Hillary's Risky New Tack

Asked last weekend if she was saying Barack Obama has a "character problem," Hillary Clinton replied, "It's beginning to look like that." In the Democratic Party, thems fightin' words. "I have been for months on the receiving end of rather consistent attacks," Clinton said. "Well now the fun part starts."

Yippee! Clinton hit the sweet spot for a press corps that's too lazy to figure out how to report on politics unless someone's fighting. It's a contact sport, and now the real hitting at the line of scrimmage is underway.

But as every parent in Hillary's village knows, there's a big difference between "fun" and "smart." It's "fun" to play tackle football without pads-until you limp off the playground.

For someone still in a statistical dead heat in Iowa, going negative on Obama's character is a risky strategy. Obama will have to play skillful defense to show he wouldn't be, in the apt phrase of a Hillaryland operative, "snack food" in a general election. But the bigger challenge is now Clinton's. She's up against a culture of "Iowa Nice" that is famously unreceptive to intra-party attacks as Iowans prepare to caucus. Democrats there do not find such attacks "fun," especially this year, when they admire everyone in their field. We may look back on December of 2007 as the time a desperate Hillary Clinton blew her chance for the presidency when she didn't have to.

All day Monday, as Hillary set off more explosives (including one on abortion), political professionals were scratching their heads about why the Clinton team decided to go nuclear. An attack on character? From a Clinton? The best guess I heard is that Hillary and her hard-nosed advisers figure she's likely to lose Iowa anyway, so she might as well use this time for a little unpleasant hatchet work. That way she softens up Obama enough to allow her to come back from an Iowa setback to win five days later in New Hampshire, where her once-big lead in the polls is shrinking.

This thrust is not brand new. Hillary first started getting rough in the November 15 Las Vegas debate, when she launched her attack on Obama for not covering 15 million Americans in his health care plan. "That's about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire," she said, in a deft pander to the first four states to vote.

I expected Obama to reply with some variation of: "You had your chance for health care reform in 1994, with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, and you blew it." But despite great pressure from his own backers, Obama has consistently refused to sock anyone. About the toughest thing he has said is that Clinton is running a "textbook Washington campaign" and has not provided "straight answers to tough questions," the latter assessment identical to Hillaryland's own review of her performance in the Philadelphia debate.

Instead, in Las Vegas, Obama chose to argue that Clinton's plan would force the uninsured to enroll when they couldn't afford it. His answer was muddled and interrupted by a heckler. But in the fortnight since, Hillary hasn't gotten much traction attacking Obama's position. That's because busy Democratic voters are bored and confused by talk of "mandates" and "universality" and have enough common sense to know that the differences among the Democratic candidates on health care are infinitesimal compared to the contrast with Republicans.

Because polls show voters trust Hillary more on health care, we can expect to see negative Clinton ads that press the argument that Obama doesn't really care about the uninsured. But that's a difficult case to make against any Democrat to the left of, say, Zell Miller. And Hillary's refusal to specify what kind of mandate she would impose gives Obama a decent rejoinder in upcoming debates. Even if she's right on the merits, it's awfully hard to argue for a mandate when you won't identify the penalty for not getting insurance (under the Massachusetts plan, it's about $1,000) until after the election.

Hillary "character" assault is centered on another issue that may be too complicated to penetrate the consciousness of voters-campaign finance. She says Obama is a hypocrite for claiming that he doesn't take money from lobbyists while still having something called a "Leadership PAC," a lobbyist-supported fund he started in 2006 that allows him to give money to local candidates (including several who support Clinton for president) as a way to build the party. Yes, Obama should shut this fund (which has only about $100,000 in it), just as Hillary did with a similar fund she started. But given that Obama has accepted far less money overall from lobbyists and can boast far more small donors to his campaign, this is an ethical quibble at best.

Hillary is now also trying to use Obama's ambition as an ethical issue. In his stump speech, the Illinois senator says he hasn't been planning his whole life to run for president (he didn't enter politics until his mid-30s), a veiled reference to a recent Clinton biography that claims that Bill and Hillary had a longstanding deal that she would one day run. In response, the Clinton campaign produced a quote from Obama's third-grade teacher that he wrote a paper at age 7 entitled, "I Want to Be President." Incredulous Obama staffers joked that they have a sworn affidavit from his fourth-grade teacher that he actually wanted to be an astronaut.

It's ironic that the Clinton campaign website is accusing Obama of using "Karl Rove's talking points." (Rove, an occasional Newsweek commentator, wrote a column this week for the Financial Times giving Obama advice on how to beat Clinton). Actually, it's Clinton who is taking a leaf from the Rove playbook by attacking her opponent on his strengths (integrity, freshness). That's the counter-intuitive way Rove ran campaigns from Texas to the White House. In 2004, for instance, Rove had Bush run directly at John Kerry's perceived strength as a Vietnam veteran.

I may be wrong, but I doubt that tarnishing Obama's halo will be as easy. First, the guy's got some Teflon coating. Reporters combing through his past have had trouble finding enemies. While a certain number of people have consistently loathed the Clintons going all the way back (while others adored them), the same has not been true for Obama. Even damaging details, like his confessed cocaine use in high school, haven't stuck. Ronald Reagan was Teflon, too. (Al Gore was Velcro). Certain people are just harder to take down than others.

Then there's the racial dimension. In some ways, Obama transcends race. Why else would he be doing so well in a state that's nearly all white? But it's still there as an important subconscious factor. Despite a widespread view that his race will eventually doom his campaign, the more likely consequence is that it will shield him from harsh attacks. As long as Obama doesn't play the race victim card (and so far he has strenuously avoided saying that any criticism of him is racially motivated), his opponents will always have to worry about going too far.

Finally, Hillary Clinton is a much more formidable candidate when she appears to be above the fray. This plays to her strengths as a leader and conciliator and explains why she has done so well in debates. For all of her talk about "turning up the heat," it's when she goes into brawler mode that she gets in trouble. Remember her 1998 comments on the TODAY Show about the "vast right-wing conspiracy"? Hillary has a playful sense of humor, but on the attack she seems humorless. She has a passion about issues, but on the attack she seems cold. Given what her husband endured, raising "character" seems especially foolhardy.

A week ago Sunday, I accompanied Clinton to the Methodist Church in Des Moines, where, without prior notice, the minister gave a sermon about children, mentioning the Children's Defense Fund, where Hillary once worked. Afterwards, I joked with the senator that we were in her log cabin-close to two of her central passions. She laughed, but not when I asked if in the closing days of the campaign she would be returning to the wellsprings of her life in politics-a passion for children's issues. She admonished me for not paying enough attention to her stump speech, which lists improving the lives of children as a central goal of her presidency. I didn't have the gumption to tell her that it felt like an agenda item rather than something close to her heart.

On hearing this story, an old friend and strong supporter of Hillary, who is convinced that going negative is a terrible mistake, winced. Why? Because people who understand politics know that candidates close the deal with voters when they draw on their own deepest motivations-their reasons for being in public life. In 2004, John Kerry won in Iowa by connecting voters to his story of wartime service. Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt blew early leads by going negative.

One of the things that keep elections interesting is that all the rules are made to be broken. Sure, negative campaigning works. It has in the past and it will in the future. But as John Edwards has already learned this year, the price can be steep. With all the sophisticated polling and war-gaming, American politics is, like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," not in Kansas any more. But for another month, it's still in Iowa.