There was a a little-noticed moment in the Las Vegas Democratic debate in November. You know, the one where Hilary Clinton came out fighting back hard again Barack Obama and John Edwards. Clinton took direct aim at Obama's health care plan, saying "the most important thing here is to level with the American people."
She wasn't just presaging her line on their policy differences, she was going after Obama on character, his greatest strength and perhaps her greatest weakness. And in doing so, she brazenly appropriated a line he had been using in his own speeches about her.
Now Clinton is coming after Obama even harder, and from multiple directions. Over the past few days, Clinton's campaign has stepped up attacks on health care, and essentially charged Obama with laziness and lack of fight in the Illinoins legislature. And how thick must be the opposition research file they have when they quote a former teacher talking about him wanting to be president in kindergarten?
The whole "turn up the heat" on Republicans thing lasted about a week, yes? Clinton's campaign is arguing it has been under constant attack for a month, and needs to respond by "drawing distinctions."
That's a valid reason, and Clinton's attacks are at least plausible. The problem is, Obama never made the argument that going after other Democrats to draw distinctions was a bad thing. Clinton did in order to try to defang her challengers. When it didn't work, she revealed her original contention was nothing but posturing.
David Weigel over at Reason sums it up well while investigating Clinton's charges of Obama's PAC acting unethically. He argues Clinton's PAC disbursed money to potential presidential allies in exactly the same way Obama's did, and simply shut it down a bit earlier. The same pattern is evident:
That's what this is all about, of course: A Rovian attack-from-weakness ploy. The Clintons have played faster and looser with fundraising and donating-for-influence than any Democrat in history, so an attack on Obama's funds is unexpected, the sort of thing that could muddy both of their images—although he would have more to lose.
And that's the point. Even if Clinton is sullied by going negative, Obama's got farther to fall. It's cynical, often effective, and will likely remain a big part of her campaign until the nomination is decided.