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Saturday, April 19, 2008

The hand that feeds bites back

Thanks to an audiotape recorded at a recent private fundraiser (one that wasn’t for Barack Obama), Hillary Clinton’s talent for triangulation — learned at the side of her husband, the master of the game — may cost her another constituency vital to her efforts now or in the general election. What she said on the tape, at odds with what she said earlier, will add new fuel to criticism of Clinton’s presidential campaign as being animated by a calculated, meretricious insincerity, a passive-aggressive sort of political ruthlessness that can’t conceal its intent to stay a course, regardless of the consequences.



On the tape, excerpts of which were on The Huffington Post on Friday, Clinton blamed what she described as the "activist base" of the Democratic Party – with the liberal advocacy organization MoveOn.org singled out for special attention — for many of her Super Tuesday losses, claiming that those activists "flooded" state caucuses and "intimidated" her supporters.

At the donors’ fundraiser, which occurred sometime after Super Tuesday, Clinton said: "MoveOn.org endorsed [Sen. Barack Obama] — which is like a gusher of money that never seems to slow down. We have been less successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the Democratic Party. MoveOn didn't even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that's what we're dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions, and it's primarily national security and foreign policy that drives them. I don't agree with them. They know I don't agree with them. So they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people who actually show up to support me."

In a statement to The Huffington Post, Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s executive director, was quick to respond with corrections: "Senator Clinton has her facts wrong again. MoveOn never opposed the war in Afghanistan, and we set the record straight years ago when Karl Rove made the same claim. Senator Clinton's attack on our members is divisive at a time when Democrats will soon need to unify to beat Senator McCain. MoveOn is 3.2 million reliable voters and volunteers who are an important part of any winning Democratic coalition in November.”

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That would have been bad enough. Clinton wasn’t apparently just wrong on the facts, she was wrong on the factors that hold a party together, wrong on the realpolitik that separates one body of like-minded believers from another.

Clinton’s remarks, you see, followed comments she made in April 2007, at the closing remarks during MoveOn.org Political Action's Virtual Town Hall meeting on Iraq, solicitous, almost gushing comments at odds with what she said after Super Tuesday:



At the very time Hillary Clinton needed to be shoring up the foundations of some kind of base of supporters, when she needed to be building an online infrastructure that would have made fundraising easier, when she needed to be solidly behind the Democratic Party’s vanguard of loyal voters, Hillary Clinton was dissing the very people necessary to win.

Some in the blogs wondered if the tape was really leaked to the press by the Clinton campaign itself, as a way of reinforcing her bona fides, shoring up the increasingly porous electability argument, and attempting to paint Obama into another elitist corner. That would seem to be a stretch: Malign your bedrock of voters as a way to make yourself look more mainstream, when you already couldn’t be more mainstream if your political life depended on it? No savvy candidate’s political instincts could be that bad. Right?

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Clinton’s intra-party flip-flop is the latest chapter in the Clinton-train-wreck narrative that has been building, slowly but sure, since Super Tuesday, when the first torpedoes struck the hull of her inevitability. It deepens suspicions of her sincerity, arouses suspicions of her loyalty to the base of the Democratic party, and contributes to the idea — something surely considered by the superdelegates still pulling their chins on the sidelines — that the factionalism she awakens in people, almost as a reflex, would do the party more damage than good in a general election 200 days away.

One blogger cuts smartly to the chase in articulating the internal divisions Clinton would face as the Democratic standard-bearer.

Buckygreen, blogging at The Huffington Post: “Let me get this right. Hillary now believes that 3.5 million party ‘activists’ that provide a ‘gusher of money’ and major voter mobilization capabilities don't count. And African-American voters don't count, young voters don't count, educated voters don't count, women who support Obama don't count, almost 1.5 million individual Obama donors don't count, former Clinton cabinet members don't count, small states don't count, red states don't count, caucus states don't count, total states won doesn't count, popular vote doesn't count, pledged delegates don't count. OK that'll work how exactly in the general?”

Adlib (HuffPos): “You're not going to attract [superdelegates] by attacking the most active campaigners and contributors to the Democratic party.”

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Howard Wolfson, Clinton campaign communciatons director, responded to the MoveOn incident weakly: "There have been well documented instances of intimidation in the Nevada and the Texas caucuses, and it is a fact that while we have won 4 of the 5 largest primaries, where participation is greatest, Senator Obama has done better in caucuses than we have," he told HuffPost.

The Clinton campaign’s latest unforced error proves a disregard of a basic political tenet: Keep your friends close — period. This audiotape calls into question the fidelity Clinton has to the principles of the Democratic Party she wants to lead. And right now when voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere need to draw a bead on the candidate, this tape raises a still-nagging question: Which Hillary Clinton is the real one?

Whatever the ultimate blowback from this turns out to be, the Clinton campaign faces a response from those who understand that the same loyalty the candidate demands from others is what the party’s loyal base demands from her.

Sometimes when you bite the hand that feeds you, the hand bites back.

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