The year isn’t half over, and already more than a few things in the Democratic political world have left me puzzled—and in some cases downright mystified.
My perplexity starts with former President Bill Clinton. How has such a talented man become so tone-deaf? When NBC’s Cynthia McFadden asked him about potential conflicts of interest raised by large contributions from foreign governments and companies to the Clinton Foundation, the former president answered, “All I’m saying is that the idea that there’s one set of rules for us and another set for everybody else is true.” He wasn’t self-aware enough to know that’s precisely the problem, though in exactly the opposite way he intended.
Mr. Clinton’s rhetorical mistakes didn’t end there. He justified his continued acceptance of speaking fees up to a half-million dollars while his wife is running for president by saying, “I gotta pay our bills.” That isn’t likely to go over well with Americans whose median household income each year is one-tenth of what Mr. Clinton earns with one speech.
When he tried to further the “we’re just ordinary Americans” image by claiming he and Hillary had taken “almost no capital gains” since leaving the White House, did he not know or care that financial documents filed by Mrs. Clinton when she was a senator show that to be utterly false? Tax returns filed by the Clintons from 2000 to 2006, the most recent available, report $371,000 in capital gains.
Talk about losing your fastball.
Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who has answered all of eight questions from the press in the 32 days since her April 12 campaign announcement. The last question she took came around 3 p.m. on April 21. How long does she believe that she can answer questions only from preselected supporters without creating suspicion in voters? Does she really think campaigning in a cocoon now will make her a better candidate later? If so, she has a surprise coming.
On immigration, Mrs. Clinton could easily have said that she would work to pass comprehensive reform legislation and defend President Obama’s existing orders forbidding deportations. Instead, she told a Las Vegas crowd last week that “if Congress refuses to act, as president, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further.” Mr. Obama’s going beyond the law on immigration is already quite problematic, and her eagerness to go further than he has is alarming. The answer to lawlessness is not greater lawlessness. Unless you’re a Clinton.
As for President Obama: I’m baffled by his attack on Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a Yahoo interview last weekend over her opposition to granting him trade-promotion authority. Mr. Obama claimed “her arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny,” rejected her logic by snapping he would “have to be pretty stupid” to do what she alleges, and then dismissed her by saying, “the truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else.” By having her intelligence, judgment and motives questioned, Ms. Warren is getting a taste of what it has been like to be a Republican in the Obama era.
More important, the president’s harsh language made no strategic sense. It certainly contributed to Senate Democrats’ decision to block (perhaps temporarily) trade-promotion authority on Tuesday. Beyond that, his assaults elevated Ms. Warren while needlessly weakening the president’s standing on Capitol Hill. Mr. Obama poisoned his relations with congressional Republicans through personal attacks, and he now is doing the same thing with congressional Democrats. Why?
And why have no young Democratic governors, senators, mayors or representatives geared up to run against Mrs. Clinton? They could enter the race admitting they would lose, but saying they wanted an opportunity to offer a new agenda for a rising generation of Democrats. They could significantly influence their party’s direction and lay the foundation for a future bid. No one thinks Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley or former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb represents the Democratic Party’s future. Why doesn’t someone who might jump into the arena?
As a lifelong Republican, I can be counted on to disagree with Democrats most of the time but not usually to be baffled by them. This year, I am. It’s one thing for Democrats to be wrong; it’s another for their political heavyweights to be so wrongheaded. Maybe this is a sign of deeper problems to come for the world’s oldest political party.
A version of this article appeared May 14, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The Democrats’ Baffling Behavior and online at WSJ.com.