I've never been convinced that Hillary Clinton was a strong Democratic candidate, seeing all the hype and smoke and trembling about the "Clinton machine" as a band-aid for conservatives' own deep problems. After this week, though, I'm convinced. The number one thing you want in a political candidate—assuming you can't make them a war hero or a Kennedy—is pure, Sam Peckinpah brutality. You want someone who has no compunction about attacking and can keep the opponent off his/her game. You want someone who can control the debate. Daniel Radosh explains (in a theory I like even more than he does):
Think about it. All of a sudden, Obama is being reduced to "the black candidate" he never was before. Bill even called Al Sharpton's radio show to "apologize" for his remarks—thus linking Sharpton's name with Obama for perhaps the first time ever. Indeed, it seems like every African-American politician is being called for comment, driving home the point that Obama is "one of them" rather than "one of us" (where us means all America)… For the first time in the primary, she's running against "the black candidate" rather than Barack Obama.
I'm not sure how a Barack Obama would neutralize John McCain's positives with voters. He might simply try to ride over him with his own positives. Maybe that would work, maybe it wouldn't. Only the Clintons could concievably turn the hero of the Hanoi Hilton and the Straight Talk Express into a lurching pile of scum. "Hey," says a Clinton surrogate in March. "McCain was in a lot of pain in the 1970s. Did he take any drugs?" If that story's beyond the pale, another surrogate asks innocently about his wife's drug habit. And hey, what about his black daughter? You said she's Pakistani? No problem: They've got a lot of surrogates who can inject this stuff into the conversation then resign, mission accomplished. And I assume they've got a lot of printers for untraceable fliers.
David Mark wrote in a 2006 reason cover story that "attack ads are good for you," and I still generally think that's true, but the maximum value of negative campaigning is in exposing the actual, ugly record and decisions of opponents. The Clintons have done a little of that with Obama (attacking his "present" votes in the Illinois Senate) but it's mostly been character stuff, identity politics stuff. The way it's working now, I'm putting together this scenario:
Clinton faces McCain in the general election, picks up all the Kerry states plus her home state of Arkansas and Hispanic-heavy New Mexico and Nevada. All eyes turn to Ohio. But black Democrats are embittered by the primary and turnout is light in Franklin and Cuyahoga counties. About forty thousand fewer black voters turn out than turned out in 2004, and Clinton loses the state by 10,000 votes. McCain wins the White House, 270 to 268 electoral votes.
UPDATE: In the comments, people argue (like they did in Radosh's comments) that the time to ghettoize Obama as the "black candidate" was before Iowa. Maybe, but it's never too late! The Clinton team doesn't expect to win South Carolina, and the best way of cushioning a blow right before Super Tuesday is to make the subliminal argument that Obama's victory only happened because half of the electorate was black. It would make the run-up to the victory less dramatic and gird the ever-shaky "Hillary's the best general election candidate" argument for the following nine days.