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Siege Mentality

Do you know who I am? I'm the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid, and every time you hit it, it bounces back. That's me--the harder you hit me, the faster I come back up.

Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich, Winter 1995

The Clintons find themselves victimized and under siege. The presidency is being stolen from them. The press is out to get them. They deride elites and champion the masses. They live in a constant state of emergency. But they will endure any humiliation, ride out any crisis, fight on even when fighting seems hopeless.

That might sound like a fair summary of how Bill and Hillary Clinton have viewed the past five months. But it also happens to describe what, until now, was the greatest ordeal of the Clintons' almost comically turbulent political careers: impeachment. That baroque saga hardened the Clintonian worldview about politics and helps to explain their approach to this brutal campaign season. The Clintons have been here before, you see. They're being impeached all over again.

Even by the time Monica Lewinsky's name surfaced on the Drudge Report in January 1998, Bill and Hillary Clinton were plenty familiar with drastic reversals of fortune. Bill's future seemed ruined when he lost his bid for a second term as Arkansas governor in 1980; he started campaigning almost immediately and was back in office two years later. His 1992 campaign was defined by his "comeback kid" recovery from philandering and draft-dodging crises. After Republicans romped in the 1994 elections, Washington debated Clinton's very relevance.

For a time, it seemed the Lewinsky scandal might have exhausted their deep reservoir of resilience. After Bill--cornered by DNA on that famous Gap dress--confessed in a televised speech that was long on defiance and short on contrition, some Democrats were squirming.

Congressional Democrats were the superdelegates of 1998--worried that the Clintons' campaign to save themselves would extend into the fall, threatening their own political existences. Some in the Senate were on the brink of travelling to the White House to advise the president to resign. But congressional Democrats ultimately rallied, and Hillary played a decisive role in that effort. "I'm the field general of this operation," she told Democratic Representative Jim Moran, according to Washington Post reporter Peter Baker's definitive history of impeachment, The Breach. (Hillary had served as a staff lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate proceedings. Her fluency in impeachment law enabled her to make a powerful case about Republican abuses.) So, if Hillary has believed that she can sway superdelegates in the face of conventional wisdom, it's because she has some experience to justify her self-confidence.

Surviving impeachment didn't just require savvy tactics; it required defiance. The press predicted that MonicaGate would drive the Clintons from the White House. And, just as some liberal commentators argue that Hillary should end her candidacy for the good of the party and her own reputation, in 1998 many media outlets made similar arguments about her husband. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which had twice endorsed Bill, editorialized that resigning would be "the honorable thing." And it wasn't just ink-stained wretches. For a time, it seemed the entire Washington elite wanted the Clintons banished. A day before the 1998 election, Georgetown über-hostess Sally Quinn wrote in The Washington Post that "the Washington establishment is outraged by the president's behavior" and suggested that he resign to spare her town further humiliation. Never mind that poll after poll showed Americans were quite content with Clinton.

To survive this assault, the Clintons built up a counter-narrative of the way Washington works. They believed that the city's snooty press and opinion elites viewed them as provincial hicks, too déclassé to win admission to their cozy Georgetown clique. And this was an early seed of a deeper critique that the Clintons came to adopt: that the press is composed of elites who are out of touch with average America. After Sally Quinn's infamous article ran, Paul Begala went to the Oval Office, waving it in his hand and declaring, "This is perfect." Bill kept it on his desk for weeks as a reminder of the disconnect between elite opinion and the public. That disconnect became a favorite theme of Clinton pollster Mark Penn, who explained to one interviewer last year that "[media] elites are increasingly separated from the kind of struggles that working- and middle-class voters are feeling." And it burst to the surface in South Carolina earlier this year, when Bill Clinton berated a CNN reporter who had asked him a question about campaign tactics after a town hall meeting. "Shame on you," he said, noting that "not one single, solitary soul" at the event had such a question. "This is what you live for," Clinton added scornfully.

And this critique of the establishment has led the Clintons to awkwardly embrace a kind of populism. Despite their Yale Law pedigrees and presence at Davos and mansion in Kalorama, they find themselves touting the wisdom of the masses. "The American people ... are tired of seeing Washington focused on politics and personalities," Clinton said in November 1998. "They want the people and their issues and their future taken care of, and that's what we're here to do." Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson was channeling a similar anti-insider sentiment when he said in early May: "Many pundits have counted Senator Clinton out many times during this contest. ... Thankfully for us, the punditocracy does not control this process; voters do."

