By now we are all on a first-name basis. Hillary and Barack have joined us in our living rooms night after night, hoping to close the deal in very different ways.
Barack Obama has steadily pushed his optimistic one-word theme: “Change.”
In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton has moved with the serenity of a break-dancing dervish — desperately seeking a miracle-message strategy powerful enough to halt Obama’s runaway presidential express. She has launched and discarded message themes at a rate approaching one per news cycle. Indeed, in Texas she used two contradictory themes in a single debate. And, as we will soon see, there was a story-behind-the-story that was far more revealing about what she was really doing.
Remember that debate: First, Clinton attacked Obama for plagiarizing some speech lines that indeed had been previously used by Obama’s own campaign deputy and friend, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. “Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in,” she scolded. “It’s change you can Xerox.” (Alas, the audience booed.) But Clinton stuffed the barbs and switched to compassion and cordiality when both were asked to discuss how they survived a past crisis. She smiled and noted that we all knew about hers (as in: Bill), adding: “You know, the hits I’ve taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.” She talked about wounded soldiers, struggling families. Then she turned to Obama.
“No matter what happens in this contest … I am honored to be here with Barack Obama,” she said warmly. And shook his hand. “Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine,” she continued. “You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we will be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that’s what this election should be about.”
The audience that had earlier booed her stood and cheered. It seemed to be a very moving and spontaneous finale. Actually, it was not all that spontaneous.
Recall last December when then-Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards said: “What’s not at stake are any of us. All of us are going to be just fine no matter what happens in this election. But what’s at stake is whether America is going to be fine.”
Also, an even earlier presidential aspirant — Bill Clinton — used the theme in his 1992 comeback from an earlier woman scandal: “When the history of this campaign is written, they may say, ‘Well, Bill Clinton took a lot of hits in this campaign.’ I want you to know something. The hits that I took in this election are nothing compared to the hits that the people of this state and this country are taking every day of their lives under this administration.”
So it was that a debate that included harsh accusations of word borrowing ended with warm-but-borrowed words. This small-time controversy was just a speed bump on the 2008 campaign trail. But it revealed the calculation and the difficulty that Clinton has had in finding and conveying a consistent campaign message.
One news cycle after that feel-good Texas debate, Clinton was back to attacking. She blasted Obama personally because she felt one of his campaign leaflets distorted her position on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the pact her husband championed that Ohioans say cost their state thousands of jobs. “Shame on you, Barack Obama,” Clinton said with no trace of feeling “honored.”
A day later, her message was sarcasm and ridicule, as she performed a campaign kabuki about Obama: “Now I could stand up here and say, let’s get everybody together … the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing … and the world will be perfect.”
Finally, she honed what advisers now hope will be an enduring message — portraying Obama as just another George W. Bush: “We’ve seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security. We can’t let that happen again.”
The real unspoken message Clinton hopes to convey is that she will have the steadiest hand at the helm. But her problem is that, night after night in America’s living rooms, she has seemed unsteady and inconsistent. She has seemed panicked and desperate. And that image she has conveyed for weeks could drown out her best-scripted words in the stretch run for Tuesday’s make-or-break primaries in Texas and Ohio.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)