Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is becoming desperate and it shows. The once inevitable 44th President of the United States is on the verge of losing her dream, so the desperation is understandable. The danger, however, is that if she fails to handle her looming defeat well, she’s likely to harm her party’s chances in November and damage her own reputation and standing among Democrats.
The reason for her desperation? She’s on a major losing streak. Senator Barack Obama has won primaries or caucuses in 10 states plus the one for Democrats Abroad. Yes, Senator Obama was expected to win those states, but not by the margin he earned. The Clinton campaign, spent considerable resources and time in Wisconsin, only to lose last Tuesday’s primary by an embarrassing 17 points.
But that’s not the only depressing news for Senator Clinton and her team. Since early February, Senator Obama has been consistently leading her in national polls according to RealClearPolitics.com, which tracks these things. In the past four weeks the Obama campaign has raised substantially more money, garnered more big-time endorsements, drawn bigger crowds and all but guaranteed he’ll arrive at the Democratic nominating convention in August having won more delegates. (According to the Associated Press, Senator Clinton needs to win approximately 57 percent of the remaining delegates to overtake her rival’s count.)
Senator Clinton claims to already possess the maturity and experience required of a president. The core of her campaign message is that she has the solutions to fix the nation’s problems and is ready to start on Day One — no assembly required. So here she is, facing a crisis — she’s may lose the nomination. How does she handle it?
In the run-up to Wisconsin her campaign turned increasingly negative. It didn’t work. She’s declared the primaries in Ohio and Texas as where she’ll turn the campaign around. She still has a substantial lead in those states, but Senator Obama is whittling away at them.
Her response: go even more negative. After all, if it didn’t work in Wisconsin, why not pour it on? According to the Washington Post, Senator Clinton is launching a new offensive against Senator Obama that “flatly asserts her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination is not prepared to serve as commander in chief.”
OK, as charges go, there are far more vicious or nasty ones. It’s absolutely appropriate for her to claim her long experience better qualifies her to lead the free world. And charges like this are nothing new: the first President George Bush made them about her husband back in 1992.
But Senator Clinton is no longer saying she’s better qualified, she’s saying Senator Obama is not qualified. And that’s stepping over the line. First, because it’s not true. He’s at least as qualified, if not more so, than then Governor Bill Clinton was in that 1992 campaign.
Second, these are the kind of charges that come back to haunt a candidate — and the candidate’s party. These are the charges that show up in Republican commercials in the fall. You can almost hear Senator John McCain in an October debate with Senator Obama claiming, “I’m not the one saying you’re not qualified to be president — Senator Clinton is saying it.” That’s not the kind of moment that will endear her to Democratic voters going forward.
Senator McCain has shown a willingness to follow Senator Clinton’s lines of attack. After his win in Wisconsin, Senator McCain pledged to “… fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure that Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change,” a statement that could have been come verbatim from Senator Clinton.
It’s totally appropriate for Senator Clinton to draw distinctions between herself and her opponent. But statements she’ll need to eat when she endorses him in August aren’t necessary. First, they don’t work well. She’s been denegrating his experience for weeks yet he’s now the frontrunner. Second, it plays to Senator Obama’s strength as the candidate who wants to set aside the old politics of rigid ideology and nasty politics.
By going negative she gives him the opportunity to respond, as he did in the Washington Post story with statements like “Today, Senator Clinton told us there is a choice in this race, and I couldn’t agree with her more. But contrary to what she was saying, it’s not a choice between speeches and solutions. It’s a choice between the politics of divisions and distractions that did not work in South Carolina, that did not work in Wisconsin and that will not work in Texas.” You don’t win political contests by allowing your opponent to remind voters why he’s the better candidate.
Senator Clinton has been counted out before. The New Hampshire primary was just two months ago. Significantly, her come from behind win there was not the result of going negative. On the contrary, it was because she showed herself as a human being, not just a politician, that surprised the pundits.
Tonight’s debate will see whether it’s the lessons of New Hampshire or Wisconsin that she’s taken to heart.