in some way. Interesting. But my BA in Psych doesn't qualify me to address this one."
Others, however, were not so shy.
Democratic media consultant James Duffy acknowledged that he is "not capable of making that type of psychological determination, but," he noted, "it seems like every step of the way, whether wittingly or unwittingly, he does things that are very destructive to her. Now she has a chance to get what she obviously wants more than anything else, the Presidency, and he steps forward and louses things up for her."
Republican media specialist Alex Castellanos, a man who takes pleasure in speculation, replied to a query with an intriguing email:
"What an interesting idea. 'Who's the fairest of them all?' Cain and Abel. Could be... I would have no way to know... but....I wonder if perhaps it is perhaps the opposite: in trying to prove he wants her to have it 'more than self,' he may be trying too hard... and that explains the loss of his golden touch, which he has certainly and for the first time in his charmed life, lost.
"This is why they don't allow doctors to operate on family members. Like most of us, perhaps he is torn and both impulses are true. Is he diminished if his unique accomplishment is duplicated by his wife, who was the wizard behind the curtain of his success? Yes. Would he do anything to see her elected? I would guess so.
All so human, isn't it?"
In a more down-to-earth commentary, Democratic campaign adviser Dan Gerstein said:
"Possible? Technically yes. But I don't like doing too much sideline psychology, especially when it comes to the Clintons, and trying to guess their motivations. That said, it does seem, at a minimum, that he has lost objectivity/perspective about the campaign, and that his emotions are guiding his behavior as much as if not more than the most gifted political mind of our generation is."
Colby political scientist L. Sandy Maisel said "that certainly is a question that has occurred to me, but I cannot really go there. It seems to be that he was so used to being able to slip out of any hole he dug for himself -- and he is so self-indulgent -- that he could not imagine not saying what he really felt and getting away with it."
Maisel added, however, that he agreed with the premise that Bill Clinton's comments during the South Carolina primary may have proved to be "the major cause" of Hillary Clinton's defeat:
"Up until then, she was holding her own with African-American voters and had alienated none of the African-American leadership. After that, she was on the defensive, losing votes and losing confidence. Add ten percent more of the African-American vote in a number of states and she turns losses into wins or lopsided losses into close ones. Given the tight ties she (and he) had with the African-American community before that time--deservedly so in my view--it is hard to place cause elsewhere."
The strongest disagreement with the notion that Bill Clinton might be torpedoing his wife's bid came from the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein:
"I honestly do not think so. I think he deeply wants her to win. It may be part atonement for what he put her through in the White House, partly to advance and cement his presidential legacy. And it is also, believe it or not, that he loves and truly respects her (of course, in his own inimitable way.)"
Asked to comment on the suggestion that Bill Clinton either does not want his wife to become president or is deeply ambivalent, Clinton's communications director Howard Wolfson replied succinctly, "Oh, please."