March 06, 2008

Clinton Rises from the Mud, But McCain is the Winner

After the American Century

Hillary Clinton has wallowed in the mud and been rewarded for it. No one doubts that her series of dubious allegations and fear mongering in the last week has been decisive in winning Texas and helping her in Ohio. Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater back in 1964 with an advertisement that bluntly asked voters, whose finger did they want on the atomic button. Hillary's advertisement was a bit more subtle, but not much, suggesting that for reasons never stated, she would be more competent to answer a sudden emergency in the middle of the night. Actually, I cannot think of any particular reason why Hillary, who has no military experience at all, and whose record on the Iraq War is uneven, would have better judgement than Obama when half awake in the middle of night. Perhaps we are to assume that she has Bill Clinton beside her to offer his non-existent military experience. The sad fact is that advertisement, effective as it may have been in the short run, undermines both Democrats. If the election really is about who should answer that phone in a military emergency, then most Americans will think of John McCain.

The advertisement is just one of many examples from the last week of how the Obama-Clinton fight runs the danger of damaging the eventual Democratic nominee. Suppose Obama decides to stop being so nice to Hillary? What if he put together an advertisement showing her many sharply different moods, including crying for the cameras? And suppose that advertisement ended with him asking: Is She Stable Enough In a Crisis? Every feminist in the US would rise up in fury, and help convince the electorate that Clinton indeed is unstable. By playing the "angry woman" which was her persona during much of last week, she runs a terrible risk. It worked for a few days, but the Republicans can easily undermine her for being moody if she does not hit and maintain a steady and measured tone, as McCain has been doing for some time.

Clinton's next stunt, yesterday, to suggest that Obama, who is leading, should subordinate himself to her and become her running mate, is calculated, too. There is no example in American politics, ever, of the person with the most delegates giving up like that. Obama should, of course, accept her offer to be his vice-presidential running mate! Which she too would refuse.

Then consider Clinton's successful smear tactics on NAFTA. Even Danish reporters who are following the campaign in the US, like Politiken's Marcus Rubin, are repeating the misrepresentations spread from the Clinton campaign, that Obama gave secret assurances to Canadian officials that he did not really mean what he was saying about NAFTA. Now the Canadians say that this did not happen. But if you throw enough mud just before people vote, then some sticks and is even spread around by reporters long after the lie has been discredited.

Meanwhile, throwing that particular mud at Obama helped voters forget that Bill Clinton championed the NAFTA Treaty and signed it, or that Hillary also supported it for some time. NAFTA should have been a problem for her, but by throwing mud it became his problem. Worst of all, NAFTA is not really the problem. Ohio did not lose its steel industry because of that agreement, nor are its automobile parts plants closed because of it. A far more nuanced debate on jobs and trade never took place.

Or again, Clinton is doing her best to make Obama look as though he was tightly connected to a Chicago wheeler and dealer, now on trial. But that man, in fact, has given campaign money to both Republicans and Democrats for a generation, and Obama gave back all the funds he ever contributed. She wants to make it seem that Obama, who bought his house and an adjoining strip of land at the market price, has committed a crime. Last time I checked, there is nothing illegal about purchasing land at the market price from someone who has legal title to the land. Should Obama reply in kind, and dig up old Whitewater allegations against Clinton? Should he remind the public that the Clintons took quite a lot of White House furniture with them, illegally, when they left in 2001? The Republicans will be ready to do that anyway, but what if it starts already now?

The Clintons headed into the mud with less success in South Carolina. When behind, their instinct is to go negative. We have not seen the end of it, but the consequences can be dire. For these tactics take the gloss off both candidates, and deepen the split between Obama's and Hillary's supporters. Mud slinging will make it harder to unify the Democratic Party later, and it will weaken the party's appeal to the Independents. And don't forget, those swing voters decide every close election.

Meanwhile, John McCain clinched the Republican nomination, as Huckabee withdrew from the race. McCain has not thrown any mud, but remained statesmanlike during his campaign. He was at the White House yesterday, getting the endorsement of President Bush. Republicans are beginning to adjust to the idea of McCain as their leader, and Mrs. McCain has now had a chance to think about how to rearrange the White House furniture. Meanwhile, the Democrats are getting dirty, and no where near the Rose Garden.

Three months ago, many said that 2008 would definitely be a great year for the Democrats, because of Iraq, because of the failing economy, because Bush is so unpopular. But McCain is the strongest opponent the Republicans had available, because he is definitely neither a Bush clone nor a religious, right-wing candidate. He appeals to swing voters. According to polls, still early of course, he would beat Hillary now and is running close to Obama. Think what he might do after some more mud has been thrown, once he has, for the first time some money to campaign with. All in all, it has been a great week for the Republicans.