Can Hillary Clinton actually lose a campaign scuffle? At the start of last week a YouTube user at the Democratic debate asked Obama if he'd meet with the leaders of rogue nations "without precondition, during the first year of your administration." Obama said he would and Clinton said she wouldn't: you don't "promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are." Advantage: the woman who spent eight years sleeping in the White House.
And then, eager to press her advantage, Clinton told an Iowa newspaper (in a recorded interview, perfect for TV news consumption) that Obama's response was "naive and irresponsible." The surprise wasn't that Obama punched back and called Clinton "naive" for okaying the Iraq War. The surprise was the Clinton campaign's Defcon 1 response. The rundown:
– Clinton gave CNN a rare, brief interview with a packaged one-liner: "What ever happened to the politics of hope?"
– Clinton adviser and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright held a conference call to push the slam with reporters.
– After Obama defended his stance by saying Clinton's position amounted to "Bush-Cheney light," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson went on CNN, MNSBC (the two cable channels that aren't owned by Rupert Murdoch) to take the attacks even further, locking horns with Obama guru David Axelrod and intimating that Obama might be plotting secret deals with America's enemies at this very second, while your children sleep.
– On Saturday—usually a dead zone for campaigns—former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack held another conference call to attack Obama and offer yet more one-liners: he's "certainly audacious but not particularly hopeful."
(That last attack seemed particularly desperate as the doughy former governor briefly ran for president, dropped out of the race, endorsed Clinton, and then had his campaign debts wiped out by Clinton donors—a completely coincidental sequence of events.)
It's taken for granted that Clinton is a brilliant brutal campaigner. Conservatives, especially, have speculated about the damage "the Clinton machine" would do to Obama once he got uppity. Here's the first full-bore assault by that machine, and who got damaged?
– Clinton, for giving Obama an opening to attack her war vote again after months where the frontrunner finessed her position.
– Clinton, for taking a stance that isn't actually popular among Democrats. Pollster Scott Rasmussen found that primary voters sided with Obama over Clinton by a 33-point margin, 55 to 22 percent. (A plurality of all voters agree with Obama, too.)
– Obama, who still had to fight on his weakest issue—experience—and spent part of the week on the defensive.
As to the substance of the fight (which might roll into this week, if the candidates want it to), here's Clinton from January talking to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann:
OLBERMANN: Would you reach out immediately to the Syrians and the Iranians, even with the tensions between this country and Iran?
SEN. CLINTON: Absolutely. I don't see it as a sign of weakness. I see it as a sign of strength. You know, our president will not talk to people he considers bad. Well, there are a lot of bad actors in the world, and you don't make peace with your friends. You've got to deal with your enemies, your opponents, people whose interests diverge from yours.
You can argue that she's talking about diplomatic meetings and not presidential face-to-faces, but the point is that Clinton's and Obama's previously-stated positions are close. This was about politics, not policy.