THE BLOG
12/14/2007 01:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Talking About JFK, Acting Like LBJ (With "Pragmatic Idealism" That's Neither)

Like earlier war-beleaguered Democrats, the Clinton team is attacking the left while miscalculating the danger on the right. Maybe they should listen a little more to Bill, the President whose legacy is now endangered, and stop damaging their own party. "It takes a village to raise a candidate," they seem to be saying, "and if necessary we'll burn it down to save it."

We're still processing the almost immediate verification of our theory that some on the Clinton team feel a profound bitterness, hostility, and resentment toward idealistic Democrats. The Clinton campaign did not distance itself from Sean Wilentz's tone-deaf piece, nor did it respond to my question about whether it provided any of its inaccurate background info.

Coordinated or not, there's a campaign style at work here. They seem determine to lash out as harshly as they can toward anyone who crosses them. And anyone who crosses them is too "idealistic" and not "pragmatic."

That's sad, really. Despite shifting odds, Hillary Clinton is still the most likely Democratic candidate, and the likelihood of her inheriting a damaged and fractured party grows with every misstep. As I've noted before, she has a basically progressive voting record. Even my harsher pieces, like the one that provoked Wilentz's rant, usually contained some constructive criticism - advice born of some wish-fulfillment fantasy, some still-flickering hope that the campaign would change direction in time to avert disaster.

Not with guys like Mark Penn around, apparently. On TV yesterday, Penn lowered himself by conducting the kind of cheap-shot apology that allows him to use the word "cocaine" again. (What happened to "not repeating Republican talking points?") Sure, he'll hurt Obama. He'll also splatter mud on his own candidate and hurt the entire party.

It's more confirmation that the Clinton campaign is conducting a slash-and-burn campaign against its own heartland. The "campaign culture" (as one commenter noted, campaigns do have cultures) appears to include excessive pride in the team's toughness and its willingness to use heavy weaponry. Weapons are fine, guys, as long as you're not shooting yourself in the foot.

Despite their protests to the contrary, it's the Clinton team that's drawing a false distinction when they speak of "pragmatic idealism." This is not 1992 or 1996. If we define "idealism" to mean opposition to the Iraq war, for example, most Americans are idealistic. It's not "pragmatic" to vote for Kyl/Lieberman or stick with the triangulation meme, when doing so alienates both your base and independent voters. Nor is it "pragmatic" to sling mud - and so clumsily, with such weak deniability! - further tarnishing your candidate's reputation.

Of all the campaign's miscalculations, this is the most frustrating. They continue to brag about their "pragmatism," even as it drags their candidate down with perceptions of cynicism and expediency. In other words, their "pragmatic idealism" is ... neither.

Wilentz and others continue to compare Sen. Clinton to JFK and FDR, but it's all much more reminiscent of another political figure: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson was one of the great political tacticians and figures of his time. With his anti-poverty and civil rights agenda, he could have been another Roosevelt. Instead, his career and his legacy were brought down by war.

The LBJ comparison doesn't end there. The Right was Johnson's greatest political threat, especially after he signed the Civil Rights Act, and he knew it. Yet, like the Clinton camp, he reserved his greatest vitriol for the progressive community that should have formed his natural base. "You know the difference between cannibals and liberals?'' he joked. ''Cannibals only eat their enemies.'' People who expressed doubt in his war policy were "commies" and worse. He brooded about harsh criticism from the left, but refused to consider the reasons for that criticism.

In other words, the price of alliance or friendship with Johnson was unquestioning support, even when he was tragically wrong about war. Sound familiar?

Johnson alienated that core constituency so much that, four short years after a blowout electoral triumph, he withdrew from his re-election campaign knowing that he might not even win his own party's nomination. Is that the fate of the Clinton campaign, and the destiny of the Clinton legacy?

Of the entire team, only Bill Clinton seems to have a grasp on reality and the ability to articulate it. Only he seems to ring with authenticity when he says that Hillary is "the best agent for change." Yet he finds himself giving that speech to only a couple hundred supporters in Philadelphia. What's going on here? Where was the advance work? Is the team sabotaging its best asset?

President Clinton isn't attacking idealists or drawing false distinctions - he's trying to persuade them. But he's a lonely voice in this crowd, that's for sure. And his moral and political capital - one of his Party's greatest assets - is being eroded by behaviors he doesn't share or seem to endorse. Sure, he'll take Richard Mellon Scaife to lunch or join Hillary in wooing Murdoch - but he doesn't typically turn his rhetorical guns against his own troops (except when he brags of defending Bush's war effort "against the left," a stance he seems to be disowning).

Regarding Sean Wilentz - it feels almost fratricidal, in a sort of Civil War brother-against-brother way, for the two of us to be at such loggerheads. We're of the same generation and essentially share the same perspective. I mean, the guy's a Dylan expert, for God's sake. (His Oxford American piece on the making of Blonde On Blonde is must reading for Dylan fans. I could debate some fine points - e.g. about "Visions of Johanna" - but that would be a friendly debate.)

Still, even Wilentz's grasp of political history seems to be shrouded by his proximity to the Clintons, as in his cavalier dismissal of Jimmy Carter as a weak "idealist." It was Carter the gubernatorial candidate who told a black leader in Georgia that "you'll hate the way I run but you'll love the way I govern." Many progressive Democrats are pragmatic, too, and might be willing to hear that kind of talk from Hillary and her team. But they're getting contempt instead.

As for the bitterness between the likes of Wilentz and people like me: That seems to be a foretaste, a preview of the Democratic Party with Hillary heading the ticket. Hey, guys. If you don't want your candidate to be perceived as divisive, don't be divisive.

The people in the Clinton inner circle have been in the center of the storm for years. They've suffered personal and political trauma at the hands of what really was a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Yet, like LBJ, they're turning the resulting bitterness and rage toward their own base. This much is obvious: They're not open to feedback or constructive criticism from their natural allies.

LBJ exulted in the exercise of raw power, in the way it felt to grind down his enemies. And he tolerated no dissent or criticism from those who could have sustained him. As a result, he wasn't able to run for re-election and his party lost to Nixon. Surely Democrats, the Clinton legacy - and the country - deserve better than that. It's time for Hillary's supporters, and for those like me with no chosen candidate, to consider other options.

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