Hillary Clinton's critical choice
Attacking Obama could push youth away from politics.
Sen. Hillary Clinton will soon make a decision about the direction of her campaign in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26. Her options are either to play nice and perhaps lose, or to go on the attack and win.Skip to next paragraph
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In a tight race against Sen. Barack Obama, Senator Clinton may choose the latter. Her recent remarks about the words and actions of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. were probably a trial balloon to gauge the impact of going negative. But in so doing, she could alienate several major Democratic constituencies – African-Americans and youth – perhaps for a generation to come. There is no limit to the politics of destruction possible in South Carolina. George W. Bush set a precedent for that in 2000 by shredding John McCain, who had won New Hampshire.
Until her poor performance in Iowa, Clinton had been banking on South Carolina votes. Bill Clinton had proven his "comeback kid" status in 1992 by winning South Carolina and other states, mostly due to African-American support. In 2006, Clinton allies pushed forward the South Carolina primary so it would come on the heels of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. They hoped that winning there would clinch the nomination after New Hampshire and Iowa victories.
But now, Clinton's African-American "constituency" in the South has someplace else to go: to a truly viable black candidate. Hence the strategy behind carefully crafted Bill and Hillary statements that 1) the campaign would not go negative in the Granite State and 2) the press was being too easy on Senator Obama. Notice was given, it seemed: If only slightly veiled critiques of the junior senator from Illinois don't do the job, we will unleash old-fashioned attack ads.
The problem is that the lessons of Clinton's New Hampshire strategy are mixed. Besides the seminegativity, she also showed a very human face. Which tactic was more influential? Or was the combination of both the critical factor?
If she went on the attack, Clinton would be breaking with Democratic presidential politics of the past – to treat African-American candidates gently and avoid alienating black voters. In 1988, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson debated Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, both white candidates saw no advantage in being negative toward him. Mr. Jackson was popular among a key constituency and had little chance to win anyway.