Miscues in PA

In the final weekend before tomorrow’s primary in Pennsylvania, Hillary and Clinton and Barack Obama have been making a last pitch to the voters. You can bet that both campaigns have poll-tested precisely what that pitch should be, what argument will sway the voters at the last minute. Yet, both camps seem to be missing the mark. Clinton focused on Obama’s debate performance and her charge that if he can’t take the heat of a tough round of questioning in a debate, he is not up for the pressures that focus themselves on the Oval Office. She has charged him with being "so negative" a charge that might be deployed to raise doubts about his otherwise uplifting message of hope were it not for the fact that this particular messenger is not the most qualified to throw that particular dirt. More importantly, Clinton’s strength with the kinds of white, lower-middle class voters who will decide the election is that she carries the Clinton brand name, and those voters remember the Clinton years as times of relative peace and prosperity. Focusing on campaign tactics is not something they do, so it is unclear why the Clinton camp thinks they will be moved by her focusing on campaign tactics. She should be talking about jobs. Obama has been unusually harsh in the homestretch. His campaign concluded that the positive tone of his campaign in the lead up to Ohio and Texas, while Clinton was attacking him, accounted for his failure to win those states. But, they, too, are focusing on campaign tactics not policies. This plays better for Obama than for Clinton because part of his appeal is his promise to change the way politics is done in Washington. But that appeal seems a little stretched when he is running negative campaign ads. And, it fails to connect the Clinton-style of politics with the policy failures of the Clinton years. She claims she has been fighting for universal health insurance for 35 years, yet we still don’t have it. The problem with Clinton’s hyper-partisan, slash-and-burn politics is not only that it is distasteful, but that it has proven ineffectual at accomplishing the things Democrats want accomplished. The press loves a fight so they are happy as clams. They, too, focus disproportionately on campaign tactics. (Don’t you wish they would refuse to join these conference calls in which the campaigns attack each other?) The Washington Post serves as a virtual arm of the Clinton campaign, repeating for three days in a row that Obama faced "tough questions" during last week’s debate when, in fact, the problem with the debate questions was not that they were tough but that they were trivial. Obama has not successfully counter-punched on this distinction, but it would serve to point out the underlying problem with Clinton-style partisanship, bolstering his post-partisan appeal. 200,000 new voters in Pennsylvania registered in the months ahead of this primary. Polls show that they are breaking for Obama by margins of more than 60%. And, unlike previous big primaries, Obama is not the frontrunner in Pennsylvania, so his voters may be especially motivated to turnout. In the end, what may prove decisive in Pennsylvania is not the unconvincing closing messages of the candidates but their old-style organization on the ground. Michael Sean Winters
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