"Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you”


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Is A Soccer Mom Edwards’ Key to Catching Hillary?

I've been observing the presidential primary contest wondering when – or if – either the Obama or Edwards campaign would decide to directly criticize Hillary Clinton. There’s a surreal collegiality in the Democratic primary contest thus far.

With Clinton ahead in the national polls, the other campaigns understand the need to take the gloves off and start throwing some real punches. They must know closing the gap (I’m talking polls here) and removing the “label of inevitability” from the Clinton campaign will only happen if punches are thrown. And they’ve got to solidly hit the mark. Thus far, we've only seen a couple of soft jabs or, more often, total misses.

I recognize we're still in the very early rounds of the nomination fight, but the longer Obama and Edwards wait ringside, the more difficult it will be for anybody but Clinton to win the Democratic nod.

But yesterday, as I turned my attention away from the Senate floor (thank you C-Span 2 - proof that cable television isn't pure evil!), I came across this article in the Des Moines Register and this AP story from New Hampshire. I realized the Edwards campaign has a "secret weapon"

A soccer mom named Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Edwards may not be the “soccer mom” in the traditional sense, but she is her husband’s best hope to improve his odds against Clinton. It's also no secret Elizabeth is vitally important to the Edwards campaign. She is a top campaign strategist and provides unmatched energy and passion, inspiring many supporters. She's proven her mettle in recent weeks by confronting Coulter and taking Tweety to task.

How could I describe such a high profile strategist as a “stealth fighter?” First, it's important to identify why the campaigns are cautious in their approach to Hillary. The Democratic nomination fight’s relative serenity and the field’s hesitancy to aggressively criticize the former First Lady are caused primarily by two factors: 1) her husband and 2) her gender.

When I mention Bill I'm not talking about his undeniable fundraising abilities or his numerous connections. I’m not speaking of the delicate dance all the candidates (including Hillary) must perform in embracing the Clinton 90s while focusing on the future in this "change" election. I am also not referring to the danger of being compared unfavorably with the highly popular (at least among Democratic primary voters) former president. All of these factors play a role in the nomination battle, but do not explain why Hillary’s challengers are reluctant to attack her.

No, I believe Bill Clinton looming in the background deters other campaigns from aggressively criticizing because they know HE does not hesitate to strike back. Anyone who has seen The War Room knows the Clintons are not adverse to practicing presidential politics for what it is – a heavyweight title fight. If another campaign throws a punch, they better be ready for the counterpunch.

Of course, the Democratic candidates all understand this and politicians don't rise to the level of presidential politics because they are afraid to be on the receiving end of a political punch.

It's what might be called the "gender trap." The Democratic nomination fight represents an unprecedented historical moment in which Hillary is uniquely – perhaps sublimely – positioned. The glass ceiling may have finally been broken in American politics, as the sight of women in executive positions in both the public and private sectors becomes more common. Voters are increasingly comfortable with the idea of a female president, according to pollsters.

Americans are not comfortable with the idea of a woman being attacked. If Hillary is challenged by her opponents, the public will rally to her side. Any hard hit – whether fair or not – provides Hillary the opportunity to become the sympathetic victim. I can hear many saying, “Hillary Clinton is an intelligent, articulate woman. She's nobody’s victim.” I agree. As stated above, she (and Bill) won't passively sit back and allow punches to be thrown without striking back.

But, the electorate will perceive her as a victim. This, I believe, is understood by strategists in opposing camps. They are also aware that Hillary becomes a more sympathetic figure when the public sees her as the scorned woman, as her favorable ratings rose during Bill Clinton's impeachment.

The Democratic campaigns' predicament becomes clear: catching up to the frontrunner in the polls requires direct and effective criticism but the campaign who comes out swinging first runs the risk of actually strengthening Clinton's support and weakening their own position if the public blames them for attacks. The dilemma is particularly acute for the Obama campaign who has made establishing a "new tone" in politics a cornerstone of their campaign.

Her national popularity and personal story of dedication and survival positions Elizabeth Edwards as perhaps the only person in the national Democratic campaigns who can question Hillary effectively while causing minimal damage to the Edwards campaign.

On the campaign trail with Kate Michelman former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, it appears the Edwards campaign may have begun the fight:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is not talking much about issues that affect women as she pursues a position many Americans still consider a "guy's job," said Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Clinton competitor John Edwards.

"Maybe she's staying away from some of those issues described as female issues," Elizabeth Edwards said of Clinton, after speaking to a crowd of about 150 people - most of them women - in Iowa City.

Edwards equated Clinton's pursuit of the White House with her own early days as an attorney, when she steered away from women's issues so she would be taken seriously by men.

-- snip --

Michelman, a longtime women's rights advocate, defended her decision to campaign for John Edwards instead of Clinton.

"This was one of the most important political decisions I've made in my life," she said. "I was one of those poor single moms with no job and no health care. I was on welfare."John Edwards is the one and only person who has made it his mission to pull these women up."

The observation that the Clinton campaign has steered clear of women's issues during the campaign is obviously an effort to soften up Hillary's support among Democratic women, where she currently enjoys a significant advantage. In the AP story about Elizabeth's first campaign ad currently airing in New Hampshire focuses on the strength of their marriage and also reports her remarks on the trail with Michelman,

On Tuesday, Elizabeth Edwards said her husband would be a better advocate for women as president than his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. She also said of Clinton: "Sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues. I'm sympathetic - she wants to be commander in chief."
I'm not advocating the Edwards or Obama campaign should use Republican talking points in their nomination fight with Clinton. I've always believed a presidential primary should be about issues and qualifications. A fair comparison of the candidates and a discussion about the important issues creates a stronger nominee, in my opinion. This is why I view Elizabeth Edwards' emergence as a critical voice on the campaign trail as a positive development in the Democratic race. Whoever emerges will be stronger in the general election.

As long as Elizabeth Edwards talks about issues, the Democratic Party wins.

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