As Clinton chances wane, old slights come due

Some prominent Democrats recall past grievances

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

WASHINGTON - When Democratic superdelegate Jim Cooper, a Tennessee congressman, pondered the choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, his thoughts wandered back to 1993. That year, Clinton was trying to change the nation's health system, and Cooper, a moderate Democrat, had a bipartisan healthcare bill of his own that, unlike Clinton's proposal, did not require employers to provide health coverage.

The president's wife, Cooper recalled, was determined to stop her fellow Democrat. "She set up a war room in the White House to defeat me," he said.

Like many superdelegates, Cooper insists that his endorsement of Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination was driven by Obama's inspiring message. But the Tennessee lawmaker's past disputes with Clinton and her husband certainly made the decision easier.

For Clinton, holding one of the most famous names in Democratic politics has had both advantages and disadvantages as she has sought to persuade superdelegates to make her the nominee. Much of the Democratic establishment jumped to Clinton's side early, rewarding her and her husband for years of friendship and shared political struggles, giving the New York senator a large lead in superdelegates at the beginning of the campaign.

But the reality of the Clintons' relationship with fellow Democrats was always more complicated. As even some Clinton supporters concede, there are many superdelegates who have had issues with the Clintons. And now, when the New York senator most needs the loyalties of her Democratic colleagues, the checkered history of relations between the Clintons and Democratic officials is making the task tougher, say lawmakers and political analysts.

"The Clintons have a lot of enemies, even in the same Democratic establishment that embraced them," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "Now that it looks like she's done . . . there's not a lot of reason [for them] to stick their necks out for her."

While Bill Clinton launched an upstart campaign in 1992 with his loyal team of FOBs, Friends of Bill, Senator Clinton is now dealing with the fallout from years of disagreements and perceived slights lawmakers have felt over the years.

"This is part of the problem with being in politics for so long: You not only make friends; you make enemies," said Jon Delano, a political analyst at Carnegie Mellon University.

Some superdelegates who have past grievances against the Clintons and have endorsed Obama or remain undeclared insist that they made their decisions irrespective of past issues with the Clintons; Obama supporters insist theirs are pro-Obama votes and not anti-Clinton statements, while those who have yet to announce a decision say they want the primary season to play out first.

But privately, some members of Congress said the Clintons' history on Capitol Hill has hurt them in their time of need. Cooper, whose history with Clinton was described in a book years ago, said he was worried when the matter was revived in a newspaper column in February that his Democratic colleagues would chastise him for criticizing one of the party's leading contenders.

"Instead, I was treated to a hero's reception out there," Cooper said, gesturing toward the House chamber. "People from all over said, 'I'm so glad you told that story about Hillary. She did the same thing to me' . . . on education or some other issue," Cooper said.

Clinton's backers are quick to cite episodes in which she was an enormous help, either on a personal or a professional level. Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, recalled how the busy New York senator took the time to call to check on an ailing family member.

US Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York, recalled Clinton's kindness to his father and how she once interceded to protect Irish activists who faced deportation and certain danger if they were forced to leave.

But others point to a list of leading Democrats who have had run-ins with one or both of the Clintons and have either not endorsed her or have backed her opponent.

They include Senator Robert Casey Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat whose father, Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, was prevented from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention after a dispute with Bill Clinton over abortion. The elder Casey said at the time that he was being punished for his antiabortion stance, but he also refused to endorse the Clinton-Gore ticket at the time.

Former vice president Al Gore, who sometimes sparred with the president's wife during the Clinton administration, has remained silent.

Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat whom Hillary Clinton criticized after he made a botched joke about Bush that was perceived as an attack on US troops in Iraq, has endorsed Obama.

Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who disagreed with Hillary Clinton on healthcare changes when he was Nebraska governor and her husband was in the White House, has endorsed Obama.

Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat whose late husband, former senator Paul Tsongas, endured negative attacks by Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign, has not yet endorsed a candidate.

"The past doesn't matter," Tsongas said of her husband's 1992 experience. "I don't think about that anymore."

Nelson, too, said that it was Obama's message, not prior issues with Clinton, that led him to endorse the Illinois senator.

But others find it difficult to believe that past disputes with the Clintons are not weighing on the superdelegates' minds.

G. Terry Madonna - director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. - said the Clintons have "worn out their welcome" among many superdelegates, in part because of old grievances ranging from personal squabbles to broader issues such as the impeachment fight.

"I do think there's some score-settling on this," Madonna said. "Politics is a very personal activity. It's not easy to remove the personal side of decision-making when it comes to a candidate."

Now that Clinton's chances for the nomination are dimming, party insiders are feeling freer to criticize Clinton and her husband. But Democrats must also be cautious in how they treat the couple, said Charles Manning, a GOP consultant based in Massachusetts.

If Obama sews up the nomination, he will need both Clintons to help heal wounds among some female voters and others who had worked so hard for Clinton's historic candidacy, Manning said.

"There almost seems to be a glee among a lot of people to throw Bill and Hillary Clinton overboard," Manning said. "My guess is [the Clintons] are going to have long memories about this."

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