[digg-reddit-me]A few weeks ago, when the electoral math began to indicate that Senator Hillary Clinton had little no chance of catching Senator Barack Obama, the voices of the Democratic establishment who had remained mainly neutral began to push a new meme. These establishment voices clearly wanted to send a message to the Clintons: “Stay in the race as long as you want. But keep it clean.”
Bob Shrum wrote in the New York Times two weeks ago:
She has very little chance of winning, but Hillary Clinton has no reason to get out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination — for now. A long shot isn’t the same as no chance at all. And an extended campaign doesn’t have to wound the nominee, assuming a measure of self-restraint on both sides…
The degree of aggression on each side may not be comparable, as both sides argue on their own behalf. But the Democratic nomination may not be worth winning if the victor is lacerated as unready, unfit to hold the office, or un-American — not, as expected, by the vast right-wing conspiracy but by a Democratic rival.
[C]alls for Hillary to withdraw – calls that invariably rest on the mathematical case against her candidacy – are premature. By winning Ohio and Texas, Hillary won the right to continue in this race.
… [But] it’s imperative that, as Hillary Clinton continues her campaign, she conduct it in a certain manner: She can’t run the type of campaign she ran in the lead-up to Ohio and Texas. For weeks, Clinton attacked Obama with a relish not previously seen in this race. But it wasn’t the fact she was attacking Obama that was problematic, it was how she was attacking him–namely, in a way that will make it more difficult for Obama should he, as is still likely, be the Democratic nominee in November. For instance, it would have been fine for Hillary to argue that she’d make a better commander-in-chief than Obama; but it was wrong for her to essentially argue, as she did on more than one occasion, that she and John McCain would make better commanders-in-chief than Obama. Similarly, her strange hedging on “60 Minutes” about whether she believes Obama isn’t a Muslim only added fuel to the unfounded rumors that are already circulating about his faith. Frankly, Clinton’s chances are slim enough that a win-at-all-costs mentality from her campaign is not worth the risk of doing irreparable damage to the candidate who will likely be her party’s nominee.
Yet – for whatever reason, despite the fact that she has little chance of winning – Ms. Clinton has continued to attack Obama using Rovian tactics of guilt-by-association, character assassination, the questioning of patriotism, and divisive identity politics. Barack Obama’s campaign has not been pure – from the beginning, he made it clear that he was willing to fight when challenged, as the hiring of David Axelrod as his campaign manager demonstrated. But the restraint he has shown has been truly remarkable. Just a taste of the topics he hasn’t brought up: cattle futures; Travelgate; Filegate; her own pastor; pardons by her husband of terrorists that were intended to help her 2000 Senate campaign according to internal documents; the many shady deals her husband has made since leaving the presidency, often acting against his wife’s public positions. All of these directly relate to the kind of president she might be. We’re not even touching on Monica Lewinsky, on Whitewater, on Vince Foster, and the dozen other scandals of her husband’s administration as well as the persistent rumors of his continued infidelities and disconcerting business deals.
If Mr. Obama’s campaign has showed great restraint, Obama personally has shown even more restraint. Ms. Clinton has not – and her campaign has been worse. Last night, she demonstrated – in front of over ten million viewers – that she has no shame.
Perhaps that is why, today, without any significant event to move him except Ms. Clinton’s unconscionable performance at last night’s debate, Howard Dean demanded that superdelegates make their decisions “now.”
The Democratic party is worried about the damage Ms. Clinton is doing; as a co-worker of mine listens to hard-right talk radio through much of the day, I can hear the memes starting to spread – I can hear them gaining traction. Ms. Clinton is damaging herself, her party, and Obama – and she is attacking him using the very tactics she abhorred and laying the same groundwork for the “conservative” attacks on Obama that the right launched at Al Gore, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Max Cleeland, and many more Democrats (and a few Republicans).
That’s why I want Ms. Clinton to stay in the race. As I wrote almost two months ago:
If Ms. Clinton wants to help her party win the White House this November, she can give Mr. Obama the “vetting” she claims he lacks, and with ever increasing histrionics, throw every smear, every false allegation, every innuendo at him. She can make her name synonymous with the sleaze she throws at him; she has proven that she is capable of a viciousness reminiscent of a Karl Rove. And by playing the villain, she can discredit and de-fang the many attacks that are sure to come at Mr. Obama after he secures the nomination.
It is better for these attacks on Obama to come out now than in September or October before the election. And Mr. Obama must overcome this type of politics if he is to win in November. Perhaps it is best if these attacks come from a source reviled on the right, so they can be more easily dismissed as time goes on. Though I doubt that Ms. Clinton is thinking in these times, I am trying to determine the best way Ms. Clinton’s destructive course could be used to benefit Mr. Obama.
Most observers thought that Mr. Obama looked weary last night. He wasn’t able to – and didn’t seem to even try to – launch the “knockout punch” that would end the race. Some quip, some throwaway line that would undermine the basis of Ms. Clinton’s candidacy, as Lloyd Bentsen’s response to Dan Quayle:
What Obama did – again and again – was to respond to the allegations and pivot back to the issues. Mr. Obama was tired and off of his game, and Ms. Clinton was on point – yet, my gut feeling is that Mr. Obama won more votes last night than he lost, because a weary Obama was far more compelling and far more presidential than an invigorated, desperate, and affected Clinton.
Ms. Clinton is playing the villain well so far. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like an act last night.
Here’s my proposition: the Pennsylvania primary is less than 10 days away. Let Ms. Clinton bring everything she has to this – which is to say, let her throw all the mud she can. We’ll see in 10 days who the mud is sticking to – and if Mr. Obama survives these Rovian, Atwater-style attacks, he will be a significantly stronger candidate. If he can rise above them, then he will be a truly great candidate.
I say let Ms. Clinton play the villain – because she is not giving us a choice. She is staying in this race. Obama has bet his candidacy on the fundamental decency and good sense of the American people. And he’s gotten this far. I have hope that he can make it a bit farther.