Clinton Is Her Own Worst Enemy

Amid the shrieks of “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” from dispensers of the sincerest form of flattery, I came across this trenchant observation by Libby Copeland of the Washington Post (emphasis mine):

Smart candidates don’t invoke the possibility of their opponents being killed. This seems so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently, it needs to be said.

“We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” Hillary Clinton said yesterday, referencing the fact that past nomination contests have stretched into June to explain why she hasn’t heeded calls to exit the Democratic race. She was in an editorial board meeting with a South Dakota newspaper, and she didn’t even seem to notice she’d just uttered the unutterable.

The nation’s political science students, our future strategists and campaign managers, would do well to pay attention to this moment. There are taboos in presidential politics, and this is one of the biggest. To raise the specter of a rival’s assassination, even unintentionally, is to make a truly terrible thing real. It sounds like one might be waiting for a terrible thing to happen, even if one isn’t. It sounds almost like wishful thinking.

If there were any doubt about the taboo nature of discussing such a thing, witness the reaction Barack Obama’s campaign put out, which carefully avoided any repetition of what Clinton had actually said. To repeat it would be to repeat the possibility of the terrible thing.

“Senator Clinton’s statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign,” spokesman Bill Burton e-mailed. (A reporter checking his BlackBerry after an overlong smoke break would have no inkling of what was so unfortunate.)

I certainly noticed the mildness of the Obama campaign’s response, but I put it down to classiness. I don’t doubt that was part of it, but Copeland’s interpretation makes sense, as well.

Carol Platt Liebau — someone whose political beliefs are the South Pole to my North Pole — wrote an essay at in which she makes a similar point: “The dangers confronting candidates are real, and they are serious. And to me, it should be clear that one just never, ever invokes the specter of assassination on the campaign trail.”

Liebau points out that Hillary Clinton is much too smart, politically shrewd, and well-informed about political customs and history in this country to have spoken without intention or out of fatigue when she put the word “assassination” in a sentence about primary races that lasted into June or beyond (emphasis mine):

There are two different ways to think about what Hillary said. On the one hand, some callers essentially argued that she was simply referencing historical fact, and that there was nothing inherently wrong with what she said. To me, that argument is way off base. It was despicable for Governor Pat Brown, running against Ronald Reagan, to mention that an actor assassinated President Lincoln — yet that, too, was simply historical fact, wasn’t it? What’s more, her suggestion that her husband was running in a contested race until June doesn’t square with the historical facts. Who would remember all this better than Hillary?

Then, on the other hand, there’s the position that what Hillary said was wrong. Within that rubric, there’s a first position — that the comment was simply a gaffe, brought about by fatigue, etc. But if that’s the case, how is it that she came to make almost exactly the same comment to TIME magazine back in March? And looking at her remark yesterday — “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California” — it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t mention that he was killed after winning a contested primary . . . she simply notes that he was assassinated.

That leaves one final possibility: That she thought there was some strategic advantage in playing on the fears about Obama’s safety, suggesting that it’s to the benefit of the Democratic Party for her to stay in the race, in case the unthinkable (except to her, apparently) happens. It’s a contemptible maneuver, but is there anyone out there who really doesn’t believe that either of the Clintons are capable of such a calculation? It’s worth noting that Senator Clinton is a bright woman; her remarks weren’t the result of an unexpected debate question (a la the Spitzer/illegal immigrant debacle) or a spontaneous attempt at humor (a la Huckabee). They came in front of an editorial board, answering a question she surely had anticipated.

And this is exactly what I suggested here yesterday — if the rumors are true that Clinton is angling for second place on the Democratic ticket, she sure ain’t gettin’ it now:

Obama staffers have quietly dismissed the possibility of a joint ticket even as it has gained traction with high-profile Clinton backers, including former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

But the dust-up over the RFK remarks could seriously jeopardize whatever chances she may have had, Democratic strategists and others said.

“My jaw just dropped — I think she just basically shattered her hopes of being named as vice-president,” said New York State Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), one of Obama’s top backers in Clinton’s home state. “To use example of an assassination I think leads one to believe that she may be talking about something unfortunate happening to Barack Obama. Couple that with the other remarks she made recently about winning the white vote and her husband’s statements and I’d say something is seriously amiss,” Perkins said.

It really does kind of put you out of the running for the vice-presidency when you hint at the possibility that the person above you on the ticket might be assassinated.

Cross-posted at Comments from Left Field.

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One Comment on “Clinton Is Her Own Worst Enemy”

  1. […] Cross-posted at Liberty Street. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

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