Bill Clinton is at his best when his back’s to the wall. Beaten for re-election in Arkansas in 1980, given up for dead politically, he came roaring back in 1982. Knocked off-stride by the revelation of his Vietnam-era “draft letter” on the eve of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, he walked door to door handing out videotapes to voters. His message: I can’t get my message across through the media, so I’m doing it myself. (Of course, reporters like me, I was with the San Francisco Examiner, walked along with him. I have a picture of candidate Clinton greeting my young son that brisk Saturday morning before the primary). The emergence of the self-styled “Comeback Kid” was just around the corner. That Tuesday he would make the very best of an eight-point loss to declare himself the moral winner of the 1992 New Hampshire primary.
The same thing happened when President Clinton got into trouble in 1994. When the Democrats lost control of Congress, he buckled down, pulled in his sails, brought Dick Morris aboard and declared the era of big government was over. He also signed the Republican-drafted welfare bill, while ultimately hanging tough in defense of affirmative action.
Hillary Clinton has been equally at her best in bad times. In 1998, with Monica clouds overhead, she went up to New York and campaigned for senate candidate Chuck Schumer eight times, winning tremendous respect for sticking to her job, not just as First Lady, but as a vital national Democrat. I’ve said this the wrong way before. Let me say it right now: Hillary Clinton’s grace under pressure in those dreary months gave her a political lift she’d never enjoyed before. Her national approval numbers spiked from the mid-40s to just above the 70 mark in one poll. Her toughness in walking through fire had much to do with the strong invitation from New York Democrats, U.S .Congressman Charlie Rangel led the parade of welcome wagoners, to begin competing for a senate seat of her own.
This ability to look good under fire, and, let’s face it, look not quite so good when things are going swimmingly, seems to be an essential, even predictable pattern to the Clinton family’s political chronicle.
Look at Senator Clinton’s relentlessness in the brutal weekend before this year’s New Hampshire primary. Beaten by Obama in the Iowa caucuses, her poll numbers seemingly in full erosion, she kept at it, giving speech after speech in giant rooms, just as her husband had done back in ’92. And, unlike him, she came in first, winning a primary that many in her and Obama’s camp thought she would surely lose.
So here Senator Clinton comes again, her husband aboard and sharing in the challenge, plotting a comeback in Ohio, Texas and then on to Pennsylvania. Their Mapquest tells them what they have to do: win those states, wrap up as many superdelegates as possible, get the Florida and Michigan delegates counted. It’s a daunting ambition. That said, it is in this very terrain, uphill and hard slogging, that these two have performed, separately and together, at their lifetime best.