Tough Call

Will Clinton or Obama protect your children?

Watch Democratic voters react to Clinton’s new ad on Slate V.

Hillary Clinton’s “Children” ad

If you vote for Barack Obama, your children are going to die in their beds. This is the message of the latest Clinton television ad running in Texas. The spot starts with a moonlit shot of a blond toddler in the warm tangle of her sheets and then cuts to a close-up of an infant also in deep REM sleep. For the next 15 seconds, the images shift from one cherubic sleeping face to another. You’d think you were watching a Baby Ambien ad if the narrator weren’t giving you nightmares: “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call. Whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military—someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.” At this point, we see our first adult, a concerned mother, opening the door and peering into her children’s bedroom. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” the narrator repeats. “Who do you want answering the phone?”

The mother is indeed vigilant. It’s 3 in the morning, and she’s fully dressed in a business suit. (Kevlar vest and night-vision goggles would have probably been over the top.) But hey, Hillary’s up, too. The ad ends with a shot of Clinton, wearing reading glasses, talking on her phone, and illuminated by the soft light of her desk lamp.

Clinton strategist Mark Penn says the ad is not meant to frighten voters. It “uses very soft images,” he told reporters on a conference call. But in this case, of course, soft images are meant to scream danger, danger. In political history, Clinton’s sleeping-children ad most closely resembles one that Walter Mondale ran in 1984. That spot, produced by Roy Spence, who is also advising the Clinton campaign, showed a red phone ringing while a narrator raised questions about whom voters wanted in the White House during a crisis. Though that ad was subtler than Clinton’s—no imperiled children, for example—it did mention Mondale’s opponent, Gary Hart, whereas Clinton’s ad does not mention Obama.

Exit polls suggest that even in states Obama has won, voters who make up their mind on voting day pick Clinton. Her aides believe this suggests that last-minute voters make a gut-level call about their security and pick her. Those exit polls also show that voters who care about experience vote for Clinton by gargantuan margins. And yet, in the Democratic campaign’s crude dichotomy of change vs. experience, more voters have gone for change. And then they pick Obama. The new Clinton ad tries to battle back by expanding the group of voters who care most about experience. Remember, it’s a dangerous world.

The Bush campaign never ran an ad like this when it was accused of scare-mongering during the 2004 campaign. (They preferred using animals.) Perhaps that’s why Clinton campaign staffers have to insist they are not trying to frighten voters. While coyness is annoying, the essential question the ad asks is a fair one: Which of the candidates do you trust to keep his or her head when everyone around them is lighting theirs on fire, and at a time when your kid’s safety could be on the line?

The answer touches on the elements of experience as we’ve batted them around so far this election—who has broader exposure to the world, who has dealt with more foreign leaders, and who knows more about the military. But the ad also raises a new question the Clinton campaign has been stressing over the last few days: Who has been tested? The ad asks which candidate has faced the extended pressure of a crisis that might prepare him or her for the far larger pressures and crises he or she will face as president.

I love this question and am glad the Clinton team raised it. The problem is that they’re not so great at answering. When I asked campaign staffers for examples of Clinton being tested by a foreign-policy challenge, their response was pretty weak. As Patrick Healy reported in the New York Times, Hillary Clinton did not have a security clearance during her husband’s administration, so she wasn’t in the room for the brutal moments he faced. Her aides named the slew of uniformed retired military officials who have endorsed her, including several four-star generals. That’s nice, but it’s not proof of her mettle. When you make an ad like this, your case for your woman should be stronger than a list of endorsements.

Mark Penn pointed me to Clinton’s 1995 speech in Beijing, in which she declared that women’s rights were human rights. A fine speech and a great message, and boy, I bet her hosts didn’t like it one bit, but that doesn’t really constitute the testing that this powerful ad brings to mind. Also, if we’re talking about speeches, then I think Obama has that covered. He has been arguing for some time that he made a speech in 2002 about why the Iraq war was a bad idea. And hasn’t the Clinton team been knocking that back as just a speech?

Obama’s aides bring up his different judgments about Iraq in an effort to turn the drama of the sleeping-children ad back on Clinton. “She’s already had her red-phone moment,” said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, referring to Clinton’s vote on Iraq. By the end of Friday, the Obama campaign had produced its own ad using the ringing phone and images of sleeping children from the top of the Clinton one. “When that call gets answered, shouldn’t the president be the one—the only one—who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start … who understood the real threat to America was al-Qaida, in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Who led the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons around the globe. … In a dangerous world, it’s judgment that matters.”

Clinton has said she would like to have her 2002 Iraq vote back, which suggests that even when she had time to think through her decision, she didn’t make the right one. How is she going to make a better one when she has less time?

And yet, there’s no question that Hillary Clinton has been more tested in her life than Barack Obama. She has taken a very public pounding from conservatives for the last 15 years on issues ranging from her private finances to her health-care plan to her possible perjury. She has had to endure the brutal public scrutiny and crucible of her husband’s infidelities. The troubles she’s seen are so much a part of the public consciousness that she need give only the smallest nod to evoke them. When CNN’s Campbell Brown asked Clinton at the Austin debate two weeks ago when Clinton had been tested in her life, and she answered, “I think everyone knows I’ve lived through some crisis and challenges in my life,” the audience immediately applauded. If you believe that humans have a clearer view of what to do under pressure because they’ve dealt with serious pressure before, then Hillary is your gal. (Even if the pressure so far hasn’t come over a red phone line.)

Barack Obama gives an even less fulfilling answer when he’s asked about being tested. Brown asked him the same question at the end of the Austin debate, and he didn’t have a strong answer. Obama talked about his tumultuous adolescence and then returned to biographical boilerplate about his time as a community organizer. I asked Plouffe a similar question Friday, and he said that Obama’s successful campaign is showing that he can handle great pressure. He has run a terrific campaign, but it tells us more about his ability to organize, lead, and inspire. I don’t recognize a precipice moment in the last year that shows us much about Obama’s gut.

In the end, neither candidate has a strong answer to the questions raised by this stark ad, which means Clinton’s gamble in running it probably won’t pay off. (There’s also a possible backlash from Democrats who think she’s just giving John McCain ammunition for the general election.) The final effect of this ad may be felt not in the voting booth but at home, where all across Texas, parents will hug their children a little tighter.