Moving To The 11th Commandment
I only caught parts of the AFL-CIO “debate” last night with the Democratic candidates from Chicago’s Soldier Field, moderated by Keith Olbermann. With its questions from the audience outdoors in front of a large crowd, and coming at a time when national polls show that Hillary has pulled out to a large lead, it is a format destined to yield attack and counterattack moments and not much else. As was to be expected, Hillary and Obama came under repeated challenges: Hillary for taking corporate and lobbyist money, and Obama for his comments about attacking Pakistan. Both Edwards and Obama hit Clinton for being a Washington insider, a message that might work with the base but may not resonate in a post-9/11 general election campaign.
Despite all of this, Hillary is ready to focus smartly on the general election and the GOP. In fact, some believe that the campaign has splintered into two camps: a Clinton/Biden/Dodd group, and the outsider Obama/Edwards camp.
Last night’s event was tailor-made for John Edwards to demonstrate his credentials as a progressive fighter for organized labor, a key pillar of his campaign. Unfortunately for him, Joe Biden hit him with a missile that neutered Edwards' appeal for labor support, reminding the AFL-CIO that some on the stage have been supporting organized labor for decades, not two years.
For his part, Obama continued his default-position answer to charges that he is still too inexperienced in this post-9/11 world by challenging their judgment in voting for the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force. But you can only challenge everyone else’s judgment as long as you yourself aren’t giving fresh reminders that your own judgment is suspect.
It was expected last night that Edwards would use the opportunity in front of the labor crowd to go after Hillary hard for NAFTA, but she held her own and pointed out that the issue at hand was the Bush Administration’s implementation of these agreements and their lack of concern for labor and environmental equity.
Edwards took several opportunities to tag Hillary for accepting corporate and lobbyist support, which might make some sense in front of an AFL-CIO crowd if it weren’t for the fact that his position, and that of Obama in a general election on this matter 1) would preclude either of them from taking money from organized labor, who are represented by lobbyists; and 2) would seriously under fund the Democratic Party at the presidential level next year if they unilaterally disarm by rejecting corporate money while the GOP doesn’t. Plus, as Thomas Edsall points out, neither Edwards nor Obama are clean on the issue of lobbyist support. Until you can get into office and elect enough other like-minded public finance advocates to change the law, there is little reason for any Democrat who wants to be competitive at the national level under our current system to tie one hand behind their backs by rejecting those who are willing to write checks. There is nothing wrong with taking corporate money and using it to advance progressive aims.
Because of her lofty poll numbers, Hillary has smartly made the strategic shift away from defining differences amongst Democrats and now wants to rise above her competitors. She is now making the case that 1) all Democrats should be attacking Republicans and not each other; and 2) she is the best candidate to battle and defeat the GOP machine. Over the coming months, she can cement those leads in the polls by reinforcing the image of someone who can come into office ready to lead now, ready to clean up the mess, and immediately committed to putting Main Street ahead of Wall Street. She can appeal to the base and independents at the same time by saying that she is willing to work with Republicans to undo the damage of the Bush years, but she will hold them accountable if they remain a roadblock. And she can continually remind the base that she has the most experience in dealing with the GOP’s tactics and built-in advantages, and can lead the party to large wins next year.
She needs to move her planning beyond the fights with fellow Democrats towards getting ready for the smear campaign against her in the general election race. Both Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani already are predicting that she will be the nominee with Obama as her running mate, and there are indications that the GOP will try and stop her by focusing on her husband and through personal attacks. Hillary will need to preempt this effort to the degree she can, and she needs to ready a “Tier One/Tier Two” campaign whereby surrogates do the dirty work against her detractors while reminding the media that this is nothing more than a personal attack by a party that can’t run on its record or the issues. She needs to allow the Tier Two folks to do their work apart from her while she focuses on improving her situation in the key battleground states and countering the usual and tired attacks against her from bankrupt and brain-dead Republicans.