Its back against the wall, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign has made the decision, arrived at with no obvious regret or second thoughts, to run the rest of the way in negative-attack mode, indulging fully in what the candidate herself calls the fun part. Win or lose, the Clintonsits always a team effortare determined to go out in the same undignified way they came in: sore losers when they lose, graceless winners when they win, and remorseless, gut-level campaigners at all times.
The putative first couple of Democratic politics have shown, time and again, that they will do anything, say anything, and imply anything to win an election. In that respect, they are the Karl Rove and Lee Atwater of the Democratic party. As the Ohio and Texas primaries came to a successful close for the Clintons, they had consecutively played the gender card, the race card, the ethnic card, the fear card, and, yes, the religion card. (Is Obama really a Christian, rather than a Muslim? Hillary isnt sure, even though they attended Washington prayer breakfasts together.)
The now-infamous kitchen-sink strategy used in the March 4 contests showed the Clintons at their worst, heaving political excrement of all sorts at the wall and hoping some of it would stick. Was Barack Obama engaged in a corrupt land deal with criminal types? Did he engage in double-talk on NAFTA and sell out American jobs to a foreign country? (That countrys government says no.) Is he really a drugged-up version of Kenneth Starr? Does he deliberately want to leave millions of Americans medically uninsured? Is he too weak and inexperienced to respond to nameless terrors in the night, particularly at 3 a.m.? Cast aspersions, create doubt, and raise suspicion. Half-truth, outright falsehood, derogatory innuendowhatever works.
The truth is, regrettably, that negative campaigning, the politics of personal destruction injected into the 2008 campaign by the Clintons, does work. American voters say they disapprove of it, but theyre kidding themselves; it works because deep down (and this is a sad commentary on the electorate, or a substantial part of it at least) they are prone to believe the worst. Negative campaigns are to politics what supermarket tabloids are to journalism; they appeal, successfully, to our lesser, baser selves. The Clintons know this, and they use it.
Bill and Hillary also have no readily apparent competitive scruples. There are invisible lines most politicians will not cross, boundaries of honesty and good taste they will not move beyond. The Clintons have yet to be restrained by any such ethical barrier. If they have to destroy the personal and political reputation of Barack Obama to win, they will. If that destroys, in turn, the hopes and ideals of an entire younger generation drawn to his inspirational leadership, so be it. And, if risking the destruction of the Democratic party is necessary to produce a Clinton nomination, even if the issue is not (as in 1968) war or peace but personal ambition, its a price worth paying. Not for nothing did Senator John Kerry, the Democrats 2004 standard-bearer, deliver the opinion (quoted in campaign consultant Robert Shrums recent memoir) that the only thing the Clintons care about is themselves and their power.
How else to explain the scorched-earth campaign presently under way, including the unpardonable political sin of comparing fellow Democrat Obama unfavorably to the other partys nominee John McCain? Both herself and McCain, Hillary declared in the run-up to Ohio and Texas, were seasoned, competent public servants fit for commander-in-chief, while the callow youth contesting her rightful nomination was a rank amateur capable only of empty rhetoric. Suppose the amateur becomes the nominee and has to carry that baggage into the general election. Its of no concern to the Clintons, should they lose their partys nod. As Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV of France, proclaimed in a moment of self-regarding grandiosity, Après nous, le déluge. (After us, the deluge.) Something of the same attitude lives in the Clinton campaign 250 years later.
The immediate problem for Barack Obama and his brains trust, who were obviously taken aback (they shouldnt have been) and knocked off stride by the ferocity of the latest Clinton attack, is how to neutralize its effects as the campaign proceeds to Pennsylvania and beyond. Its a given that the negative assault wont stop, so they will have to learn to combat it. They appear to know thats the case; David Axelrod, Obamas chief campaign guru, told the press his candidate would respond in his own way. This implies a response that hits back without descending into the depths, that employs an iron fist with a velvet glove and preserves Obamas standing as a new-politics politician.
Staying out of the sewer with the bottom-feeding Clintons and still winning will be no mean feat. Heres one unsolicited suggestion for the Obama campaign: Address straight-on the preposterous Clinton claims of superior experience, about which the New York senator has received a pass from the media. Hillarys purported governing experience consists of slightly over one term in the Senate and eight years as first lady; her prior career was largely spent as a corporate lawyer, much of it devoted to representing Wal-Mart. Being first lady, which the Clinton camp translates into vast executive and foreign-policy expertise, gives her, as one wag put it, the same gravitas as Laura Bush and Pat Nixon. Travelling abroad to attend funerals, meet minor foreign dignitaries, or be photographed riding elephants in exotic locations does not a president make.
There are other tacks Obama should take. He needs, for one thing, to borrow from John Edwards and hammer on the populist economic issues that rightly concern the besieged working and middle classes. Most immediately, however, he (or his surrogates) have to answer Clintons scurrilous character accusations, and do so firmly and smartly without sinking to her level. Smear tactics are why millions of Americans hate politics; they leave a lingering bad taste in the mouth. Unless Obama can counter effectively without responding in kind, not only will he lose, but legions of newly engaged voters and activists will react with disgust and be permanently lost to the democratic process as well.
Wayne OLeary is a writer in Orono, Maine. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2008
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