The last major presidential candidate from Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, was approached by a voter in the 1950s. "Governor, you have the vote of every thinking American," she said. "That's nice," Stevenson replied. "But I need a majority."
Politics, as Bill Clinton said Tuesday in South Carolina, is "a contact sport." And while Barack Obama is trying hard to shed his professorial and all-too-Stevensonian air, he's just not a good enough eye-gouger at the line of scrimmage, especially with two people teaming up against him.
Obama's best hope is that Democratic voters aren't as dumb as Hillary and Bill Clinton think they are. The outcome of the primaries depends on whether, amid their busy lives, voters can get a general fix on who is more often telling the truth about the barrage of charges and countercharges.
This is ironic, because the way Bill Clinton survived impeachment was by betting on the intelligence of the American public. Now he's betting against it.
In South Carolina, Hillary is airing a radio ad that goes back to a theme she pushed in the debate there Monday night: that Obama liked Republican ideas. As Obama pointed out in his response ad, this is "demonstrably false," as referees from ABC News to the Washington Post to factcheck.org have established. (The Obama response ad ends with a new tag line that Hillary will "say anything and change nothing.")
The Republican story goes back to an interview Obama did with a Nevada newspaper in which he praised the way Ronald Reagan communicated with the public and changed "the trajectory of American politics." He added that, unfortunately, the Republicans had some fresher ideas than the Democrats in recent decades.
These are completely ordinary comments. In fact, as Obama pointed out in the Myrtle Beach debate, Hillary is considerably more effusive about Reagan in Tom Brokaw's new book, "Boom." Bill has also made many statements over the years that were much more complimentary toward Reagan. Nobody paying attention thinks either Obama or the Clintons likes Reagan's right-wing politics.
But instead of moving on to another line of attack with more grounding in what Bill Clinton called "indisputable facts," the Clinton campaign decided to bet that this Reagan horse could be flogged for more votes among less educated voters in South Carolina who might be inclined to believe Hillary's preposterous version.
Less educated? Yes, downscale voters are their target group. Obama is stronger among well-educated Democrats, according to polls. So the Clintons figure that maybe their base among less educated white Democrats might be receptive to an argument that assumes they're dumb. Less well-educated equals gullible in the face of bogus attack ads. That's the logic, and the Clintons are testing it in South Carolina before trying it in Super Tuesday states. They are also road-testing major distortions of Obama's positions on abortion, Social Security and the minimum wage.
I'm all for aggressive, even negative, campaigning, but I'm not so sure this patronizing approach will work for Hillary down the stretch. Let's take the battle in New Jersey, a delegate-rich state that votes on Feb. 5. Hillary will almost certainly win there, in her backyard, but the question is by how much. New Jersey delegates are awarded proportionally, which means that if Obama can come within five or ten points, he's ahead of the game in the national delegate hunt.
As the Reagan ad aired in South Carolina, Hillary was campaigning in New Jersey. That gave the Obama campaign an excuse to assemble a rapid response team to create a little backlash in the Garden State.
Cory Booker, the inspiring mayor of Newark, is especially popular with white liberals in the suburbs. Here's what he said about the Clinton ads, beyond calling them "outrageous" and "dishonest":
"We're trying to offer an alternative to the Republicans' fear and smear campaigns, and now we're being dragged down to their level by the Clintons."
I live in New Jersey and can attest that plenty of Democrats there will be responsive to Booker's argument, as well as that of New York-area newspapers blasting Hillary for the Reagan shot. Disgust with this kind of thing may help bring Obama closer than expected.
Bill Clinton rightly complained in the 1990s about the politics of personal destruction. In both 1992 and 1996 he managed to run general election campaigns against George Bush and Bob Dole that mostly stayed on the high road. Then, in 1998, he survived a withering assault by relying on the common sense of average people.
On the day his testimony about his sex life was being replayed on TV—arguably the most embarrassing day in the history of the presidency—I slipped into a reception for Clinton in New York.
He was amazingly serene. With enough time and information, the president told me, the American people figure out the truth. They aren't as dumb as [former House GOP strategist] Tom DeLay thinks, he suggested. "The people always get it right," Clinton said.
They did then, supporting Clinton against a witch hunt. But will they now?