Barack Obama says Hillary Clinton is resorting to Karl Rove-style tactics by distorting his bitter-cling riff about the behavior of small-town Pennsylvanians. She not only mentions his remarks at every campaign appearance, she’s put them at the center of a new ad. Obama fans say Clinton’s relentless hammering will benefit John McCain in the fall, assuming Obama wins the nomination, since it’s always more powerful for a Republican to attack a Democrat with another Democrat’s words.
Whether the new Clinton ad is out of bounds is a matter of debate. It is a typical man-and-woman-on-the-street spot in which people tut-tut with mild outrage about Obama’s remarks. It seems bad more than outrageous. Clinton’s decision to run it at all suggests that maybe the “good people of Pennsylvania”—as one of the stilted ad participants labels them—haven’t gotten sufficiently exercised about Obama’s remarks on their own. (Polls show it, too). When Clinton made up a whole Bosnia sniper-fire incident, Sen. Obama never mentioned it and never used it in an ad. He didn’t have to, and besides, he and his team knew the episode would help them less if it looked like they were trying to milk it.
Effective or not, Clinton’s new ad will add more evidence to fuel the claim that Clinton is trying not just to beat Obama but to destroy him—because if he loses against McCain, she gets an opening in 2012. If Clinton doesn’t get the nomination, she’s going to have to deal with this view or see her future chances in presidential politics severely damaged. She already suffers from high negative ratings. If she’s pegged as a hope killer because she bloodied Obama, she may lose the chance to woo a bloc of Democrats forever.
Clinton’s best chance to fix this problem is to suck up to Obama after the primaries by working hard for him in the general election. The more she dings him now, as she does with this new ad, the more work she’s creating for herself in the fall. She’s already going to have to do a lot more than just hold hands with Obama and smile at the party’s Denver convention to make up for the 3 a.m. telephone ad and efforts some Democrats think she’s made to highlight Obama’s race.
John McCain had this sort of eye on the future when he put the brutal South Carolina campaign behind him and worked so hard for George Bush in 2000. McCain and his advisers knew that their shot at running the presidential gauntlet the next time rested on doing everything the Bush team asked for and more.
If Clinton ends up in this corner, you can imagine the assignments that Obama or his staffers will dream up as payback. If we see Clinton marching in parades in the heat of a Texas August or standing amid the swamps of Florida, we’ll know what’s up. Obama could even turn this into a fundraising gambit, with donors bidding for the chance to design Clinton’s surrogate activities: “Today Hillary Clinton hung the screen porch for the Wilson family in St. Louis.”
Clinton can console herself, if it comes to this, that she’s not totally without leverage. Obama will need the women who have been so loyal to Clinton in his battle against McCain. This will inspire him to treat her kindly—no sending her on a monthlong tour of small-town gun shows. But that doesn’t mean his supporters now have to support her when she runs again in 2012 or beyond, and they’re the ones Clinton will need to court.