Rick Holmes: The return of 'Billary'

Rick Holmes

A lot changed in the world of Democratic politics between the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary, including the language of the race.

Listen to how people, whether journalists, political insiders or ordinary voters, refer to the candidates. A month ago, they talked of Hillary's campaign; now everything is "the Clintons" did this or did that. The term "Billary" was little used before New Hampshire; on Sunday, I Googled up close to 500 mentions of Billary in news coverage just in the past week.

Someone in the Clinton camp - most likely Bill - got the impression that Bill's popularity pulled Hillary across the finish line in New Hampshire and decided returning to the two-for-the-price-of-one argument was just the ticket. That may prove to be a fatal miscalculation.

Bill didn't win votes in South Carolina, he lost them. He didn't enhance Hillary's bid by offering himself as the senior statesman at her side, he reminded voters of Slick Willie's dark side.

The Clintons may have figured that out now, but they hadn't on Saturday. First, Bill compared Barack Obama's win to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. That was bad history - Jackson's wins in the earlier caucuses were largely uncontested and not at all comparable. What's worse, Bill's hidden agenda appeared to involve branding Obama as a black candidate that white people won't vote for.

Is it unfair to ascribe such a Machiavellian scheme to Bill? Maybe, but it's not implausible. Consider what Dick Morris, the Karl Rove of the Clinton White House, told Fox News: Bill Clinton "wants to draw attention to the fact that the blacks are voting for Obama so that the racial backlash causes the whites to vote for Hillary and she wins Florida and Super Tuesday and making this the black primary, like Washington, D.C. She encourages racial polarization."

It's no surprise that race became an issue when the candidates hit the first primary with a large black vote. To some extent, both campaigns played the race card. Obama may be a post-civil rights candidate, but he's no stranger to the politics of race. The results in South Carolina show that he played the game with much more subtlety and skill than the Clintons.

But this election isn't about black vs. white, I'm guessing, as it is about young vs. old. That's where the transition from Hillary to Billary really hurts the Clintons.

In another misstep Saturday, the campaign had Bill come on TV first to offer his congratulations to Obama. Hillary appeared much later, barely mentioning South Carolina before going into her stump speech. Meanwhile, Obama had delivered perhaps his best speech since he keynoted the 2004 convention, perfectly tuned to the South Carolina moment.

Every time Bill steps into the spotlight, voters are reminded that Hillary is really seeking Bill's third term. "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" has been replaced with "I remember yesterday."

As the economy replaces the war as a campaign centerpiece, the turn-back-the-clock theme will become even stronger. Will it work? I don't think so.

The endorsements by Ted and Caroline Kennedy put multi-generational blessing on the enthusiasm young voters have for Obama. Caroline, like Oprah, is an icon, not a politician. Her endorsement caught the attention of voters who don't pay much attention to politics, but remember being a kid when Caroline was First Kid. Ted reaches traditional Democratic constituents, and the timing of his endorsement, which dominated the political news for three days, was perfect.

Hillary backers, who have been arguing that great oratory doesn't matter, are now pretending that enthusiasm doesn't matter either. They keep hoping for low turnouts among all voters except women over 60, and it keeps not happening.

Last week, a poll gave Hillary a 25-point lead in Massachusetts. My guess is the race here is now a toss-up, and "the Clintons"' promise to build a bridge back to the 20th century won't work.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, edits the Holmes & Co. blog ( He can be reached at