Hillary Clinton: Not Ready for Prime Time

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Who's Tom Morrow?

A hat tip to Talking Points Memo on a couple of insightful perspectives on Hillary's hard-working white people gaffe. First from one of Bill Clinton's most ardent defenders and co-author of "The Hunting of the President," Joe Conason.

There is indeed a pattern emerging -- and it is a pattern that must dismay everyone who admires the Clintons and has defended them against the charge that they are exploiting racial divisions.

. . .

But this time she violated the rhetorical rules, no doubt by mistake. It was her offhand reference to "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans" that raises the specter of old Dixie demagogues like Wallace and Lester Maddox. Was she dog-whistling to the voters of Kentucky and West Virginia?

While I still cannot believe she actually intended any such nefarious meaning, she seemed to be equating "hard-working Americans" with "white Americans." Which is precisely what Wallace and his cohort used to do with their drawling refrain about welfare and affirmative action. This is the grating sound of Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, even though Tricky Dick would never quite stoop to saying such things in public.

As Conason goes on to point out, Bill Clinton has a proven track record on race issues in Arkansas. It's hard to imagine that the Clintons themselves are racist at all. The problem here, as per Conason, is one of being incautious with language, on issues where caution is paramount.

Not surprisingly, Peggy Noonan is less charitable in her assessment.

White Americans? Hard-working white Americans? "Even Richard Nixon didn't say white," an Obama supporter said, "even with the Southern strategy."

If John McCain said, "I got the white vote, baby!" his candidacy would be over. And rising in highest indignation against him would be the old Democratic Party.

To play the race card as Mrs. Clinton has, to highlight and encourage a sense that we are crudely divided as a nation, to make your argument a brute and cynical "the black guy can't win but the white girl can" is -- well, so vulgar, so cynical, so cold, that once again a Clinton is making us turn off the television in case the children walk by.

"She has unleashed the gates of hell," a longtime party leader told me. "She's saying, 'He's not one of us.'"

Whether it is incautiousness or a cold political calculus and deliberate race-baiting, Noonan is right in her assessment of how Hil's comments read. The point is essentially moot. Language matters in politics. And while all politicians find themselves in bad moments and make stupid gaffes -- like Obama on "bitter" voters -- the stakes on the issues where Hillary has been grossly impolitic are so sensitive as to require the greatest of care. How is it that with her many years of "experience," Hillary is so completely unready for prime time?

Scarier still, because of the direct impact on matters of national security, was Hillary's ghoulish commentary on Iran. Or as Joe Conason put it:

In this protracted and often dispiriting prelude to the general election, few remarks have been as poorly chosen as Senator Hillary Clinton’s threat to “totally obliterate” Iran. What she obliterated with just those two words were her own boasts of superior diplomatic experience—and she managed at the same time to tar America’s international image with all the subtlety of the man she hopes to replace.

Context cannot excuse her, even though she uttered that gaffe in response to an intentionally provocative question: What would she do, as president, if the Iranian regime ever strikes Israel with nuclear weapons? First she could have noted that the question’s premise is wrong, at least according to the most recent National Intelligence Estimate, which found that Iran neither possesses nuclear arms nor is likely to acquire them anytime soon. Then she might have answered as all presidents (or aspiring presidents) should when asked about such hypothetical military scenarios: “Our adversaries know very well that we have the power and the resolve to respond if one of our closest allies is attacked.”

Alluding to the potential use of justified force is far smarter than blustering about an act of genocidal brutality. So why wasn’t that distinction obvious to Mrs. Clinton?

Hillary has become completely embarrassing. From her surreal "victory" speech, as her Indiana win was dwindling almost to the point of slipping away, to the mounting number of dangerously sloppy attempts at talking points. Won't someone please take the mic away from this woman before she does serious damage to something more important than her own reputation?