Achieving the Right Level of Nasty

Obama and Clinton fight and also fight not to fight.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

When Barack Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, spoke to reporters on a conference call Wednesday, you could hear a siren in the background. It was just the usual city sounds outside of his Chicago office, but it matched the emergency tone of the call. In the wake of Obama’s three losses in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, Axelrod was opening up a new, aggressive front against Hillary Clinton. He spooled out a string of accusations about her undisclosed tax returns and White House records as if he’d been holding his breath for the last 12 months. In fact, he has. This was a public attack unlike any the campaign has issued before. “She is a habitual nondiscloser,” said Axelrod, even as he criticized the Clinton campaign for running a “scorched earth” series of attacks on Obama recently.

The next day, Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, followed with the political equivalent of Godwin’s law by charging that the Obama campaign was imitating Ken Starr. At this rate, the campaigns will be trading expletives by April (that’s already happening inside the Clinton campaign). If anything will save us from a perpetual seven-week harangue before the key Pennsylvania primary, it’s that the penalty for going negative has increased at the same time that the candidates are increasingly tempted to push each other down the stairs. Instead of full-throttle, we may instead see each candidate with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake over the next stretch.

It has been the natural rhythm of this campaign that when the candidates get tough, they back off. At the South Carolina debate in January, Clinton and Obama were as accusatory, bitter, and snippy as they had been all season; by the next contest, they were competing to describe how honored they were to run against the other. Checking the reconciliation reflex this time is the increased motivation the candidates have to attack. The Clinton team is convinced that the contrasts it drew with Obama helped win Ohio and Texas. Exit polls show that voters who made up their minds in the last three days, when Clinton’s attacks were at their zenith, moved toward her. The campaign shows no sign of letting up. (With all that blood in the water, why swim away?)

The Obama campaign recognizes that taking the high road isn’t an effective rebuttal—hence the Axelrod call Wednesday and Obama’s raising of questions about Clinton’s tax returns on the campaign trail.

The Clinton team is setting the same trap for Obama my 4-year-old sets for her older brother. She hits him, knowing that he’ll get in trouble for hitting back. Right on cue, Clinton’s senior aide Ann Lewis set it up. “I didn’t realize their version of new politics was to recycle old Republican tactics,” she said. If voters put both campaigns in the corner for a timeout, it may hurt Obama more, because his claim to be a new kind of above-the-fray candidate means he’s held to a higher standard. If Obama pays no penalty for the fracas, the Clinton folks still take him for a roll in the dirt where he can’t offer his appealing message of hope, change, inspiration, and hope. Clinton, by contrast, reinforces her fighter image.

This is not a new dilemma for Obama. We’ve been talking about it for a year. What’s new is that he is under more pressure than ever to punch back. It’s not just that he can’t let Clinton’s attacks hang in the air. He has to show Democrats that he’s a fighter, too. The questions the Clinton campaign has been raising about him lately have all been in bounds, despite what Obama aides say. Obama’s abilities as commander in chief, his ties to indicted longtime political ally Tony Rezko, and his position on NAFTA are all worthy subjects for debate. If he’s going to be the nominee, he’s going to face a lot worse from Republicans—and the barrage will be constant if he’s president.

I’m still waiting for Obama to show us how he’ll apply his gifts to these kinds of fights. In the meantime, he’s smart to start with the conventional attack on Clinton’s tax returns. Hillary’s campaign has no substantive reason for not releasing the returns she’s filed since she left the White House. They’re presumably in a drawer in Chappaqua, N.Y., or in an accountant’s office. It seems that she could present them in an afternoon if she wanted to.

The good news for Obama is that Clinton also may run into trouble if she looks too mean. It’s not so much that primary voters in future contests might get turned off—they’ve proven to be pretty resilient this cycle. It’s that Clinton’s path to the nomination is highly volatile, and she’ll only increase the chance for a political explosion if it looks like she won by playing ugly. Barring some extraordinary event, Clinton is not going to catch Obama in the race for pledged delegates. To win the nomination, she’ll have to persuade superdelegates to upend the pledged-delegate totals. Her best chance at making this case may come if she wins the popular vote, at which point she could say that the people are with her. Absent that, she’s going to have to argue that while Obama has the people and the pledged delegates, she’s more electable because Obama is deeply flawed.

This is going to be a very delicate argument. According to the exit polls from Tuesday, two-thirds of Democratic voters said the superdelegates should vote based on the outcome in the caucuses and primaries, which means they should choose Obama. Clinton would be asking the party that thinks of itself as the protector of voting rights to unseat an African-American candidate who, if he stays ahead in the popular vote, has the voters’ will behind him.

The strongest argument Clinton aides make on this score is that it’s completely legal and fair for the superdelegates to choose whichever candidate they think is better. But legal and fair doesn’t mean people will buy it. They’ll be even less pleased if they think Clinton cheated or attacked Obama unfairly. According to those Tuesday exit polls, two-thirds of voters already do. That’s why the Obama campaign will up the public umbrage they take at each little Clinton jab. Time to start sounding that alarm.