Thursday, January 24, 2008

When Negative Turns Nuclear

For the most part, I have been unmoved by the breathless concerns of pundits about the growing dispute between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Nobody could have expected that the race for the Democratic nomination would stay positive from beginning to end. We are dealing with preternaturally ambitious people here, both of whom have the chance to fulfill their greatest personal dream. Within reason, we should expect them to do whatever it takes to win. If that means getting personal, making veiled accusations of corruption, or malfeasance, or incompetence, then those charges will be leveled. If it requires dancing dangerously close to the exposed wire of race in America, then dance they shall. As I mentioned previously, if nothing else, this is good preparation for the war that awaits when the Republican hit machine starts firing up later this year.

But there are limits, and Senator Obama may have crossed one yesterday. Speaking to a reporter from CBN (Pat Robertson's "network"), the senator argued that he, and not Clinton, was the safest choice for the Democratic nomination. The reason, he said, was that his supporters might not back his rival if she defeats him:

"I have no doubt that once the nomination contest is over, I will get the people who voted for her. Now the question is can she get the people who voted for me?"

At one level, of course, this simply restates the argument that Obama has made throughout his campaign, that he can mobilize people who would not otherwise go to the polls. The more obviously egocentric phrasing, then, might come out something like this: a lot of folks who are turning out now will stay home in November if charismatic, inspiring Barack loses out to dull, prosaic Hillary. One could, therefore, interpret Obama's comment as little more than a continuation of the themes he has been pushing since he entered the race.

But that's not exactly what he said. He could have said, "Can she get the people who voted for me to come out to the polls on Election Day?" He did not. Indeed, it takes only a slight leap of paranoia to wonder whether the comments were intended as a veiled threat. One way, after all, to help ensure that Obama's supporters would vote for Hillary Clinton in November would be for the senator himself to hit the campaign trail in full force on her behalf. His statement to CBN provides no promise that he would do so.

Many Democrats today still blame Ted Kennedy for undermining Jimmy Carter's bid for re-election in 1980. For the most part, this is a specious claim. By the end of that year, Carter's presidency had been judged such a comprehensive failure that his defeat was nearly inevitable (indeed, it was only fears about Ronald Reagan's supposed extremism that kept the polls close until the final week). In any event, to the extent Kennedy hurt Carter, it was not by running against him; the case against the president was already clear and Kennedy did little to add to it. Rather, the damage came post-convention when the vanquished Massachusetts senator largely ignored the incumbent's pleas for a full-voiced show of Democratic unity.

Voters' memories are often short. What is said in January tends to stay in January. There are occasional exceptions, of course: George H.W. Bush's charge in 1980 that Reagan was dabbling in "voodoo economics" stung and stuck, but it did not prevent the Gipper from winning the White House. But so far, at least, nothing has been said between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that threatens to enter into the Republicans' general election talking points, let alone make it into Bartlett's Book of Quotations. Indeed, the only reason we are hearing about the Dems' war of words rather than the equally heated Republican food fight is because all the star power resides on the Democratic side: Bill and Hillary and Barack vs. John and Rudy and Mitt is simply a charisma mismatch.

The key, however, is for the Democrats to emerge from their convention unified in their struggle against the Republicans. This requires at least token efforts on all sides to generate a strong vote for the potential winner. Should Obama win, it will be necessary for Hillary Clinton to reassure women that they weren't robbed of the chance to see a female president in their lifetime. If Clinton gets the nod, Obama must assist in allaying any disappointment that might be felt by young people and African Americans. This is the minimum and unspoken agreement that all contenders make when they compete for votes within their party. Further, regardless of their towering personal concerns, both Obama and Clinton have to realize the enormous stakes involved in the 2008 election.

In the end, of course, there will likely be no replay of Ted Kennedy's petulant act from 1980. Hillary Clinton will almost certainly campaign for Barack Obama if he wins the Democratic nomination, although perhaps sparsely and without great enthusiasm. More important, Bill Clinton, as the only popular living ex-president from his party, will almost certainly throw himself fully into the battle both because that's his job and because he seems to love being on the trail.

Obama, too, will come around in the event of a Clinton victory. Indeed, he will do so with all the vigor of a relatively young man who knows that he can run again and, if necessary, again. Another two-term Clinton presidency would conclude with Obama, at 54, fully eighteen years younger than John McCain is today. Deep in his ambitious heart, the senator might hope for Hillary's defeat, but he will make darn sure that nobody will blame him should that occur. (This all assumes that Clinton would not tap Obama to be her running mate. My guess is that she wouldn't. The Clintons are cautious and may be worried about the risks of making history on both ends of the ticket.)

Still, Obama's statement to Pat Robertson's network was not helpful. First, it sends a signal to his followers that may persist, if only slightly, even after he endorses Hillary Clinton this summer, assuming she wins. Second, in the racially charged atmosphere that has largely been concocted and stoked by our pathetic, substance-free news media, Obama has to understand that his words might be taken as a suggestion that African American voters will reject Clinton after what she and Bill have said and done during the campaign. Finally, given all the discussion of race over the past few weeks, we seem to have all but forgotten that this campaign also means a lot to many American women. The implication that Obama's supporters might not be energized by the prospect of electing the country's first female chief executive will not sit well with a lot of voters.

In the end, we should not make more of this than it is. The campaign is long and things get said, and not all of them will be well thought out or helpful. Bill Clinton, for example, probably wishes by now that he had conjured up a better image for Obama's candidacy than that of a "fairy tale". Nevertheless, the potential for permanent damage does exist and candidates must stay on the right side of that electrified fence. Negative campaigning is not only inevitable in a race of ideological soul-mates, it's also quite healthy preparation for the road ahead. But that shouldn't provide anyone with a license to go nuclear.

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