04/29/2008 05:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Billary Revisits a Tactic from 2004

One of the plot lines of the ongoing drama between Barack and Hillary is that Bill and Hillary (a.k.a. Billary) are trying to destroy Obama so that when, or, increasingly, if, he becomes the nominee, he will lose to John McCain. "We told you so," Billary will say, as they immediately lay the groundwork for Hillary, who will then be 64, to be the "inevitable" candidate in 2012.

Is this a variation on the tactic the Clintons reportedly tried last time around? While doing interviews for my book on Bill's post presidency, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, several of my sources mentioned Billary's work pushing General Wesley Clark for the nomination in 2004. The Clintons, according to this plot, knew that Clark, the retired NATO supreme allied commander, could not win. Bush would win in 2004 and Hillary would have an easy path to the nomination in 2008.

Billary was right about Clark. When he finally did enter the race for the nomination, he was a remarkably inept candidate, admitting he had voted for Reagan in 1980 and Bush in 1988, pushing the rumor that John Kerry had a relationship with a young staffer (Kerry's daughter, Vanessa, said she almost died laughing when she read the pulsating headline on the Drudge Report.). The rumor soon died and so did Clark's campaign.

"We were sure that the Clinton crowd had put Wesley Clark in the race, encouraged him to get into the race," said one of Kerry's top finance people. Close associates of the Clintons became involved, including Terry McAuliffe, friend, moneyman and handpicked DNC head after Bill left the White House. (McAuliffe later groused about being so shut out of the inner circle of the Kerry campaign that he was never invited to the headquarters.) Billary's friend of three decades, Eli Segal, became Clark's campaign chairman.

General Clark had hired the son of Don Fowler, a former head of the DNC and a power in South Carolina, to run the campaign, "These people from Clinton campaign came in and pushed my son out," Fowler says. Although Bill was said to be orchestrating things, spending hours on the telephone trying to jumpstart the Clark campaign, Fowler, who is now supporting Hillary, does not see Machiavellis here, just the Clintons needing a safe harbor from the storm of the democratic primary and settling for the moment on Clark. "That was just an easy place for them to be and to stay out of the fray."

Once Clark "imploded," which was what he said was going to happen to Kerry over the "intern problem," and Kerry won the nomination, it was then reported that Bill was pushing Kerry to take General Clark or Hillary as his running mate.

Although one of my sources said that Hillary complained that the Kerry campaign didn't ask for her help, both Clintons did work a bit for Kerry. The finance guru mentioned above says that had the former president not had emergency bypass on Labor Day, 2004, he would have put Kerry over the top, as evidenced by a huge Kerry rally in late October in Philadelphia; 80,000 people who came out to hear Clinton, six weeks after bypass and shortly before the election. (The crowd was not as big as the one Obama attracted before the Pennsylvania primary, but it was impressive and Kerry did win Pennsylvania).

It is true that had Kerry won Ohio, he would have won the election, but most of the big heads in the party and the punditocracy believe that no matter how much Bill campaigned, Kerry would have lost anyway. He was seen as an elitist -- the story lines in these campaigns never change -- and lost the election all on his own. In 2000 Clinton made all the difference in Al Gore's loss, they say, but in 2004 no one really cared what a former president thought. As writer and professor Larry Sabato put it in an interview with me, "In 2004 it was almost irrelevant what Clinton did or thought. Kerry lost that one on his own. it had nothing to do with Clinton."

Still the outcome in 2004, although not precisely the one the Clintons may have plotted, was the one they arguably wanted all along. At the moment, it's looking like Hillary, if she ends up losing the nomination, but so damaging Obama that he can't win, will have a path to the nomination four years from now -- so long as Democrats have short memories and don't blame Billary for blowing the clearest path to the White House the Democrats have had in years.