Seeing her standing in the polls dropping and a steady stream of criticism from her rivals, this week Hillary Clinton decided it was time to go on the attack. And it wasn’t subtle. The headlines read like a Fox special: When Hillary Attacks! But these attacks could easily spark a backlash that solidifies negative perceptions about her rather than weaken her rivals. It seems increasingly clear that Hillary’s angry and combative personality could present a real problem for her campaign.
In going on the offensive she attacked her perceived chief rival Barack Obama on a wide range of hot button issues like health care, Social Security, abortion, and gun control. But what made the news were not disputes about policy but her odd decision to go after Obama on “character issues.”
Most of the media, and the public, were stunned that a Clinton would raise the issue - this is not exactly solid ground given their history. But what turned a questionable tactic into fodder for an endless stream of jokes, cartoons, and incredulous blog posts was the campaign’s attempt to use Obama’s childhood aspirations as proof that he was just another ambitious and calculating politician.
I can’t possibly guess what it was she thought was to be gained in focusing on the childhood presidential ambitions of Obama. Hillary accusing Obama of being overly ambitious simply reminds voters of her own inflated sense of entitlement and calculating persona. Raising questions about his campaign finance activities or his evasive answers only reminds them of her terrible record on both fronts. This is not wise strategy.
But even her more policy orientated criticisms are problematic. Is a debate over whose health care plan includes a universal mandate really going to change voter’s minds? Will people believe that Obama is a closet moderate based on his voting “present” in the Illinois senate?
A much more plausible motivation is emotional rather than tactical. Obama really gets under Hillary’s skin and her natural instinct is to hit back and hard. Democratic partisans also believe that failing to respond to attacks is what doomed John Kerry in the last election. When this widespread belief is combined with Hillary’s long history of wanting to ruthlessly attack her opponents it creates a powerful desire to abandon the Rose Garden style and turn to hand-to-hand combat.
But she lacks the charm and skill needed to go negative without seeming harsh and vindictive. When Hillary responds forcefully or goes on the offensive her voice tends to rise and gains an often grating edge. The attack seems personal and off-putting. While voters often respond to attempts to lay out clear differences between candidates in stark or hard hitting terms, they recoil from attacks that seem too harsh or personal.
The dilemma for Hillary is that her early position as the clear national frontrunner and above the fray campaign style has been challenged by a string of polls showing her losing ground in key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire despite retaining large leads in national polls. The fear is that a loss in Iowa could shatter her frontrunner image and once the dam breaks all bets are off.
The current tone of the campaign reflects the high stakes nature of the primaries and Hillary’s uncomfortable choices now that the aura of invincibility has been shattered. Despite protestations to the contrary, there simply aren’t that many policy differences between the candidates. And despite her claims, Hillary really doesn’t have a great deal more experience than her rivals. Her campaign was always based on her celebrity status and nostalgia for her husband’s time in office.
When the campaign was about her large national lead and her campaign’s discipline she was able to rise above it all. When her rivals turned their attacks on her directly, however, the temptation to respond proved too much. But this change in tactics doesn’t play to her strengths but her weaknesses. It puts the spotlight on her personality and risks solidifying her perception as the candidate of the ugly debates of the past. Enter Obama the idealist or Edwards the populist.
Hillary recently told audiences in Iowa that she wanted more than a “one night stand” but a “long term relationship.” It seems, however, that the reality of that long term commitment is beginning to sink in to voters as they see the less than charming side of their suitor.
Let’s hope they are smart enough to call off the engagement.