Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Character attacks as a form of flattery

For two hours she stood there with a semi-civil smile nailed to her face, her shoulders squared, her head held high, swiveling left and right to look her accusers in the eye - taking it like a man, as it were - and listening to critiques of her character that essentially boiled down to this:

Hillary Clinton is dishonest, reckless, polarizing, integrity-challenged, and unelectable.

Such was the verdict rendered at the Democratic debate last night by her two chief rivals (or, in Hillary's word, "colleagues"), both of whom have decided that they cannot rise in this marathon race unless she is somehow made to fall. And such is the lot of the frontrunner - especially this one, whose steady march toward the party nomination had begun to take on the trappings of a coronation. How ironic that she took so much character flak in the City of Brotherly Love.

Barack Obama had signaled in the press several days earlier that it would be No More Mr. Nice Guy, and he did ratchet up his criticisms of Hillary, but he is instinctively too decorous to engage in bareknuckled brawling (indeed, he cautioned everyone, right at the start, that "I think this has been the most hyped fight since Rocky fought Apollo Creed"). Obama left the dirty work to John Edwards, who is even more stymied in the polls than he is, and whose whole candidacy could collapse unless he, Edwards, somehow can manage to beat Hillary in Iowa 65 days from now.

Edwards, who, as a former senator, had the luxury of not needing to decide whether to vote for the recent Senate resolution that declared Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, repeatedly banged away at Hillary for voting Yes. This way, he could assail her as a reckless Bush-enabler who is again (coupled with her 2002 Iraq war authorization vote) giving the Republican regime an excuse to go to war.

He said that Hillary voted for "a resolution that looks like it was written literally by the neocons...A lot of us on this stage have learned our lessons the hard way, that you give this president an inch and he will take a mile...what I worry about is if Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear, 'If I only I had known then what I know now?'"

The latter sentence was a frontal slap at Hillary, because that's how she currently laments her '02 war vote. Edwards had to carry the ball for Obama on the Iran issue, because Obama has actually indicated in the recent past that he thinks the Guards should be deemed a terrorist organization - and when it came time to vote on the resolution, he didn't take a position. He was out campaigning instead.

But even though Edwards got off some of the roughest lines - Hillary, he said, doesn't spend sufficient time "in tell-the-truth mode" - Obama did contend that her reputation as a polarizer is grist for the Republicans, and hence a prescription for more politics as usual: "Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having. It is the fight that we've been through since the '90s...And what we don't need is another eight years of bickering." (Edwards topped him, though, by arguing that anyone who thinks Hillary will truly reform the system must also believe in Santa and the tooth fairy.)

Hillary mostly sought to deflect the attacks by focusing most of her fire on the Bush administration, but there came a point - toward the very end of the debate - when she suddenly dug herself a hole and descended into it. Her rivals were only too happy to pile on the dirt.

She was asked to comment on a proposal, by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, to give drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. She recently told a New Hampshire newspaper that the proposal made sense, and last night she explained why she thought that, yes, it did make sense:

"What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of (the Bush) administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum."

Yet, minutes later, after Chris Dodd had voiced his opposition to the idea, Hillary jumped in and appeared to say that she was actually against the idea after just having said she was for it:

"I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it. And we have failed -- "

Dodd jumped all over that: "Wait a minute. No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it."

Clinton replied: "No, I didn't, Chris. But the point is, what are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are (driving)?"

Tim Russert, the co-host, pounced like a cat that had just smelled fish: "Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license?...Do you support his plan?"

Clinton replied: "You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha." (When the press nails a politician for double talk, the politician often tries to play the victim by invoking the Gotcha Defense. President Bush does it all the time.)

She continued: "It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem...Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No."

After that, it was a race between Edwards and Obama to say I-told-you-so. Edwards won: "Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country. I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them." Obama followed, essentially saying: Yeah, me too. (Here's Hillary strategist Mark Penn, spinning the incident after the debate.)

But will all this intramural Hillary-bashing slow her march in the end? Edwards has been hammering Hillary in this manner for many months, yet the strategy hasn't moved the needle on his candidacy. If anything, her lead in the Democratic polls has widened. She remains highly popular with the Democratic base, and it's quite likely that the base will not warm to any rivals who critique her character in ways that might benefit the message-crafters on the Republican side. In particular, this could prove to be true in Iowa, where local Democrats prefer that their candidates make nice.

Loyalty to Hillary may be her strongest trump card, even though she persists in giving evasive or multiple answers on a range of topics (for instance, on how she'd save Social Security), while stonewalling on others (would she favor opening up her First Lady papers to public scrutiny? "That's not my decision to make," she replied).

Last night, it fell to Bill Richardson to sue for peace: "I'm hearing this holier-than-thou attitude toward Senator Clinton. That it's bothering me because it's pretty close to personal attacks that we don't need...We need to be positive in this campaign. Yes, we need to point out our differences, and I have big differences with her...I think it's important that we save the ammunition for the Republicans....the important thing is that we need to stay positive. We need to have disagreements on the issues, not on whether you can trust. I trust Senator Clinton..."

Somewhere in that particular rumination, Richardson also tried to tout his own credentials as a governor. He reminded everyone that seven of our last eight presidents had been governors. The only problem with that statement was this: It was wrong. In point of fact, only four of our last eight presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush) had been governors.

But luckily for Richardson, he's so far down in the polls that his rivals don't bother to fault him for not being in "tell-the-truth mode." That's Hillary's burden alone, and she appears not be ruffled by it, because she knows that, for a frontrunner in this high-stakes game, character attacks are merely a form of flattery.

And if Obama and Edwards wind up merely dividing the not-Hillary vote, her path to the nomination will be that much easier.


Meanwhile, on the Republican hypocrisy front, we now have yet another family-values conservative caught in the act. Richard Curtis, a legislator in the state of Washington, who has consistently voted against gay people...has been named in police documents as having sought sex with a man whom he met at an adult video store. There was a dispute over money, but the police documents specify that Curtis and the other guy had sex anyway.

I suppose my favorite detail is that Curtis, who is married, and who has voted against civil rights protections for gays as well as domestic partnerships for gays, was spotted in the store wearing women's stockings and a black sequined lingerie top.
(Update: Curtis resigned his state Senate seat late Wednesday.)

Wait, let me amend that. My favorite detail is actually what he told a local newspaper this week, after acknowledging that he and the other guy did have sex: "I am not gay."

No word yet on whether this family-values conservative can manage a wide stance in women's stockings.