January 15, 2008—In December and early January – as Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Democratic presidential race evaporated and especially after she lost the Iowa caucuses – her panicked supporters played nearly every card in their political deck to salvage the dream of putting a second Clinton in the White House.
At least in the short term, the hardball strategy worked, aided by some political luck. But central to this Clinton comeback was a readiness to do whatever was necessary, from seeking sympathy to sliming an opponent.
On Jan. 7, a day before the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Clinton played the sympathy card as her voice cracked in responding to a question about how she managed to hold up during a grueling campaign.
“It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” Clinton responded slowly in a soft voice as her eyes grew moist. Her wet-eyed moment – a woman daring to show her vulnerable side – immediately became a campaign turning point.
The feminist-solidarity vote for Hillary Clinton got another boost during a final speech in Salem, New Hampshire, when two young men began heckling her with the sexist chant, “Iron my shirts!”
Upon hearing the obnoxious chant, Clinton called for the lights in the auditorium to be turned up. Then, seeing the two young men near the front of the audience, she said, “Oh, the remnants of sexism alive and well.”
As security guards escorted the pair from the auditorium, Clinton transformed the incident into a case study of how men oppress women: “As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.”
Clinton’s comments drew a standing ovation from the crowd and the incident got widespread attention on New Hampshire’s news shows.
Though her deft reaction to the “iron my shirts” taunt may have helped her politically, her depiction of it as an example of male oppression holding her down would appear to be a gross exaggeration.
The two hecklers were later identified as Nick Gemelli and Adolfo Gonzalez Jr. [See New York Daily News’ blog.] They are associated with Toucher & Rich, a white-guy-oriented talk show on Boston’s WBCN radio that prides itself in broadcasting content intended for “immature audiences.”
The show’s Web site listed a few “fun facts” about Gonzalez: “He weighs 345 lbs. … He couldn’t speak ANY language until he was five. …He has never had health insurance. … He talks to himself. … He has a very messy room.”
Rather than male oppressors protecting the presidential glass ceiling, the two hecklers came across as dumb-guy losers pulling a juvenile shock-jock stunt. But their offensive behavior touched a raw nerve among many women.
Then, on Jan. 8, the morning of the New Hampshire primary, feminist Gloria Steinem upped the ante on the “gender card.” In a New York Times op-ed, Steinem argued that American women have suffered more political and economic discrimination than American black men.
“Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any woman (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter),” Steinem wrote. [NYT, Jan. 8, 2008]
Steinem’s op-ed opened up a bitter debate over who’s the bigger victim, blacks or women.
American blacks could reasonably cite their experience with generations of slavery followed by generations of brutal segregation in making the case that giving black men the vote after the Civil War was relatively meaningless.
It was not until the 1960s, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights laws, that the United States began protecting the franchise of African-Americans across the South, where Jim Crow laws and lynchings had long held blacks down.
Still, the “gender card” played well in New Hampshire, a state with a tiny black population but where women turned out in surprisingly strong numbers to support Hillary Clinton, handing her a desperately needed victory.
Though gender – much more than race – had influenced the New Hampshire outcome, the post-primary press coverage focused on race, particularly Hillary Clinton’s praise of President Lyndon Johnson giving legislative substance to Martin Luther King’s civil rights dreams.
Obama may have studiously avoided direct references to being the first African-American with a strong chance to win the presidency, but it soon looked to many Americans that he and his supporters were playing the “race card” to gain an advantage over Clinton.
In the following days, Clinton even got away with playing the “gender card” while insisting that she would never play the “gender card” – as she did in a Jan. 13 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in noting the extraordinary Democratic race with a woman and a black as frontrunners.
“You have a woman running to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling,” she said, adding: “I don't think either of us wants to inject race or gender in this campaign.”
During the same interview, Hillary Clinton elaborated on Bill Clinton’s statement that Obama’s anti-Iraq War record was “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen,” part of a tirade by the former President as New Hampshire voters were heading to the polls.
Though Sen. Clinton voted in 2002 to give George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq and staunchly supported the war until starting her presidential campaign in 2007, she joined her husband in denouncing Obama as essentially a hypocrite for highlighting his initial opposition to the war.
Hillary Clinton said that after Obama entered the Senate in 2005, he voted for $300 billion in war funding bills and opposed pullout “timelines and deadlines, initially.”
Later, host Tim Russert challenged her on her own Iraq War position by playing excerpts from her Senate floor speech supporting the Iraq War resolution as well as Obama’s speech opposing the war.
“So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interest of our nation,” Clinton said on Oct. 10, 2002. “And it is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein, this is your last chance. Disarm or be disarmed.”
Russert noted that during the same week, Obama gave a speech, saying: "I know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors. ... I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. … I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."
Russert then asked Clinton, “Who had the better judgment at that time?”
Avoiding a direct answer, Clinton insisted that she never wanted President Bush to use the congressional authorization to start a “preemptive war.” But she argued that Obama should be held to a different standard because he had made his war opposition a central issue of his campaign, while she had not focused on her pro-war position.
“I think that you have two different story lines here,” Clinton said. “You have Senator Obama's story line, the speech he gave in '02, to his credit, which then was not followed up on. By '03, it was off his Web site. By '04, he was saying he didn't know [how] he would vote and that he basically agreed with George Bush on the conduct of the war. There were others, Tim, who voted against it, spoke out against it and never wavered over that period of time.”
Russert: “But you voted for all the funding for the war.”
Clinton: “I did. I never--I'm not premising my campaign on something different.”
In other words, the Clinton campaign was arguing that Obama should be held accountable for not standing consistently with the most dedicated anti-war members of Congress, while Clinton should face a gentler standard because she was consistently pro-war – at least until she took aim at the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007.
This argument is similar to one employed by Republican strategist Karl Rove against John Kerry in 2004 – that Kerry’s heroism in Vietnam deserved aggressive examination (because he cited it as a positive part of his résumé) while George W. Bush should get a pass on shirking his Texas National Guard duty (because he was not highlighting it in his campaign).
There was another similarity between the Clinton attacks on Obama over his early Iraq War opposition and Rove’s targeting Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism – the concept of attacking your opponent’s perceived strongest point and transforming it into a negative.
In both cases, the “logic” would appear to be that it is worse to be imperfect doing the right thing than it is to be consistent doing the wrong thing.
Later the same day, a prominent Clinton supporter, BET founder Rob Johnson, made a new insinuation about Obama’s youthful drug use, which Obama acknowledged in his first book. Other Clinton backers had raised the drug issue in December, as part of their argument that Obama would be vulnerable to Republican attacks.
Speaking at a Clinton fundraiser on Jan. 13, Johnson, who is black, said the Clintons “have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood – and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in the book.”
When Obama’s supporters cried foul, Johnson first tried to slough off the comment as a reference to Obama’s work as a community organizer, but – four days later – Johnson sent a letter of apology to Obama.
Having scored some important points – as well as having collected the winning share of delegates in New Hampshire and reestablishing her national lead in some polls – Sen. Clinton nimbly engineered a truce on the nastier aspects of the campaign, appearing almost statesmanlike during the Democratic debate in Nevada on Jan. 15.
MSNBC political commentator Chris Matthews, who had taken grief from feminists for some of his earlier harsh criticism of Sen. Clinton, was left cooing in admiration.
It may turn out that Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire bounce will be short-lived – that Obama himself bounces back in Nevada and South Carolina – but If nothing else, the Clinton political machine had demonstrated once again that it knew how to play hardball.
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This story was published on January 18, 2008.