Saturday, May 24, 2008

Actually, We Do Remember That

So, Hillary Clinton said a silly thing. Not so much funny as peculiar.

Obviously, she was not wishing harm would come to Senator Obama, or implying that it might. The significance of what she said seems to have surprised her.

She was trying to make an entirely different and innocent, if not entirely honest point, that the Democratic primary campaign has not gone on unusually long. And she made a gaffe, because actually the Democratic primary campaign has gone on unusually long and she's tired. She was clearly focused on spinning her main point of the day, which required her to marshal genuine facts into a wildly misleading conclusion without explicitly lying. (She denies that this primary campaign has gone on longer than others because some of the others went on into June, neglecting to mention that those campaigns started in mid-March, rather than the first week of January). And while she focused on not accidentally stating a falsehood or revealing the truth, she said something horribly and shockingly careless.

That said, I don't have much sympathy. Because the gist of Senator Clinton's spin was that something was terribly suspicious about calls for the campaign to end and that we should look for sinister meanings in those calls. The sentence after the "assassination" sentence is, "I don't understand it." What the Senator claims not to understand is why people call for her to end her campaign. The specious claims about June are meant to distort away the basic (and completely truthful) objection that the campaign has gone on a long time and might hurt party unity, leaving the Senator to imply that there can be no reason except ... unless ... do you think that it might be ...?

Here's the lesson: while you're trying to prime voters to hear sinister and conspiratorial undertones in everything your critics say and everything they leave suspiciously unsaid, it would help not to use any words with sinister connotations yourself. It's very hard to encourage people to supply an unsavory context for everyone else's words and then protest that your own words have been misunderstood. It's even harder to do those two things in the other order. Senator Clinton has to protest that she has been misconstrued and that we should not blow her comments out of proportion. But it's going to be very hard, next week and the week after, to urge us to construe her critics' words more suspiciously or to blow them out of proportion.

This gaffe, while surely not malicious or homicidal, pretty much puts a stake in the heart of Clinton's chief rationales for her campaign at this point.

1) Her chief emotional appeal to the voting public is that she's gotten a raw deal, and that people have gotten a free pass for bashing her in subtly and not-so-subtly sexist ways. Whatever the truth of that claim, it's much harder to keep making after Clinton needs to ask for an enormous pass herself. Some of HRC's hard-core supporters will simply consider the reaction to her gaffe more slanted mistreatment from the press, of course, and harden their support, but she could always count on the loyalty of the supporters who believe she can do no wrong, and the rest of her voters will have a harder time arguing for her mistreatment. Senator Clinton just shrank her core of support.

2) Her chief strategic appeal, aimed primarily at the superdelegates, is that she will simply be a more effective candidate than Barack Obama and that she should be nominated because she'll be stronger against McCain in the fall. It's pretty hard to make the case that she's a terrific candidate this morning. You may not take the nomination from a front-runner for a slip of the tongue, but you surely don't take it away from the front-runner for someone who's making those slips of the tongue. The superdelegates are professional activists and politicians. They're going to judge her on her political skills, not her intentions, and she didn't look terribly skillful yesterday.

3) Her claim to first refusal of the running-mate slot, which some of her supporters were pressing yesterday, is now basically doomed. The argument, reported by CNN yesterday is basically that not giving Clinton the Vice-Presidency would so anger her backers that they would wage "open civil war" in the Democratic party. That blackmail ploy relies upon the perception of Clinton as unjustly aggrieved, more sinned-against than sinning. But her ill-chosen words have just handed the Obama campaign the only thing that could get them out of the trap, which is their own grievance. It's very hard to make Obama out to be the villain for not wanting a running mate who throws around "assassination" references while he's dealing with an extra helping of death threats. Obama never needs to mention that. People will supply the explanation. If anyone does need to be reminded, a few leaked stories about Michelle Obama's anxieties will do the trick admirably.

Even if you put the most positive construction on Senator Clinton's remark, they're sufficient excuse not to put her on the ticket. She's made a huge mistake on the trail, which is not a preferred qualification in a running mate, and she's been wildly insensitive about the other candidate and his family. It's difficult to press that person on a nominee.

But in any case, the most outrageous and immoral thing said on Friday was said, of course, by John McCain. About the G.I. Bill.

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