Karl Rove has been mothballed. The Swift Boaters have been decommissioned. But conservatives need not despair. The Republican presidential nominee won’t be needing their special political services this time around.
Because Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are doing their campaign dirty work for them.
Clinton and Obama have been smudging and slashing each other’s candidacies with results reminiscent of the Grand Old Party’s most famous overt and covert practitioners of the politics of destruction. Indeed, Clinton and Obama have gone Rove and the Swift Boaters one better. They have sabotaged not only their opponent’s campaigns but their own. And they did it with devastating word-of-mouth campaigns: Their words, their mouths.
Their skill has allowed the Republican nominee-in-waiting, John McCain, to cruise uncontested along what seems, by comparison, to be a political high road. McCain is saving his money — and his ammo — for the fall.
For days, Sen. Clinton regaled audiences with accounts of her harrowing visit to Bosnia as First Lady, ducking sniper fire as an airport welcoming had to be moved indoors for safety. She had us channeling Rambo in drag, landing in a Balkan war zone — until the snoozing media that had been on the trip awoke, remembered its news responsibility and found video that showed Clinton ambling amiably along the tarmac, chatting with children who were welcoming her. Get the hook.
Then, just as we had moved past that string of pathetic untruths, along came Bill Clinton. He bizarrely resurrected the issue by blaming the media for picking on his wife — and setting something of a record by uttering five untruths without pausing for breath. Ex-President Clinton insisted that his wife only said it once (she said it a number of times); that she said it when tired at 11 at night (she told her tale mornings, mid-days and evenings); and so on. Get another hook.
Finally, and every bit as bizarrely, Obama rescued his opponent — by making himself the center of a new controversy. He did it by committing the oldest gaffe in the campaign book.
Obama went to a San Francisco fundraiser that was closed to the news media and made the rookie mistake of thinking he was only talking to a San Francisco fundraiser that was closed to the news media. So he spoke about voters who live in America’s small towns as if he were examining life forms in a distant culture. He said of those people who can’t find work in economically tough times: “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Get the hook — make it a gaffer’s hook.
Naturally, Obama’s words became big news in small towns of Pennsylvania, where the next primary will be held on April 22. Naturally, many who live there do not view their religious faith as a mere refuge from economic hardship.
Republicans did not have to leap to attack the Democratic presidential frontrunner who is still favored to be McCain’s autumn opponent — because Sen. Clinton was on the case. Roving through Pennsylvania, she said Obama’s words were “elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing.” She said this just after she’d told Pennsylvanians about childhood vacations in Pennsylvania where she learned to shoot a gun.
Someday, Obama may regale audiences with tales of what it was like to duck for cover on the tarmacs of Pennsylvania, as he was met at every stop by reporters firing questions. He explained, clarified, amplified. Then Obama tried to refocus the news lens by saying Clinton was “talking like she’s Annie Oakley.” He added: “Hillary Clinton’s out there like she’s on the duck blind every Sunday. She’s packing a six-shooter. Come on, she knows better.”
While McCain’s campaign did call Obama “out of touch,” Clinton’s campaign did the heavy lifting — rushing to air a commercial starring several Pennsylvania citizens: “I was very insulted by Barack Obama. …It just shows how out of touch Barack Obama is. …I’m not clinging to my faith out of frustration and bitterness. I find that my faith is very uplifting.”
Sounds familiar? That theme was the unmaking of every defeated Democratic presidential nominee of the last three decades. John Kerry. Al Gore. Michael Dukakis. Walter Mondale.
You’ll be hearing it again. For Clinton’s campaign ad in April 2008 was a free, focus-grouped test-run of the theme that will surely be John McCain’s 2008 campaign mantra, come September.
Hillary and Barack, you’re doing a heckuva job.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)