Populism is potent in the hands of many politicians. But the Clintons have perfected their own brand of it. Impeachment taught them that the specter of defeat could endear them to the public. It's no coincidence that, before several major primaries, Bill Clinton emphasized that Hillary's survival was on the line, or that Hillary's campaign has advertised rather than ignored efforts by pundits and party leaders to force her from the race. She has styled herself as a populist largely by adopting the pose of a fighter--one battling an elite political-media establishment that cares little for ordinary people (as exemplified by her derision of experts who trashed her gas-tax holiday proposal as a gimmick). What working-class American can't relate to feeling stepped on by the fancy-pants establishment?

The Clintons aren't just reprising the political strategy that helped them survive impeachment; they're also re-enacting certain critiques of their opponents. They believe that Barack Obama, like the '90s-era House Republicans, has abused the system. They fume that he ran up his delegate lead in low- population red-state caucuses like Nebraska, Idaho, and Kansas with the help of activists who don't represent average Democratic voters. After losing Iowa, Hillary complained that its caucuses weren't accessible to night-shift workers and military personnel. At one February fund-raiser, Hillary said the pro-Obama group had "flooded" caucus sites and to "intimidate people who actually show up to support me." (It's not clear whether Hillary recalls that was founded a decade ago to defeat impeachment.) Obama wants to "disenfranchise" Michigan and Florida voters, the Clintonites say, by not seating those states' contested delegates. Though the Clinton campaign doesn't often invoke Ken Starr or Newt Gingrich these days, in at least one case Hillary's people have played the impeachment card. After the Obama camp hammered Hillary for delaying the release of her tax returns, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson exclaimed, "I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election."

As they did during the late '90s, the Clintons also rage at the perceived hypocrisy of their opponents. Back then, it was the sexual infidelities of some of their top Republican persecutors, including Henry Hyde. Now Obama is the hypocrite. He attacks Hillary for running a negative campaign even as he trashes her ethics and honesty. His allies accuse Bill of playing the race card even as, Bill is convinced, they are playing the race card on him.

Beyond those particulars, however, one gets the overall impression that the Clintons feel Obama shouldn't be here in the first place--that this "young man's" very claim to power is itself questionable. In this sense, the Clintons may be victims of their own sense of victimhood. The vileness of the Clintons' past enemies seems to have convinced them that their enemies always are, by definition, in the wrong. And that Obama's candidacy is almost like another illegitimate attempt to steal a White House that, in some sense, belongs to them.

In the accounts of impeachment, we find Hillary much as she is today: largely isolated, emotionally bruised, but determined to persevere. Just as she described immersing herself in prayer back in the summer of 1998, Hillary recently told Newsweek that for solace she often calls up inspiring Scripture she stores on her BlackBerry. And then, as now, she found comfort in her celebrity friends. Last month, it was Elton John smothering her in a bear hug onstage at a fund-raiser. In 1998, it was Stevie Wonder, who visited the White House for a private performance of "No One Walks On Water" which brought Hillary to tears. (Wonder, alas, is now an Obama man.)

And, from the accounts of the Clinton impeachment, we also know how rarely she entertains the idea of quitting. During the darkest days of Ken Starr, there is no evidence the Clintons ever considered resignation. Shortly after the Lewinsky story broke, Dick Morris told Clinton his polling showed that voters would favor his ouster were he exposed as lying about the affair. "We'll just have to win, then," Bill replied.

But not everyone in Clintonland felt that way. One such person was Clinton loyalist Harold Ickes, a top Hillary adviser. As Congress was readying for impeachment, Baker writes, Ickes "considered the current scandal a dire threat to the Democratic hold on the presidency." He told senior Democrats that they needed to push Clinton out of power for the sake of the party--a now familiar line of argument. Needless to say, Ickes's advances went nowhere, and, as he'd feared, Al Gore lost. We'll see in November if the Clintons' refusal to quit has the same effect again.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor for The New Republic.