What I Mean, Not What I Say

The little fibs campaigns tell all day long.

Hillary Clinton

When ABC reported the scoop that Hillary Clinton told Bill Richardson that Barack Obama couldn’t win in the general election, I thought it was a good nugget but not surprising. It’s not as if she’d previously said she’d be a better nominee because Obama is a bad dancer. The Clinton campaign has been arguing that Obama can’t win in the general election for months. He can’t win big states; he can’t win among key constituencies like blue-collar voters, Latinos, and Catholics; he can’t beat McCain; he can’t pass the commander-in-chief test. The electability charge is, in fact, the only basis Clinton has left as she battles to overthrow Obama’s lead among pledged delegates. It’s nearly on Clinton’s campaign signs.

But as thoroughly obvious as the Clinton remark is, it’s the kind of plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face statement that candidates are never supposed to actually make out loud. They’ll walk you up to the idea. They’ll even sound out the vowels to help you say it yourself, but in primary season, no one is supposed to actually say, “He can’t win” or “He doesn’t have the credentials to be commander in chief.” Her campaign will suggest that your sleeping children could be extinguished in their beds if Obama is elected, but when Clinton is asked at a debate if Obama is not ready to be president, she’ll say that’s for the voters to decide.

The prediction that Obama will be a general-election failure is so taboo that now that Clinton has said it, her aides won’t repeat it. After a conference call devoted to stacking up all the reasons Obama would lose to McCain, I asked Clinton’s top strategist and spokesman if they were saying, as Bill and Hillary Clinton have said privately, that Obama can’t win. “No,” the Clinton aides dodged, they’re merely arguing that Clinton is the better candidate.

A version of this happens in Obamaland, too. In response to Clinton’s claims that Obama is unelectable, the Obama campaign has initiated its own version of the same accusation over the last few weeks. Clinton can’t win in a general election when voters think she has a “credibility gap.” “To head into a general election with over half the electorate not believing you are trustworthy is a serious problem,” campaign manager David Plouffe said. “The American people will not elect a candidate that they do not see as trustworthy.”

Taking the Obama argument to its logical conclusion, I asked campaign adviser Greg Craig, who has known Hillary Clinton since college but is siding with the other guy, if he thought she was fundamentally dishonest. He was on one of the Obama conference calls at which this was essentially asserted. But, of course, he demurred. He was just on the call to dispute her foreign-policy claims, he said.

The Obama camp wants you to hear the charge that Clinton is a liar, but they play peekaboo by framing it in terms of the political challenge her candidacy poses for Democrats. They never want to come out and just say liar by itself. When Barack Obama agreed in a New York Times interview that Clinton had not been fully truthful six months ago, he took a lot of heat. He has never gone that far again.

Why not say what you mean? Two reasons. Neither campaign wants to be accused of giving John McCain any statements that he can use in the general election against the eventual Democratic nominee. Also, in the event that the candidates wind up as each other’s running mate or even just campaigning for the other one in November, they don’t want to have to eat too many of their own words. “It’s a thin but important line,” says a Clinton staffer.

Still, getting across the idea that a candidate is fundamentally flawed matters. It’s a more powerful argument than saying he’s less good. If he’s merely that, voters can take a chance on him, knowing they aren’t really risking a few bedrock Democratic principles. The party won’t be at risk of nominating a conservative Supreme Court justice or launching a new war against Iran. If a voter, or better a superdelegate, can be convinced that a candidate is doomed, on the other hand, then you can move them to your man or woman as the safer, if less appealing, choice.

This is what’s at stake when Clinton aides discuss the incendiary remarks of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright, as Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo reported earlier this week. The question the Clinton camp wants on everyone’s minds is whether Obama’s pastor will sink him in the general.

The Democratic campaign, then, has come down to the question of which candidate is fundamentally flawed, even though neither side wants to really come out and say this. It’s a way to get what you want, you hope, without taking responsibility. My son used to do a version of the same thing. He’d hold up his hands over his eyes and pretended we couldn’t see him.