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.
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.
Technology is another liability. In old-style negative campaigning you could localize your stabs by, for example, running attack ads in one district or sending out smearing mailers to certain groups. But with the advent of blogs and YouTube, all politics is global. Any anti-Obama ad will be seen by the whole country. What might work in rural South Carolina might be embarrassing when watched online in Santa Barbara, Calif.
And, of course, when you sling mud there is a backlash. Clinton has worked hard to make herself appear genial yet serious in more recent speeches and in ads. An attack-dog stance will hardly raise her own approval rating for the general election.
But do the Clintons and their allies have any choice? Each additional state that Obama can win will dampen questions about his own electability. Does Clinton want to fight him in every state or win the nomination early?
While the Clinton campaign is concerned about the current election, bigger questions should be asked. In going negative with Obama, something else is at stake: the next generation of Democrats.
Entrance polling, anecdotal evidence from voter interviews, and simple observation of rallies suggest that many Obama voters are truly excited about him. Of the record 239,000 Democratic voters in the Iowa caucus, 22 percent were under 30 years old – also a first. Even more remarkable, among this group, Obama won 57 percent of the vote; Edwards, 14 percent; and Clinton just 11 percent.
The Clinton-Obama demographic divide is a generation gap we have not seen in Democratic Party presidential politics for, well, generations. Howard Dean, the "youth candidate" of 2004, scored just 25 percent of the under-30 vote in Iowa, while John Kerry got 35 percent.
In short, Obama is a "first love" for many young, potential new Democrats, and they are the future of the party. What would happen if they walked away in disgust from their initial engagement with politics because things turned bitter and dirty?
Right now there is a struggle in the Clinton campaign about what New Hampshire meant. Her choice, to go positive or negative, or both, may determine the fate of her campaign. But the fallout could also affect the makeup of the Democratic party for a generation to come.