During a speech in Las Vegas Monday, Bill Clinton suggested that, when Tim Russert asked his wife last week whether she supported Eliot Spitzer's plan to provide driver's licenses to illegal aliens, he was setting her up for attacks like the 2004 Swift Boating of John Kerry and the 2002 GOP smears against Georgia Sen. Max Cleland.
In making that argument, the former president may have inadvertently helped us understand why we're having such a hard time getting too excited about what Hillary Clinton is up against: Given the ferocious partisan attacks we've seen over the last six years, the criticisms John Edwards and Barack Obama are advancing now just don't seem all that outrageous.
In 2002, Republicans ran a television spot that created a visual connection between Cleland and Osama bin Laden and used some of Cleland's votes on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to suggest that the Vietnam veteran -- he lost three limbs in the war -- was somehow unpatriotic and soft on terrorism. In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth peddled demonstrably false facts about Kerry in arguing that he'd made up stories to win his Purple Hearts and sold out his fellow soldiers once he got back home.
In the same campaign, Vice President Dick Cheney said that a Kerry victory would expose America to the risk of being "hit again" by terrorists, this time in a "devastating" way. In the run-up to the 2006 congressional elections, then-House Majority Leader John Boehner wondered aloud whether Democrats were "more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people." And just the other day, GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison described "the whole Democratic platform" as being "we can't or shouldn't stand up for our way of life and freedom."
Don't bother looking for that last one in Google News: Hutchison's comments, made during an interview with MSNBC on Oct. 29, were so completely par for the course that they seem to have gone unnoticed by the rest of the press.
So, yes, the Obama campaign is exaggerating when it claims that Clinton's vote on Kyl-Lieberman amounted to another "blank check" for George W. Bush. The Edwards campaign is guilty of some overly aggressive editing in its "Politics of Parsing" video spot. And the controversy over Clinton's equivocations on Spitzer's driver's license plan is surely just a bit overblown, especially insofar as it concerns an issue that's far from the front burner for a lot of Democratic voters.
But Edwards and Obama haven't accused Clinton of undercutting the troops, siding with the terrorists or generally advocating for America's defeat. What they've charged her with is failing to learn from her 2002 vote on Iraq; failing to advance a specific plan for Social Security; failing to refuse money from lobbyists; and equivocating on a number of different issues, from driver's license in New York to the war in Iraq. Taken together, they say those issues raise concerns about whether Clinton is "open" and "honest."
We can debate the merits of those charges and the conclusions that can or can't be drawn from them, but it's hard to take seriously the notion that raising these issues amounts to a sexist "piling on" or some kind of Swift Boating of Hillary Clinton. Clinton has sold herself as someone who has "stood up against the right-wing machine and come out stronger." In letting her surrogates whine about the attacks from Democrats now, she risks making herself -- and, if she wins the nomination, her party -- look weak instead.