One thing no one ever accuses Hillary Clinton of lacking is toughness. And after having being hounded by the right wing smear machine for most of the last two decades, one can hardly blame her. Actually, for many Democrats, this is Clinton’s biggest selling point: she has the toughness, as we’re repeatedly told, to fight back against the coming GOP slime tsunami. Obama’s toughness, on the other hand, is less well tested.
Even as an Obama supporter, I’ll admit that a “toughness gap,” if one actually existed (which I don’t think one does) would be no small point: toughness in our politicians is something rank and file Democrats have been craving for a long, long time. Watching our representatives in Congress repeatedly wilt in the face of attacks and threats from an unpopular president has been infuriating.
But in our mania to have our leaders develop a little more spine, Democrats need to remember that tough talk, like Tabasco sauce, is usually best used in moderation. To be effective politically (at least when it’s coming from the candidate’s own mouth), tough talk is almost always best delivered with a soft touch.
This is a lesson Hillary Clinton seems to be forgetting, as she fights on against the odds. A good case in point is her latest, oh so “tough,” declaration of her intent to stay in the race until the convention, come what may.
NEW ALBANY, Ind., March 29 — In her most definitive comments to date on the subject, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton sought Saturday to put to rest any notion that she will drop out of the presidential race, pledging in an interview to not only compete in all the remaining primaries but also continue until there is a resolution of the disqualified results in Florida and Michigan.
A day after Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean urged the candidates to end the race by July 1, Clinton defied that call by declaring that she will take her campaign all the way to the Aug. 25-28 convention if necessary, potentially setting up the prolonged and divisive contest that party leaders are increasingly anxious to avoid.
“I know there are some people who want to shut this down and I think they are wrong,” Clinton said in an interview during a campaign stop here Saturday. “I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don’t resolve it, we’ll resolve it at the convention — that’s what credentials committees are for.
This expression of Clinton’s unbending determination to continue campaigning until hell freezes over, if necessary, represents anything but a soft touch. And for that reason, it probably won’t be effective. Her goal in making the statement, of course, was to try to end the slow bleeding of superdelegates to Obama. And in fairness, given the increasing number of prominent Democrats calling for her to withdraw, if she intends to stay in the race, a strong denial was needed.
She didn’t need to imply, however, that absolutely nothing — up to and including the danger of destroying the party — will ever get her to change her mind.
The problem, from her standpoint, with this sort of Shermanesque certainty is that it’s scaring Democrats, and in particular it’s scaring Democratic officeholders up for reelection this year, a group sometimes also known as superdelegates. A soft touch would have been to make the same point, but at the same time to have made it clear that if her situation does at some point become truly untenable then, of course, she’ll withdraw and support Obama.
By not sending that message now, but instead one that implies a determination to battle on regardless of consequences, she’ll probably only increase the number of superdelegates jumping to Obama.
A similar pattern has been on display in many of the Clinton campaign’s more controversial recent steps, including instigating the threatening letter a group of wealthy donors sent to Nancy Pelosi. It was perfectly appropriate, perhaps even wise politics, for the Clinton camp to let Pelosi know that Clinton’s big dollar supporters were miffed. But to go beyond that — to actually threaten that big dollar contributors may punish Democratic congressional candidates for Pelosi’s position by withholding support — went well over the top. Not surprisingly, it produced a backlash.
Without a doubt, being tough is important in politics, but so is being smart. Clinton is showing plenty of the former these days. Maybe her campaign could use a little more of the latter.
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