Monday, February 18, 2008

The Kitchen Sink
Sometimes style can tell you a lot. A day before the Wisconsin primary. the Clinton campaign evidently has decided to empty out the fecal arsenal: today's charges against Barack Obama include that he plagiarized a speech from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a friend and supporter, and that Obama is a hypocrite for his indecision on whether or not to take public financing for the general election, should he win the nomination. (Clinton also probably would opt out of public financing... but then, nobody expects her to do the "right" thing.) This follows on the heels of last week's Clinton attack--that Obama was ducking his opponent because he didn't want to debate in Wisconsin, even though the candidates are slated to face off Thursday in Texas and next Tuesday in Ohio.

Obama responded to the debate attack with an ad of his own, blasting the charge as "the same old politics." Of course it is; that's how the game is played, and that's certainly how the Clintons play. At best, one can sympathize with their frustration that Sen. Clinton's previous line of attack--that her health care plan is universal, while Obama's isn't, necessarily--didn't take. Then again, their internal polling might have yielded the finding that people don't take well to mandates that would include having their wages garnisheed; maybe Obama's more incremental and consensual approach, a nod to the "politics of the possible," is preferable on PR if not policy grounds. So it's back to the distortion and slander game.

It might work. Clinton is still well ahead in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, all states where down-market Democrats continue to favor brand loyalty. But the swing-state polls, one of which I mentioned the other day in Colorado, keep coming--and the evidence continues to mount that, surprise, nominating the most hated woman in American politics seriously hurts Democrats' chances of victory in November:

WI-Pres Feb 18 SurveyUSA: McCain (R) 49%, Clinton (D) 42%
WI-Pres Feb 18 SurveyUSA: Obama (D) 52%, McCain (R) 42%

OR-Pres Feb 17 Rasmussen: McCain (R) 45%, Clinton (D) 42%
OR-Pres Feb 17 Rasmussen: Obama (D) 49%, McCain (R) 40%

PA-Pres Feb 17 Rasmussen: McCain (R) 44%, Clinton (D) 42%
PA-Pres Feb 17 Rasmussen: Obama (D) 49%, McCain (R) 39%

But it's not like the Democrats need to hang on to Wisconsin, Oregon, or Pennsylvania, right?

Whether they were being serious or just typically disingenuous, the Clinton campaign stated last year that they figured it would be more difficult to win the Democratic nomination than the general election. From the vantage point of mid-2007, when Iraq was still the single biggest issue, there's a logic behind that statement: they probably assumed the senator's war vote would be a bigger obstacle amongst Democratic primary voters than the entire electorate. Mark Penn's "inevitability" approach was supposed to render resistance futile within the party, and Clinton would be able to bring recalcitrant liberals in line by wrapping up the nomination with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and then spending six months becoming more "likable." The Republicans, meanwhile, would nominate some slavish Bush disciple or an easily caricatured buffoon like Giuliani; given the choice between a third Bush term or an unbalanced sociopath on the one hand, and steady Hillary Clinton on the other, the Clintons would leverage their tactical expertise into a fairly easy victory.

Like so many plans, though, this one didn't survive contact with reality. In fact, every facet of it failed to come true. Obama planted the Not-HIllary flag early, and his tactical moves--organizing on the ground, raising money online, peeling off just enough institutional support early to avoid getting frozen out, emphasizing caucus wins in smaller states to poach delegates--proved much better than hers. And now, far from working to smooth out her rough edges, Clinton is trying to tear down Obama and climb over his political corpse to the nomination. Meanwhile, it's John McCain, perhaps the one Republican of national stature who's somewhat inoculated from Bush's miserable political legacy, who is looking ahead to November.

Any Clinton victory now--and she still could win it--would be entirely pyrrhic. Millions of Obama supporters would back her reluctantly or not at all; independent voters who'd pull the lever for virtually any other Democrat, particularly a charismatic figure like Obama, would back McCain by overwhelming margins against Clinton. It's almost impossible to see how she gets from where she is today to a general election victory in November.

Yet she continues to fight, because that's what the Clintons do: it's always and forever about them, with the party--and certainly its principles--somewhere way back in the mists. They'd rather lose with Hillary, and leave the country to whatever consequences result, than win with anyone else. The latest attacks on Obama--this collection of irrelevant minutiae far from the "solutions" Senator Clinton claims to present--is just more of the same.

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