By Edward Klein, NY Post
Not since the feud between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter tore the Democratic Party apart more than 30 years ago have two panjandrums of the party loathed each other quite as much as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
And yet this week, television viewers will be treated to a remarkable spectacle at the Democratic National Convention: Clinton will stand before a cheering throng of delegates on Thursday night and deliver a primetime speech nominating Obama, a man he once dismissed as incompetent, as president of the United States.
The Clinton-Obama feud is the worst-kept secret in the Democratic Party. It traces back to the bruising 2008 primary campaign, when Obama’s surrogates lambasted Bill and Hillary for being “racists” and a Clinton aide said of Obama that he “embraces the politics of trash.” The animosity still stirs such deep emotions that a year ago Clinton held a secret meeting of friends and political advisers at his home in Chappaqua and urged his wife to challenge Obama for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012.
According to two people who attended the meeting, Hillary rejected her husband’s advice that she run against a sitting president of her own party. But that didn’t stop Bill Clinton from going on a rant about Obama.
“I’ve heard more from Bush, asking for my advice, than I’ve heard from Obama,” my sources quoted Clinton as saying. “I have no relationship with the president – none whatsoever. Obama doesn’t know how to be president. He doesn’t know how the world works. He’s incompetent. He’s an amateur!”
Why, then, is Clinton making a speech on behalf of a man for whom he has such little respect? And why is Obama putting his nomination in the hands of man he doesn’t trust?
My sources inside the Obama campaign tell me that the last thing Obama wanted to see was Clinton, one of the country’s greatest orators, standing at the podium of the Democratic convention and sucking all the air out of the place.
The president, First Lady Michelle Obama and their senior political adviser, Valerie Jarrett, all argued strenuously against offering Clinton a plum assignment at the convention. They wanted to relegate him to a minor, non-prime-time speaking role. However, Clinton, who is viewed as an iconic figure by the party faithful, refused to accept anything less than the all-important nominating speech and threatened to boycott the convention unless his demands were met.
The decisive vote in the matter, according to my sources, was cast by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, who argued that the Obamas needed Clinton far more than Clinton needed them. Axelrod had long been aware that things were not going as well for Obama as the mainstream media reported. On the eve of the party’s presidential convention, Democrats had outspent Republicans 4 to 1 and had poured more than $200 million into negative commercials against Mitt Romney, and yet polls showed the race to be a dead heat, with Romney beginning to pull ahead in some critical swing states.
What’s more, Axelrod had reason to worry about the trend lines in the remaining two months of the contest. The Romney campaign had been far more effective in raising money than the Obama campaign, and from now until November, it would be Romney, not Obama, who would have the financial advantage.
Finally, Axelrod had to admit that the Obama campaign’s strategy of talking about everything but the economy wasn’t working, especially after Paul Ryan joined the Republican ticket and turned Medicare and budget deficits into GOP talking points. With the unemployment rate stuck at more than 8% for 42 months, the consumer-confidence index tumbling to its lowest level in almost a year, and household income continuing to fall, Obamanomics was widely perceived as a failure. A whopping 56% of registered voters disapproved of the job Obama was doing on the economy.
Someone had to make the case that Democrats could fix the economy – and it couldn’t be Obama.
Enter Bill Clinton, who presided over boom times and balanced budgets in the 1990s and whose 66% favorability rating outstrips Obama’s job approval rating by 20 points. As the most admired Democrat in the country, Clinton appeals to the very constituency – white working-class voters – that gives Obama the most trouble.
And so Clinton was signed on to remind voters of the glory days of a Democratic president’s economy. Since then, Clinton has been furiously at work writing his speech in longhand, as is his custom. As he’s continued to revise the speech, he has received numerous suggestions from the Obama camp about what they want him to say. This, according to my sources, has made Clinton furious.
The Obama campaign has insisted on seeing the speech before Clinton delivers it, and Clinton has just as insistently refused to show it to them. As a result, no one – not even the president – knows what Clinton intends to say. This has led some Democratic insiders to speculate that Clinton will make not-so-flattering remarks about the last four years of Democratic rule in the White House.
“If I were the president,” one of these insiders told me, “I’d wake up at night in a cold sweat wondering what surprises Clinton is going to come up with.”
The question remains: Why did Clinton agree to add his luster to what is shaping up to be a rather lackluster Democratic convention? The answer is simple: As far as Bill Clinton is concerned, 2012 is not the decisive election. That election will be held in 2016, when Hillary will be 69 years old and have one last chance to run for president – a chance that Bill and Hillary intend to seize.
And so, look for Bill Clinton to use his hour of prime-time TV to burnish the Clinton brand and remind Democrats at the convention and throughout the country how much they miss the Clintons.
And where will Hillary be while her husband is spinning his magic words? She will be half a world away in the Far East, doing business as secretary of State and, not incidentally, burnishing her own image as a world-class stateswoman who has been everywhere, done everything and is ready to lead the world.
Edward Klein is the author of the bestseller “The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House” (Regnery Publishing), out now.
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