Watching the Amateur Hour antics of the front-running 2008 presidential campaigns of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, publicly firing nasty charges back and forth, brought two thoughts to this maturing mind: first, the wonderful Arizona Rep. "Mo" Udall's observation that "when Democrats organize a firing squad, we form a circle," and second, how good, by contrast, Ronald Reagan was at this really tough business of politics.
In Reagan's first California gubernatorial primary in 1966, he was accused of courting the support of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. Supporters of his Republican opponent urged the Gipper to reject any and all Birch backing — just as Clinton's campaign demanded, this week, that Obama repudiate the financial backing and endorsement of Hollywood billionaire and ex-Clinton supporter David Geffen for publicly reminding us in an interview with columnist Maureen Dowd that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were not always, what one would call, straightforward.
Here is how Ronald Reagan brushed off his critics every time he was questioned in 1966: "I intend to campaign on my philosophy and my belief in our constitutional form of government. I will gladly accept the support of all who share that belief. ... In that case, they will be buying my philosophy — I'm not buying theirs."
Obama would do well to memorize his own variation of the Reagan rebuttal, because his Democratic rivals, especially Clinton, appear determined to prove that the Illinois newcomer is not, as his huge crowds and enthusiastic reviews would suggest, a non-polarizing, authentically bipartisan, high-minded political leader. What better way to do that than by dragging him into a public wrestling match with insults at 20 yards?
Besides the beleaguered Republicans, the big winners of the Clinton-Obama brawls will be John Edwards or Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson or Joe Biden or Tom Vilsack.
In the 1998 three-way Democratic gubernatorial primary in California, businessman Al Cecchi spent $40 million of his own money to attack U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, who retaliated by spending $16 million of her own fortune against Cecchi. The winner, with a total campaign budget less than one-fifth of Cecchi's, was the only candidate who refused to attack his opponents, Gray Davis.
In a multi-candidate primary when Candidate A attacks Candidate B and Candidate B responds in kind against Candidate A, you can be nearly certain that the beneficiary will be Candidate C.
What made the criticisms of Geffen about the candidacy of Clinton — that, in what looks to be a good Democratic year of 2008, she is the one polarizing nominee who could unite and energize a dispirited GOP; that Bill Clinton through his reportedly reckless personal behavior could/will sabotage her campaign; that even though Bill Clinton, when compared to the incumbent president, looks like the next face on Mount Rushmore, there remains a soft, ethical underbelly of those Clinton years to which voters do not crave a sequel — most interesting is not their uniqueness, but the frequency with which one hears them daily from card-carrying, Bill Clinton-voting Democrats.
Just to recall President Clinton's last-minute pardon of "fugitive financier" Marc Rich — a man who renounced his American citizenship, who had fled to Switzerland and Israel following his indictment on 51 counts of tax fraud in U.S. federal court in 1983 for evading more than $48 million he owed in U.S. taxes and with running illegal oil deals with Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis — is to be reminded of more recent moral midgets named Abramoff, Ney and Cunningham. How can the pardoning of a man with no redeeming social value be justified?
For the 2008 Democratic candidates, forget the "I'm tough and you can't Swift-boat me" maneuvers. Don't even consider using the hackneyed "politics of personal destruction." Don't tell us about all the money you're going to raise. Instead, raise our sights and our spirits.
If war really does demand equality of sacrifice, do not tell us what further privileges and pampering we are owed, but challenge us. What are our responsibilities to our country, our communities and to each other? The best American elections and campaigns are not about the pleasures of yesterday but about the possibilities and promise of tomorrow.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.