If one of the cardinal rules of progressive politics is that you never repeat the talking points by which your opponents beat up on your own party, then what are we to think of last night’s Democratic debate, in which a principal tactic used by some of the non-Clintons was to repeat Republican talking points about Hillary Clinton?
I can understand why the non-Clinton Democratic candidates, having watched her pull away in recent national polls (though not in Iowa), feel obliged to challenge Senator Clinton on the merits of her positions, her Senate votes on Iraq and Iran, the soundness of her ideas, judgments and statements in contrast to their own. Drawing these contrasts is certainly legitimate, and it probably helps voters make up their minds, though it’s frankly still a mystery to me why voters like or dislike and eventually come to favor one candidate over another.
But the argument that Clinton in unelectable because her “negatives” are too high — that she’s so disliked Americans won’t vote for her — has always seemed one of those unproven Republican talking points that I suspect they only wish were true, even while they ignore the margin of her last Senate election victory. To be sure, early polls have shown high negatives for Clinton, but it’s also true that part of that has been driven by 15 years of incessant vilification by a right wing unable to cope with a strong woman candidate, a liberal or anyone who had the temerity to tackle health care reform before its time. There has always been something deceptive and despicable about the rightwing attacks on the Clintons, the dishonorable Starr prosecutions and the unrelenting, but unsuccessful efforts to link the Clintons to Whitewater “corruption.” Are the Democrats now to feed that hate-filled frenzy by hinting those are valid arguments, or by making undifferentiated attacks claiming, with nothing more specific, that because she swims in America’s money-drenched politics, she is so inherently corrupt as to disqualify her, but not them?
The Republicans can be expected to try this again, but their motivation is as much diversion as anything. What I suspect is that all of the Republican front runners have significantly higher “negatives” — and deservedly so — than Hillary Clinton or most of the Democrats. Wasn’t there a poll not long ago that tested how many voters would refuse to vote for each candidate — and Hillary turned out to have the smallest problem on that score? [Update: see this comparative "negatives" poll. (h/t cinnamonape)]
The Republican right wing has been mindlessly fixated on its dislike of the Clintons for over 15 years. But the high approval ratings Bill Clinton held even during impeachment tells us that the right wing hatreds do not automatically transfer to the general electorate. And yet the right apparently believes that if they repeat the “Hillary can’t win because everyone hates her” mantra often enough, and have it amplified by the Establishment talking heads, the inevitable debate question, and an all too unquestioning media, it can move from mantra to self-fulfulling prophecy. If that’s the strategy, why are prominent Democrats feeding that theme?
If they want to talk about “negatives,” perhaps Democrats should note that the Republican field is littered with candidates awash in “negatives” — important ones. We find men who, like George Bush, are grossly uninformed and even less curious, and who, like George Bush, hold dangerous, authoritarian views about government’s power over individuals, along with arrogantly imperialist views about how American should interact with the world. We see political chameleons — Guiliani, Romney, McCain — who abandon long-held principles and openly pander to those they once abhorred. Can anyone trust these people with our national security or anything else that matters?
At a time when the American people are crying out for effective, honest and fair government, the Republican candidates come across as mostly anti-government, biased against the middle class and the poor, and especially immigrants. Americans respond to tolerance, but these men are intolerant Christianists, sometimes anti-non-Christian and often anti-science. And to a public sickened by lawlessness, these men come across as anti-Constitution, arguing the President is above the law. Most are indifferent to how America must look when it sanctions torture, rendition, indefinite imprisonment without habeas corpus. Where the public wants accountability and limits on abusive powers, the Republicans support unchecked spying, amnesty/immunity for lawbreakers and aggressive wars.
In short, the Republican candidates are walking billboards for “negatives” that could well make them — not Hillary Clinton — unelectable. They personify virtually every character trait that a large majority of the Americans have now rejected and want to see removed from the White House. And their only plausible strategy for winning in 2008 is to engage in personal character assassination of the Democratic candidate, hoping to turn off and drive away an electorate that is not merely willing but anxious to throw the Republican bums out.
I can’t think of any reason why any Democratic candidate should help the Republicans keep their last hopes alive. Clinton, like any politician who has actually tried to accomplish something against the political tide, has “negatives,” but I think the notion that they’re disqualifying or make her unelectable, or that she can’t overcome them is just nonsense; it flies in the face of her own history, her struggles, and her steady rise in national polls. And I think it’s a mistake for any of the Democratic candidates to buy into this, perpetuate it, and enable it, no matter how badly they want to be President.
Photo: Clinton and Obama at Democratic Debate, Drexel University, Tim Shaffner/Reuters