This week's Democratic debate was hard to take: Hillary Clinton leaning on the podium, looking smug, hurling insults and lecturing Barack Obama. "You never take responsibility for any votes," she said, accusing him among other things of betraying victims of sexual abuse by voting "present" in the Illinois legislature. When the jabbing back and forth lingered on Obama's reference to Ronald Reagan as a transformative president while sliding over Bill Clinton's contribution, Hillary couldn't get enough of the phony argument. "We're just getting warmed up here," she declared with relish.
What happened to the softer Hillary we saw in New Hampshire? I thought maybe if I closed my eyes and imagined Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney standing at the podium in Obama's place, I'd feel better about the "Rollerball" politics the Clintons play. "Let me finish," Obama interjected, vainly trying to quiet Hillary, who he said had gone on for two minutes. That's my signature line when I struggle to get a word in edgewise on "The McLaughlin Group," which is perhaps why I found the combat so unsettling.
To find the deck so suddenly stacked against Obama seems unfair, yet it is a tribute of sorts to Hillary Clinton and the way she picked herself up off the mat after losing Iowa. If goody-two-shoe Democrats are squeamish, they had better get used to it. The Clinton game plan is to demolish Obama, and they may well succeed only to pay the price in November. "It's what we do," a Democratic pollster, who is not aligned with any of the major contenders, told me, laughing at the notion that it's somehow unseemly to unleash Bill Clinton. As long as the nomination is in doubt, the general election takes a back seat. Whatever damage is inflicted now, they'll worry about later--once she's the nominee. "Losers don't legislate," President Clinton said after he reached the White House. He'll happily take a hit to his status as a global world leader if it means getting his wife elected.
And maybe that's as it should be, whenever a front runner confronts an insurgent. "I don't see how you can get around doing this sort of thing," said Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "He says, 'I'm inspiring,' and he wants to leave the details up to advisers. Her strength is in the steps--who to push, who to shove and how you get things done. He's great at giving the big sermon on what we ought to do and not so good on the steps to get there. It's hard for the warhorse to fight the show horse. You have to tell him, 'You can't pull the plow; you can't do the heavy lifting'."
Calling Obama a kid, as Bill Clinton did, or using the term "fairy tale" to dismiss his antiwar stance, got people's attention, as any blunt instrument would. The goal is to get people to realize Obama is more of a risk because they know less about him. It's the same strategy that Walter Mondale used to dispatch Gary Hart in 1984 (remember "Where's the beef?"). "It's what Lyndon Johnson wanted to do to Bobby Kennedy--and fell flat on his face trying," says Popkin.
We'll know soon if the Clintons overplayed their hand. Hillary is holding her lead in the national polls, which become more meaningful heading into Feb. 5, when 22 states vote in what is essentially a national primary. There could be blowback. The Washington Post, among others, chided the Clintons for deliberately distorting Obama's views. On Thursday, under heavy pressure from assorted Democrats, the Clinton campaign withdrew a radio spot playing in South Carolina that had Obama calling the Republicans "the party of ideas" and then linking his quote out of context to "special tax breaks for Wall Street. Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?"
Campaigning in South Carolina, Bill Clinton accused the media of adopting the Obama campaign's spin by injecting race into the campaign. "Shame on you," he scolded a reporter. The take in Washington is that if anyone was using race for political advantage, it was the Clintons. "It's like Obi-Wan Kenobi yelling at Luke Skywalker because he's using the Force," exclaimed a Democratic senator, astounded by Clinton's audacity. The cynical view is that the Clintons have deliberately tapped into deep-seated racial feelings. When Obama slammed Hillary for being on the board of Wal-Mart while he was laboring in the inner city, she whacked him for working for a "slum lord," a reference to Tony Rezko, an indicted Chicago developer and a longtime Obama backer (Rezko's attorney has said he is innocent of all charges). Obama replied almost off-handedly that he did five hours' work as a junior lawyer on the Rezko account, an explanation that only fueled the Hillary fires. What did squeamish Democrats learn from the exchange? Hillary sure knows how to land a cheap shot, and that could come in handy in the fall when the real fight begins.