Friday, December 14, 2007

Attack and apologize, Hillary style

In an alleged debate yesterday, the Democratic presidential candidates largely confined themselves to familiar themes and talking points; thanks to the tight Iowa format, nobody was substantively challenged - neither by a rival, nor by moderator Carolyn Washburn, who, for the second straight day, made it clear that her idea of a follow-up question is "Thank you."

A decent roundup of the high and low points is here. I'm more interested in what transpired off stage, in the latest case of Hillary hardball.

As you probably know, Billy Shaheen, the co-chair of Hillary's national campaign and a Clinton family favorite whose wife Jeanne is running for the Senate in New Hampshire, apparently acted alone on Wednesday, in a show of excessive zeal, when he brought up rival Barack Obama's youthful experiences with marijuana and cocaine. (Obama has previously volunteered information about those experiences in a memoir.) In an interview, Shaheen cited the drug use as purported evidence of Obama's unelectability:

"The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight...and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use....It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."

The story sat out there for 24 hours, gathering national attention (shorthand: Obama = drugs), until Shaheen announced yesterday that he was quitting the campaign, that he had mistakenly lashed out on his own, that Hillary had not authorized him to say any such thing. Then Mark Penn, Hillary's chief strategist, went on Hardball late yesterday to engage in the ritual distancing: "He was never a part of this campaign. It was unacceptable."

It's not hard to figure out what really happened here. Hillary's campaign is spooked by Obama's surge in the polls, notably his erasure of Hillary's once-daunting lead in New Hampshire. And when her people feel threatened, they are fully capable of playing the game rough. The drug story is a classic example: you impugn your rival for a day or so, then you switch to apology-and-resignation mode - which makes it appear that you're back on the high road, but, in reality, only serves to keep the damagibng story in the news a little longer.(Witness Mark Penn yesterday on MSNBC, perpetuating the drug stuff while seeming to knock it down: "The issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising.")

Moreover, Billy Shaheen isn't exactly some overzealous junior aide. He and Jeanne, a former New Hampshire governor, have long been close pals with Bill and Hillary; they reportedly had dinner together a few months ago. Shaheen, lawyer and power broker, at this point has an instinctive understanding of the parameters of Clintonian politicking. He didn't need Hillary to "authorize" any attack on Obama's past drug use. He spoke out because he knows full well how the Hillary camp plays the game when the pressure is on.

And his argument was specious anyway. He basically said, We don't think it's a big deal that Obama used drugs in the past, it's those evil Republicans who will successfully make it a big deal. I doubt that Shaheen, or anyone in the Hillary camp, truly believes that. I haven't seen a shred of polling evidence that suggests Obama is electorally vulnerable because of what he did as a young man; perhaps religious conservatives would view his drug use as a moral deal-breaker, but they wouldn't vote Democratic anyway.

It's also worth remembering that Bill Clinton admitted to marijuana use in 1992 (doing it in his classic fashion, claiming that he "didn't inhale," and that he only did it outside America's territorial waters), and I don't seem to recall that his youthful experiences doomed him at election time. If the Republicans couldn't invoke drugs as a "dirty trick" nearly 16 years ago, I doubt they'd succeed in 2008, particularly when the prevailing political winds appear to be against them. And the Hillary people are savvy enough to know this.

But, apparently, the Hillary people are not savvy enough to realize that when they impugn a rival in this fashion, they risk further alienating those Democratic voters who are fed up with polarized politicking. Or perhaps the Hillary people, hard-wired for combat, simply can't help themselves.