Senator Hillary Clinton and her key advisers seem convinced that the questions they raised about Senator Barack Obama’s ability to manage the economy and the nation’s defense worked. They point to exit polls showing Senator Clinton winning among voters who decided just prior to the Texas and Ohio primaries as proof. And the data bears this theory out.
According to the MSNBC exit polls, in Texas Senator Clinton won the support of 67 percent and in Ohio 63 percent of those deciding on a candidate in the three days leading up to the election day. Granted, the Obama campaign did nearly as much damage to itself as the Clinton commandos did. The meeting between his economic adviser and the Canadian consulate was boneheaded and the timing of the leak about it was devastating.
Senator Clinton seems to relish going negative. Her campaign was supposed to have wrapped up the nomination back in early February. She sometimes seems insulted that she still needs to campaign for what, in her and her supporters minds, is rightfully hers. So she’ll keep the attacks coming. If she’s smart, she’ll leave the toughest hits to her surrogates while she focuses on showing her more human and caring side. Whether she is capable of remaining above the fray is yet to be seen.
Senator Obama, meanwhile, has a tough choice to make. Any candidate has plenty of negatives to choose among in a campaign against Senator Clinton. She’s made the successes of her husband’s administration a part of her candidacy. That makes his problems her problems, too. Questions about that administration’s last minute pardons, the contributions to the Bill Clinton presidential library and the like become fair game.
Senator Obama’s staff has begun raising those issues with the press. According to Boston Globe, some of his supporters even cast these attacks as a public service to the Democratic party. “These are important questions. The people deserve to know. And we deserve, as Democrats, to know before a nominee is selected, because we don’t want things to explode in a general election against John McCain,” the Globe quotes former-Senator Bill Bradley as saying.
Senator Obama needs to demonstrate he can play hardball politics, but he has to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine his status as the champion of a new kind of politics. It won’t be an easy balance to achieve or maintain. If he errs toward being too soft, he risks being viewed as lacking the strength to be president; if he goes too far in the other direction he risks undermining not only his own credibility, but a core principle of his campaign.
The good news is that Senator Obama doesn’t need to go negative. The questions about Senator Clinton are out there. Now, every time she attacks Senator Obama, some reporter is likely to bring up one of her problems as well. Meanwhile, the calendar could work to Senator Obama’s favor.
First, he’s likely to do well in the contests leading up to Pennsylvania primary on April 22nd. Those victories will recapture some of the momentum he lost in Ohio and Texas. Second, if the Clinton campaign goes too negative — something they’re prone to do — the public will get turned off. In the meantime, Senator Obama’s campaign can use their response to her attacks as an opportunity to counterpunch. This allows his campaign to attack Senator Clinton without being the aggressor.
Finally, Senator Obama can use the six weeks remaining before the Pennsylvania primary to present his substantive credentials while remaining above the fray of “old school” politics. He should schedule at least two major policy speeches before April 22nd. One should focus on foreign policy; the other on the economy. They should be bull speeches presented to dull audiences. They should be substantive, detailed and. well, boring. Their goal is to add gravitas to his candidacy and his persona. After all, establishing himself as a capable leader is the best defense against the attacks the Clinton campaign will be throwing his way.
Senator Obama has an opportunity to use the next six weeks to show what turning the page on the Clinton/Bush era of negative politics would look like. And that is a winning message.