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By Jay Cost

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On Clinton's Attacks

The consensus seems to be that Hillary's negativity is a bad idea.

This is what MIT's Stephen Ansolabehere - who, along with Shanto Iyengar, wrote one of the best books on negative campaigning - told Time magazine.

Clinton's harsh new rhetoric has not won much support, either from pundits or other Democrats. "I could see the desire to raise the salience of personal traits -- because her strengths are experience and strength of character," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at MIT and author of the book Going Negative. "But her choice surprised me -- she might be emphasizing the wrong thing. Given how close this is in the polls, especially a month out, this might be a very risky strategy for her."

There are few people in this country who know as much about electoral politics as Stephen Ansolabehere. If he is as wary as Time has made him out to be - the Clinton campaign should take a second look at its strategy.

Other scholars have found that negative campaigning can, in certain circumstances, have a real "backfire" effect. Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper found the effect present in Senate campaigns. Namely, incumbent senators who attacked their challengers damaged themselves. I discussed this research last week - and I noted that, so far as I know, nobody has offered a similarly systematic treatment of presidential nomination campaigns. This, I concluded, is all the more reason for campaigns to be judicious about their attacks. Negative campaigning can be a double-edged sword - but we're not sure when and where.

Generally speaking, it is unusual for a front-running, prestigious candidate like Hillary Clinton to attack her opponents. Usually, candidates in her position wait until they are attacked - as, for instance, Giuliani did in the CNN/YouTube debate. Obama has been drawing contrasts with Clinton, for sure - but the intensity of Clinton's response was quite unprovoked. This is rare.

On one level, I can appreciate the logic of attacking Obama. One of my favorite things about the Clinton campaign is that it has essentially turned Hillary's negatives into positives. They have not tried to reshape her into a warm and cuddly politician. Instead - they have done what John Ellis noted last month. "She's a fighter. She's a scraper. She plays politics like it's a blood sport - and she fights for you, Democrats!" That's a smart campaign hook. It has the added bonus of getting the GOP all riled up, which has further helped her campaign message sink in: "Look - the Repubs are scared of her!"

In light of this strategy, doesn't she have to attack Obama? He is, after all, threatening her position. He is drawing contrasts that don't favor her. He's being subtle about it, but he is attacking her. Doesn't she have to respond to him, given the hook of her campaign? If she can't knock this featherweight around, how is she going to take on the GOP heavyweight?

I am not suggesting that Clinton necessarily feels compelled, given her image, to hit Obama. There are other, equally reasonable, suggestions that have been made. Some have argued that the Clinton campaign is simply panicking - perhaps because they know something that we don't. Others have asserted that the Clinton campaign is just relying upon its basic instincts, which is to hit and hit hard. Still others have speculated that the Clinton campaign is motivated by its hatred of Obama's presumptuousness. Any of these could be true.

While I am unsure why the Clinton campaign wants to attack Obama so intensely - I am much more confident that it has not yet found a salient line of attack. Her assault has been clumsy. I'm not a Democrat - so maybe I cannot appreciate the salience of "my health care plan is truly universal and his isn't" attack. Nevertheless, from my perspective, this seems to be a petty assault. And the shot about Obama as a kindergartener was just plain silly. You would expect the Clinton campaign to have something better than this. That's a sign to me that, for whatever reason, her campaign has been caught unawares. If they had planned to go negative on Obama - say, three or four months ago - they would have developed a better line of attack than what they currently have. Accordingly, that indicates that her campaign is, at least a little bit, off its planned script. It is improvising right now.

If it wants to attack effectively, it must find something better. Barack Obama is not just any old candidate. He's different - and the difference is what makes him such a tough target. He is the man many Democrats see when they imagine politics as it should be. He's the idealistic, post-partisan leader who can unite the country around a liberal vision of progress. Democrats might not think he can win this year - but they would be pleased if he could. This complicates matters for Clinton. It's one thing for her to be perceived as the battle-tested fighter who can fight off the Republicans. It is another thing altogether if she is perceived to be trying to destroy the candidate of the party's future.

-Jay Cost