So much for the importance of experience, past alliances and consistency as major factors in the selection of a presidential candidate, at least as far as Bill Richardson is concerned. It seems that in the New Mexico governor’s political handbook, opportunism trumps nearly everything, including loyalty.
But then, whoever said politics was about anything more than expediency. Loyalty plays a role only when one is on top. Seldom, however, is the lack of it so nakedly apparent.
There is no doubt that Richardson owes much in his political career to the beneficence of Bill Clinton, in whose administration he served two important roles, including secretary of energy. But despite his former boss’s entreaties to at least remain neutral if he couldn’t endorse Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, the governor proudly announced for Sen. Barack Obama, refusing even to take the former president’s calls for a week before making an “unpleasant” call of his own to Hillary Clinton.
Richardson’s endorsement of the short-time senator was completely inconsistent with the “been there, done that” theme of his own hapless campaign for the Democratic nomination, which drew heavily on his achievements as a Clinton team member. He constantly cited this Washington savvy as putting him head and shoulders above the crowd before bowing out in January when it became evident that, as far as presidential aspirations were concerned, he was the wily coyote and Clinton and Obama were the road runners.
“I have the experience. I’ve been in Iraq. I’ve negotiated with Saddam Hussein. I was secretary of energy. I increased energy efficiency in this country. I’ve been a governor. A lot of people give speeches about these issues. I’ve actually done it,” he said in a television interview early last year when asked about his political plans.
“This nation needs a leader with a proven track record,” he said when he officially launched his bid for the nomination a few months later.
During a debate in the final days before the New Hampshire primary, he again harped on the importance of past political accomplishment.
“Whatever happened to experience? Is experience a leper? We want to change this country. But you have to have, you have to know how to do it,” he said. But that was all before Obama had become the favorite to win the nomination, a development that obviously convinced Richardson that Obama had somehow overnight gained the missing element and become experienced enough to bring about the change he promises in every speech.
If there was more than just a hint of “and I can help” in the governor’s endorsement, who can blame him? Someone has to fill out the ticket or become secretary of state. After all, politics is all about the moment. Personal relationships seldom get in the way of practicality. So watching football games with Bill Clinton and schmoozing with Hillary Clinton hardly is any reason for them to believe they could expect at least a measure of neutrality and a touch of decency in the nominating war from their one-time friend and political beneficiary.
What goes around comes around, however, and the Clintons understand this about as well as anyone, having been involved over their long political partnership in making some of the same decisions based on expediency. Nevertheless, Richardson’s dramatic announcement was almost Shakespearean, bringing dire predictions of Hillary Clinton’s final wound from the unkindest thrust of all. Perhaps. But it is always difficult to assess the value of endorsements, other than to note that one coming this late generally reflects the endorser’s keen sense of smell, particularly for blood.
Richardson isn’t the first former Clinton team member to defect. The list includes former Vice President Al Gore, who eschewed his president’s support eight years ago and, many believe, lost the election because he did so. Old alliances frequently mean nothing in politics. For instance, Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, announced his support for Obama while his own vice-presidential running mate, John Edwards, was still a viable candidate.
Loyalty is too often measured by what one has done for you lately or can do for you in the future. Richardson clearly asked those questions and felt that Hillary Clinton’s chances of answering them were fading fast.
Whether the governor’s fellow Hispanic voters will follow to any degree remains to be seen. But he, too, should remember the cliche about reaping and sowing. Richardson seems very accomplished in the art of flexible politics. He may need to be. Long memories are customary in Washington politics. His thrust won’t be forgotten.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)