Clinton pollster urges senator to go relentlessly negative

Doug Schoen, Bill Clinton's former pollster, says Hillary "needs to completely abandon her positive campaign."

By Steve Benen
Published April 16, 2008 9:16PM (UTC)
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Democrats can disagree about the merit of Hillary Clinton's negative campaigning over the last few months. Clinton supporters argue that the attacks against Barack Obama have been fair and accurate, and if he can't overcome the harsh criticism now, he'll wither against the GOP in the fall. Obama supporters argue, of course, that the attacks have been counter-productive, inaccurate, and eerily similar to rhetoric coming from the right.

What seems far less debatable is the reality of the negative dynamic. Clinton campaign staffers were themselves referring to the attack plan as far back as February as the "kitchen-sink strategy." Some party leaders have called it the "Tonya Harding option." Putting aside whether the attacks are fair, warranted, or effective, they exist. Indeed, in some ways, they're a selling point -- the Clinton campaign has subtly argued, "By hitting Obama hard now, we're proving what we're capable of against McCain."

Given this, I was confused by this Washington Post piece from Doug Schoen, Bill Clinton's former pollster and a former partner of Mark Penn. As Schoen sees it, Clinton's problem is that she's refused to go negative at all.

Hillary Clinton took an important step Monday toward winning the Democratic nomination by launching an ad targeting Barack Obama's recent comments about working-class voters clinging to "guns or religion." The ad is a marked change from her recent determination to use a positive message until the Democratic convention, but for Clinton to capture the nomination she needs to completely abandon her positive campaign and continue to hammer away at Obama. [...]

As the underdog, Clinton's positive message will not work unless she is able to undermine Obama's candidacy.... Although voters and the media look favorably upon a positive campaign message, and Clinton is acutely conscious that too much negativity and too many personal attacks will hurt her party in November, a positive message is simply not enough to alter the race at this point. It is too late for Clinton to wait for Obama to make another mistake.

If Schoen wanted to argue that Clinton needs to be even more negative, I'd understand his point. But Clinton "needs to completely abandon her positive campaign"? She's shown "determination to use a positive message until the Democratic convention"? I don't imagine even Clinton's most enthusiastic fans would agree with this.

John Heilemann has a fascinating item on McCain in the new issue of New York magazine, and he spoke with one leading Republican Party official about how the GOP would go after Obama in the general election. "Our strategy will look a fair amount like the one that Hillary is running against him now," the official said.

If Clinton were running an exclusively "positive campaign," somehow I doubt Republican officials would make a comment like this.

Now, Schoen may believe Clinton doesn't have any other choice, and he may very well be right. But for him to argue that Clinton hasn't gone negative in recent months casts doubt on the rest of his thesis.

Steve Benen

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