Still, there are a few flaws in Clinton's trial-by-smear method. The first is that her attacks on Obama are not a fair proxy for what he'd endure in the general election, because attacks are harder to refute when they come from within one's own party. Indeed, Clinton is saying almost exactly the same things about Obama that McCain is: He's inexperienced, lacking in substance, unequipped to handle foreign policy. As The Washington Monthly's Christina Larson has pointed out, in recent weeks the nightly newscasts have consisted of Clinton attacking Obama, McCain attacking Obama, and then Obama trying to defend himself and still get out his own message. If Obama's the nominee, he won't have a high-profile Democrat validating McCain's message every day.
It is difficult to shake an attack when both the most prominent Republicans and many of the most prominent Democrats are saying the same thing. It does not help when, according to a recent Pew survey, the most common word that comes to mind when people think of you is "inexperienced," and the most common word people think of when they hear Hillary Clinton's name is "experienced." In fact, "inexperienced," is the only negative word among the top ten for Obama, with charismatic, intelligent, change, inspirational, young, new enthusiastic and hope rounding out the top ten. The attacks Clinton is making about 3am and the "commander in chief threshold" are effective both because they exploit the only negative on Obama that has been established in conventional wisdom, and because they are attacks where Clinton and McCain can jointly "close the triangle" on Obama in the national media. Remember what Peter Daou, a senior staff member of Hillary Clinton's campaign, wrote about the creation of conventional wisdom two years ago:
Last September, I published an essay laying out what I saw as the scope of blog influence, with 'influence' defined as the capacity to alter or create conventional wisdom. I used a triangle construct to set out the relationship between the netroots, the media, and the political establishment: "Looking at the political landscape, one proposition seems unambiguous: blog power on both the right and left is a function of the relationship of the netroots to the media and the political establishment. Forming a triangle of blogs, media, and the political establishment is an essential step ... Simply put, without the participation of the media and the political establishment, the netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom."
I concluded that "if the netroots alone can't change the political landscape without the participation of the media and Democratic establishment, then there's no point wasting precious online space blasting away at Republicans while the other sides of the triangle stand idly by."
The NSA scandal and the Alito confirmation hearings are just two more examples of the left's broken triangle and of the isolation of the progressive netroots. A flurry of activity among bloggers, online activists, and advocacy groups is met with ponderously inept strategizing by the Democratic leadership and relentless - and insidious - repetition by the media of pro-GOP narratives and soundbites. It's slow-motion-car-wreck painful, and most certainly NOT where the left's triangle should be a half decade into the new millennium, as the Bush-propping machine hums and whirrs, poll numbers rise and fall, Iraq bleeds, scandal dissolves into scandal, terror speech blends into terror speech. The landscape is there for everyone to see, to analyze. Enough time has elapsed to make the system transparent. It is dismaying for netroots activists to see the same mistakes repeated despite the benefit of hindsight.
The Clinton campaign has effectively formed a triangle against Obama on "inexperience" relating to national security with her campaign / supporters as one corner, the established media narrative of Obama's inexperience as a second corner, and Republicans / the McCain campaign as the third corner. It is an attack they developed in the final week heading into March 4th, when everything was on the line for their campaign, a loss in the Texas primary meant there was no tomorrow, and when pretty much all other attacks they attempted in 2008 had proven ineffective (and, in some cases, has actually backfired and helped Obama solidify his support among African-Americans and as the "change" candidate). It is also an attack that would not have worked while the Republican campaign was still shaking itself out, they were all still attacking each other, and there was no clear spokesperson for the Republican Party. I hate sports metaphors, but it was a desperation, hail mary pass, and it worked as her poll numbers have turned around in the last seven days.
It should be noted, however, that Barack Obama had done much of the same thing on Hillary Clinton in order to help establish his advantage in the campaign. Consider Barack Obama on Hillary Clinton and partisanship (more in the extended entry):
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Thursday he would be more willing than Hillary Rodham Clinton to work with Republicans.
"Her natural inclination is to draw a picture of Republicans as people who need to be crushed and defeated," Obama said during a telephone interview from Texas with the Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board. "It's not entirely her fault. She's been the target of some unfair attacks in the past."
"I'm not a person who believes any one party has a monopoly on wisdom," Obama said.
Remember Barack Obama going all "crisis" on us over Social Security, or getting all "Harry and Louise" on health care? Obama has played into well-established, right-wing narratives himself, such as the preposterous notion that Hillary Clinton is a hard-left, ultra-partisan instead of what she actually is, a centrist Democrat closely allied with the Republican-friendly-DLC. Obama has portrayed himself as the new alternative to the "partisan wars" or the 90's and our own decade, and at times laid the blame for the partisan attacks the Clintons suffered in the 1990's at their own feet. His rise to frontrunner status involved an effective right-wing attack against the Clinton's that also closed the triangle of conventional wisdom against her, and helped him build up enormous advantages among non-Democratic self-identifiers during the nomination campaign.
The sad truth is that whichever campaign has been willing to engage in right-wing attacks that feed conventional wisdom on the candidates and the close the triangle against Democrats has been the most effective attacker at any given moment during the nomination campaign. Both campaigns are now criticizing the other of engaging in right-wing attacks, and the truth is that both campaigns are right about this. Part of the problem, I think, is that the nomination campaign has been generally lacking in significant policy and ideological differences, leaving personalities and their photo-negative, the character-based attacks that Republicans love ("inexperienced," or "a cold, bitter partisan,") at the center of the campaign. Even Clinton's national security attack is ideology-free, given that she cites John McCain as experienced, but Obama as not.
Right-wing character attacks against Obama and Clinton have become central to the Democratic nomination campaign because they work, and because few issue and ideological differences separate the two candidates. While we should expect Obama to not attack Clinton as a heartless, calculating partisan, and while we should expect Clinton to not attack Obama as an inexperienced neophytes who can't measure up to the awesome national security experience of Republicans, when making those attacks can move you closer to the Democratic nomination I'm not really sure what else to expect from the campaigns. No one's hands are clean on this front, and mainly it is a tragedy that as Democrats we are buying into these attacks.