What do the people know, anyway?

While the public lists Iraq as their No. 1 concern, some in the press don't believe them

I can’t imagine the Clinton campaign is terribly thrilled about Matt Bai’s article “The Clinton Referendum” that is slated to run in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The piece isn’t negative in any traditional sense about Clinton or her campaign, but Bai does describe her platform as being backward-looking, implicitly telling voters that she will finish the business her husband started back in the 1990s:

Like most successful outsiders, Bill Clinton directly challenged the status quo of both his party and the country, arguing that such a tumultuous moment demanded more than two stark ideologies better suited to the past. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign to this point has been mostly about restoring an old status quo; she holds herself up as the best chance Democrats have to end eight years of Bush’s “radical experiment” and to return to the point where her husband left off. It has been a strong but safe campaign, full of nondescript slogans (“I’m In to Win!” “The Change We Need!”) and familiar, if worthy, policy prescriptions. That might be a shrewd primary strategy, but winning a general election could well require a more inspiring rationale. Nonincumbents who go on to win the White House almost always take some greater risk along the way, promising changes more profound — if potentially more divisive — than a return to normalcy. The reformer runs great danger. The more cautious candidate merely runs.

Ouch. What he’s saying here, and what he says in various ways throughout the piece, is that while Bill Clinton doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for actually moving the Democratic party away from the calcified organization it had become by the end of the twentieth century, Hillary Clinton, while attaching herself to Bill’s core achievements, isn’t moving his ideas any further down the field. What’s more, Bai does a good job of showing how she is walking a tightrope between carrying the mantle for her husband’s eight years in office, and trying to distance herself from his presidency. Bai also smartly situates the contemporary Democratic party—and its candidates currently seeking the party’s nomination for president—as one that owes much of its rhetorical style and substantive content to ideas and themes pioneered by Bill Clinton in the ’90s.

Since it’s a Times Magazine piece, Bai isn’t forced to navigate the tired he said/she said minefield that trips up so many newspaper writers, freeing him to construct a pretty engaging historical analysis of “Clintonism” and the role it plays in the current election.

The piece, while having a discernible point of view, is written in a way that one could draw any number of conclusions from it—another hallmark of good magazine writing—and on Wednesday, the American Prospect’s Dana Goldstein did just that. Goldstein used the Bai article as a jumping off point to conclude that:

The 2008 presidential election will not be about foreign policy at all, but will be a referendum on the state of the United States and its two parties here at home.

Goldstein thinks this is a good thing, and if the country weren’t engaged in two shooting wars right now, I might be inclined to agree. But since the United States is currently fighting two very polarizing foreign wars, it seems a no-brainer that our foreign policy should be at the forefront in the presidential debates.

But as we saw in the Democratic and Republican debates in Iowa last week, in which the moderator refused to talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, what should happen and what does happen in politics aren’t always the same thing.

But don’t take my word for it, just ask the American people what they consider the most important issue the country faces. In poll after poll, Americans say the war in Iraq is the most pressing issue facing the nation today. In recent polls conducted by CBS News/New York Times; Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg; and NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, clear majorities listed the war as the issue they think candidates should make their top priority.

But hey, what do they know?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.