Let Hillary ‘Swiftboat’ Hillary

Richard H. Collins
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Posted: Feb 06, 2008 10:43 PM
Let Hillary ‘Swiftboat’ Hillary

Instead of an exciting “national primary” that would bring clarity and momentum to a thus far muddy and unpredictable race for the Democratic nomination, Super Tuesday brought a rather anti-climatic draw.

Barack Obama failed to achieve the clear upset but he did fight Hillary Clinton to a draw on the night she had hoped would wrap up the nomination. In the ever-changing expectations game, Obama did very well based on where he was just a few weeks ago, but not as well as he may had hoped based on the over-heated expectations of the days leading up to Super Tuesday. It seems that just when the media decides he may be poised for the historic upset those very same unrealistic expectations doom him to an underwhelming showing.

But a couple of the factors behind Hillary’s success so far have to make Democrats nervous. The very nature of the Democratic Party, for example, prevents Obama from going after Hillary on the unsavory scandals that plagued her husband’s time in the White House or the myriad of conflicts of interest his post-presidency has created. Obviously, Republicans in the general election will have no such problem. Also, it has to be troubling that the Democratic primary contest has basically come down to a battle of identity politics.

The first problem is one Hillary spends a lot of time denying for obvious reasons. She is running as the Democrat best suited to withstand the infamous “GOP Attack Machine.” She remarked Tuesday that she would not allow anyone to “swift boat this country's future" implying that she knows how to respond when the mud starts to fly.

This makes sense given that her base constituency are self-identified Democrats. These are the folks that spent the nineties defending her and her husband. They are committed to the Clintons as victims of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. She also hopes to use this type of rhetoric to attract the angry leftist base that distrust her, and her husband’s, triangulating tendencies but who are equally suspicious of Obama’s “post-partisan” message of Hope and Change.

But while this strategy may help her grind out a victory against Obama it doesn’t position her very well in the general election. In a “change election” she will easily be tagged as part of the past – and the ugly divisions it represents.

Who better to go after the Clinton’s questionable fundraising than Mr. Campaign Finance reform himself, John McCain? Or who better to make character an issue? Voters tired of the bitterness and hyper-partisanship of recent years seem unlikely to vote for the poster child of these fights.

Much has been made of the damage this campaign has done to her standing among African Americans, but it is also now clear that she is relying on the long standing animosity between Blacks and Hispanics and on the support of single women to stay in this race.

With a race this close the temptation to go negative will be great. But any attempt by Hillary to attack risks further alienating a core Democratic constituency, African Americans, who are already abandoning Hillary in droves. Will those voters suddenly vote Republican? Probably not, but they might stay home.

Hillary may see her success among single women as a potential strength but can she really afford to go into the general election turning off men and married women in large numbers? McCain as the GOP nominee would again present problems for Hillary. The Senator from Arizona can’t easily be tarred with the racist tag given his stance on immigration and he might cut into the Hispanic vote she depends on.

Polls are notoriously slippery and they have been spectacularly wrong already this season, but the numbers should make Hillary nervous. She lacks the ability to break out of very limited categories of voters. Her high negatives maker her margin of error that much smaller.

She is a polarizing and hyper-partisan candidate with a great deal of baggage. A long drawn out campaign that pulls her to the left and forces her to pit important constituencies against each other will make it difficult to unify the party and appeal to the independent voters necessary to win the election come November.

It is fitting the Democratic Party would find itself stuck with an ugly primary reduced to identity politics and facing the prospect of the Clintons turning their hardball tactics and questionable fundraising ethics on their fellow Democrats.

And fittingly, Hillary may end up winning her party but losing the country. And in that case the country wins.