'Caution vs. Courage'

The buzz in Democratic circles for the past two weeks has been over the decision to raise money for Sen. Barack Obama by two or three multi-millionaire liberals from Hollywood, who were previously thought to be supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for president. An explanation that this is the movie industry’s delayed reaction against some of President Bill Clinton’s policies is not credible. The real reason for the defection is more troubling for Sen. Clinton’s presidential campaign.

In fact, the Hollywood defections have the same root as the resistance to Clinton’s candidacy among less glittering Democratic activists throughout the rest of the country. A substantial number of them do not want to participate in a coronation of the former first lady because they still doubt her viability as a presidential candidate. They question both her position on the issues and her skills on the campaign trail.

What’s wrong with Clinton was demonstrated by the Feb. 4 performance on NBC’s "Meet the Press" of a competitor, former Sen. John Edwards, who displayed the qualities she lacks. He took firm positions and admitted error, contrasting Clinton’s careful parsing of what she says. It followed his virtuoso performance at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) meeting two days earlier that again overshadowed Clinton’s speech there. Comparing Clinton and Edwards, one longtime observer of the Democratic scene called it "caution vs. courage."

For many months, long before Clinton confirmed she was a candidate, her agents have been pinning down commitments from a staggering array of Democrats who were connected in large or small degree with her husband to create an aura of inevitability about her nomination. That effort hit a bump two weeks ago with the announcement that David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg of the DreamWorks film studios, who all were thought to be staunch Clintonites, were sponsoring a Feb. 20 Los Angeles fund-raiser for Obama.

According to Democratic sources, former President Clinton got Spielberg to step away from a tacit endorsement of Obama. Spielberg has let it be known that he will host a future fund-raiser for Clinton as part of a policy of helping all Democratic presidential candidates. But Katzenberg and Geffen seem to be clearly in Obama’s camp.

Two theories for these defections have been put out by Democrats favorable to Clinton. First, the gay community in Hollywood is seeking revenge against President Clinton’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy restricting open homosexuality in military service. Second, the entertainment industry still harbors resentment about Clinton-Gore Administration criticism of the material that is presented to children.

But these explanations defy reality, in the opinion of Democrats not yet committed to any candidate. Hollywood, including the DreamWorks producers, was solidly behind Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996 and then Al Gore’s campaign in 2000.

The real reason for not desiring a Hillary coronation, as described to me by California Democrats, is resentment of her cautious sidestep rightward over the last six years. They still cannot get over her sponsorship in 2005 of an anti-flag burning constitutional amendment. The whispered worry is that Clinton as the presidential nominee would be a loser in a year when all the stars seem aligned for a Republican defeat.

What’s wrong with Clinton was pointed out by Edwards in his "Meet the Press" performance. He not only said he was "wrong" about Iraq when he first supported the intervention, but advocated universal health care and asserted: "Yes, we’ll have to raise taxes." Clinton has cautiously hedged on each of these issues (as Edwards pointed out in the case of her stance on Iraq).

Edwards is not personally popular with many members of the Democratic elite, who view him as a glib but shallow trial lawyer. They remember that he began his 2000 campaign for president as a centrist Southern Democrat in the Jimmy Carter-Bill Clinton mold, but after he was not getting anywhere switched to left-wing populism. The politically viable alternative to Clinton may be Obama.

Nevertheless, Edwards’s "courage" energized DNC members Feb. 2 as Clinton’s "caution" did not. The point is that many Democrats, from DreamWorks to DNC, are voting no on a Hillary coronation.