Let's say you're the candidate who has promised to bring our country together. You've pledged to elevate the tone of American politics and to avoid the sort of bickering and mudslinging that has alienated so many citizens—especially young citizens—over the past quarter century. Not only has this position allowed you to flourish in the race for the presidency, but it also made you, at least briefly, the frontrunner for your party's nomination. But now your most serious opponent is busy scoring points against you by going negative and questioning your preparation for higher office. How do you fight back without undoing your hard-won image as the good guy, the uniter in a world of dividers?
If you're Barack Obama, you do so by praising Ronald Reagan.
Speaking to reporters in Reno, Nevada, Obama startled the Democratic faithful by asserting that the Gipper "changed the trajectory" of American politics and provided voters with the sort of leadership they craved during the 1980s. Commentators struggled to explain why a relatively liberal Democrat who had just been endorsed by Nevada's most powerful labor union would single out the conservative, union-busting Reagan as his role model. Lawrence O'Donnell, appearing on MSNBC's "Countdown", theorized that Obama was seeking the votes of independents in the upcoming California primary by lauding the state's one-time governor. Others suggested that perhaps this was an attempt by the senator to burnish his credentials as a bipartisan healer.
Relatively few observers, however, immediately recognized that this was, in fact, Obama's most stinging attack on Hillary Clinton to date. Consider what he actually said:
"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."
The first and most obvious swipe is the Illinois senator's suggestion that the Clinton presidency lacked historical significance. Obama knows that Bill Clinton's record in the White House represents the strongest argument in favor of Hillary's candidacy. I do not mean this in the sexist Chris Matthews sense that she owes her senate seat to sympathy over Bill's philandering. Nor am I arguing that without her fortuitous marriage she would be nothing more than a successful, but unknown, Washington lawyer; with her copious gifts, Hillary Clinton would likely have been a significant political player regardless of whose ring she wore. Nevertheless, Senator Clinton's major calling card in this presidential race happens to be her experience as a key adviser and leading participant in a highly popular and successful presidency. When she talks about experience—hers vs. her opponent's—this is what she means.
But here was Barack Obama, while supposedly remarking on the Reagan years, raising the possibility that Bill Clinton's administration may have been, in the big scheme of things, a failure. President Clinton's inability to alter the national trajectory, by implication, set the stage for the ruinous reign of George W. Bush. Without saying so explicitly, Obama effectively argues that Hillary's experience does not prepare her to navigate a new course for the republic, but rather to provide another four or eight years of impotent triangulation. Oh, and just in case that didn't burn, Obama also gratuitously, if obliquely, compares Bill Clinton to that universal symbol of corruption, Richard Nixon (rather than, say, Jimmy Carter, the trajectory-challenged president whose failures actually made the Reagan Revolution possible).
But the senator wasn't done yet. After consigning Slick Willie and Tricky Dick to the same dustbin of history, he took a further shot at "the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s". True, his specific reference was to government growth and accountability, but the comment nonetheless allowed Obama to remind voters of the Clintons' association with the controversial Baby Boomer generation. The "excesses of the 1960s and 1970s", after all, went well beyond the growth of federal entitlements. Once more, Barack Obama took the opportunity to remind the electorate that the Clintons represent a controversial past while he heralds a brighter future.
As candidates go, Senator Obama rivals Mitt Romney for his careful sense of control and ability to choose his words carefully. The difference, of course, is that Obama is far more inspiring than Romney and he has not, over the course of his career, taken both sides on nearly every major issue. But make no mistake: the comments that Barack Obama made in Reno were not off-the-cuff musings. They were a well-crafted—and devastatingly negative—response to Hillary Clinton's claim that her experience qualifies her for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Still, two problems remain for the Candidate of Change. First, in attempting to go negative without appearing to do so, Obama must necessarily be subtle. Still, to be successful, even subtle attacks must leave a mark. In this case, however, the senator's main point may have been lost by pundits and voters who concentrated on the unexpected praise of Reagan rather than the embedded assault on Bill Clinton's presidency. In all likelihood, Obama hoped that his remarks would start a conversation in the media over whether Democrats should really want to settle for four more years of Clintonism. Perhaps that debate will emerge today, but it certainly did not begin on Senator Obama's cue.
Second, and even more risky, Obama must still be careful how he chooses to deliver his suggestively negative comments. In particular, he might want to avoid too many statements that appear to praise prominent conservative Republicans. At the moment, Obama's candidacy is built around three distinct constituencies, all of which he will need in order to claim victory. One of these groups, young voters, will probably not care about a reference to a president who left office before many of them were born. Another, African Americans, may not have fond memories of the Gipper, but might still be focused on what Senator Obama stands for and what he represents. The third group, however, consists of highly educated, middle class white professionals, liberals who are attracted to Obama's message of change and hope. These generally progressive Democrats see Ronald Reagan's administration as the beginning of the era of poisonous conservatism that has resulted in the current Bush administration.
Characteristically opportunistic, John Edwards immediately blasted Obama for referring to the Gipper in reverent tones. In addition to reminding voters of Reagan's hostility toward organized labor, Edwards added that the 40th president "created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day." Such attacks are, of course, common on the campaign trail, but this one is different. At some point in the foreseeable future, John Edwards is likely to drop out of the presidential race, and his voting bloc—traditional liberals and union diehards—will be up for grabs. Until yesterday, it seemed likely that Senator Obama would attract a good share of these disaffected Democrats. Yesterday, that number almost certainly dwindled, at least temporarily.
For better or worse, politics is about both hope and fear, ringing eloquence and dirty pool. Hillary Clinton will not stop attacking Barack Obama unless or until he drops from serious contention for the Democratic nomination. Obama, for his part, knows that he cannot let these broadsides go unanswered. At least for now, he is trying to disagree without sounding disagreeable. He may ultimately find, however, that the subtle approach can sometimes be more risky than the full frontal assault.