Vice presidential nominees play a time honored role: attack dog. The Veep-hopeful says things about the other side that the presidential nominee would like to say, but can’t. After all, the top of the ticket has to appear presidential. Candidates for vice president, on the other hand, just need to be pithy, quotable and sharp-edged. The presidential nominee talks policy, the vice presidential nominee talks up the negatives of the other side.
That’s the way general elections traditionally run. This being the election of “change,” one might hope it would be different. Based on Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign primary campaign strategy, we may, unfortunately, be in for more of the same.
Most candidates have to wait until after the conventions before they get a sidekick. But Senator Clinton enjoys a unique advantage. Her husband, after all, has been President of the United States. And he appears delighted to fill the role of Vice Presidential nominee until a real one comes along.
In New Hampshire not long ago he claimed Senator Clinton’s chief rival, Senator Barack Obama, was telling a “fairy tale” in his opposition to the Iraq war. In the dispute over race, he was one of those fanning the flames for awhile.
And now, according to the Associated Press, President Clinton is trying to paint Senator Obama “as the ‘establishment’ candidate who would bring only the ‘feeling of change.’” In a speech in Sparks, Nevada, President Clinton claimed “”One candidate says you should vote for me because I’ve not been involved at all in the struggles of the past and therefore we need to turn over a new leaf and (try) something absolutely new. And if you want the feeling of change, then that is the person you should support.” The implication: Senator Obama has accomplished nothing in his life and is incapable of leading.
For one of the youngest presidents ever elected, whose only previous public service was Governor of Arkansas, it’s quite a statement. It’s one thing to tout your own candidate’s resume. It’s another to claim your opponent is inept. Yet that’s the message President Clinton sought to convey about Senator Obama.
What’s ironic is that President Clinton’s attacks are a reminder of how out of step with the current political environment the Clintons have become. People are hungry not just for a change in policies, but for new terms of engagement. Yet here President Clinton is, in full-vice presidential candidate-mode, engaging in the kind of negative politics the public wants to put aside.
The Clintons seem so entrenched in their “us versus them” view of the world that they’re blind to the desire of voters to see in change in how their president leads. To be fair, their “us versus them” mentality was justified during President Clinton’s administration given the out-of-control attack politics of the GOP at the time. But that was then. This is now. It’s time to let go, to move on. It’s time to focus not just on what Senator Clinton would do in the White House, but how she would go about doing it.
As recently as November, Senator Clinton held a 2-1 lead in the polls. Now she, Senator Obama and former-Senator John Edwards are in a statistical dead heat with the caucuses just three days away. Senator Clinton has a choice: she can seize the voice she rediscovered in New Hampshire or return to her voice of the 90’s. With the former she can talk about change with credibility and compassion. With the other, she reminds voters she’s a part of the establishment they’re trying to change. And President Clinton needs to remember he’s not running for Vice President.