For weeks Hillary Clinton's aides have looked at the landscape through a simple prism: the more dangerous the world looks, the more voters will be drawn to a "safe" candidate like the former first lady. That seemed like an easy and comforting explanation for Barack Obama's rise in the polls—that voters were tempted to "roll the dice" (in Bill Clinton's phrase) only at a relatively stable time when domestic issues started to seem more pressing than foreign affairs.
Campaign calculations tend to be crude, but that doesn't stop political operatives from making them. So does the assassination of Benazir Bhutto push foreign affairs—and an unstable world—back to the top of voters' minds just a week before the Iowa caucuses? And if so, who benefits?
In public, all the candidates issued comments condemning Bhutto's killers and praising the former Pakistani prime minister's commitment to democracy. Clinton added a personal touch, telling how she had met Bhutto in and out of office. "I came to know Mrs. Bhutto over many years, during her tenures as prime minister and during her years in exile," she said in a written statement. Sen. John McCain, campaigning in New Hampshire, discussed Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf and the stability of the region in nuanced terms that showcased his foreign-policy expertise; Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also got a chance to demonstrate his geopolitical chops.
Obama, for his part, stuck to a boilerplate expression of support for the Pakistani people and democracy, as well as opposition to terrorism. At his second stop of the day he apologized for being late, saying he had been consulting with intelligence and State Department officials about the current situation in Pakistan, which he described as "still a little dicey." He later pointed out that he had long identified Pakistan as a core problem demanding a new approach, saying the Iraq war had distracted the United States from the real fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Most of the Republicans stampeded to judgment. Mitt Romney condemned the assassination as proof of the "extraordinary reality of global violent radical jihadism"—ignoring the most likely analysis that this was a Pakistani attack, not an international one. (Bhutto's own supporters turned their anger toward President Musharraf, not Al Qaeda.)
For Rudy Giuliani, who just released a new 9/11-themed commercial in New Hampshire and Florida titled "Freedom," the assassination was only one step away from Manhattan. "Her death is a reminder that terrorism anywhere—whether in New York, London, Tel Aviv or Rawalpindi—is an enemy of freedom," he said in a statement. "We must redouble our efforts to win the terrorists' war on us."
Judging from past attacks, however, voters don't necessarily turn to incumbents or to those who portray themselves as tough on terrorists. After the Madrid train bombings in 2004, Spanish voters kicked out the right-of-center Aznar government and the country withdrew its troops from Iraq. After the bombings in London in 2005, Tony Blair's attempts to push a tough package of antiterrorist legislation stalled in the face of widespread public criticism. So much for the global war on terror.
It's not easy to predict what an attack in Pakistan does to American politics. Current opinion about U.S. foreign policy splits along partisan lines. Just 14 percent of Democrats believe U.S. foreign policy is headed in the right direction, compared with 49 percent of Republicans, according to recent polling by the nonpartisan group Public Agenda. Iraq remains the most important foreign policy issue by a wide margin, and 46 percent of all voters say they worry "a lot" that Iraq is distracting the United States from other threats—a figure that is almost unchanged over the last two years.
In that light, Bhutto's death could be more challenging for Republicans than Democrats, since their supporters generally feel that America's foreign policy has been on the right track.
For Democrats the calculus is clear: to call for change. But for the Clintons, change isn't easy to square with their traditional pitch about experience. The difficult balancing act is apparent in the campaign's latest slogan, which can barely fit on the side of the Clinton bus, never mind a bumper sticker: "Big Challenges, Real Solutions: Time to Pick a President." In reality, the Clinton message is more about experience than change—that Clinton is "ready to lead on Day One," as the candidate and her campaign like to say at every opportunity.
But for the Obama campaign the Pakistani crisis is a chance to reinforce the Illinois senator's criticism of Clinton and Bush. "I'm sure the conventional wisdom is that it's a scary world and you have to be experienced to deal with it," says Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director. "But if all you're doing is using that experience to do the same thing over and over again, you won't get change. I just don't think people are convinced that longevity in Washington is a surefire cure for what ails a scary world. If that was the case, then Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld might not have bungled their way into the worst foreign policy disaster in a generation."
As it happened, Obama was traveling Iowa on Thursday with Gen. Tony McPeak, the former Air Force chief of staff who—as Obama likes to point out—looks and sounds like Clint Eastwood. "Let me just talk about the little sliver that I know about, the current mess in the Middle East," McPeak said in Des Moines. "The events of this morning bring back with great clarity how important these national security issues are. But regarding this mess that we got ourselves into, Barack Obama has been right from the beginning. He was right today. He'll be right tomorrow. He's been right at the right time. He's been right for the right reasons. That's judgment."
That might as well be the slogan for every candidate: always right. In that sense, Bhutto's assassination changes nothing on the trail. At this late stage, it only confirms the core convictions of everyone hunting for caucusgoers in the Iowa snow.