Voters won't care that Hillary Clinton had a correspondence with a community organizer.

Radical Smear Won't Stick to Hillary

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Over the weekend, the Washington Free Beacon ran a story about Hillary Clinton's long-ago correspondence with the community organizer Saul Alinsky. Yes, after wasting years attempting to convince voters that Barack Obama was disqualified from the presidency because of his association with that New Left radical (and others), Republicans now seem to be trying to do the same to Clinton. Jonathan Chait points out the obvious: Clinton has decades of experience in public office and political action, which are far more likely to tell us her "real" thoughts and character than anything she did 40 years ago.

Three additional comments:

  • In the discussion about Matt Bai's contention that Gary Hart would have won the presidency in 1988 had it not been for a "gotcha" media unearthing an affair (see good new pieces from Dan Drezner and Ramesh Ponnuru), a few people observed that Hart would have done better than the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, because the Massachusetts governor was vulnerable to attacks tying him to the disastrous furlough of convicted murderer Willie Horton and condemning his veto of a state bill requiring teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance. But George H.W. Bush's campaign probably would have come up with something against any potential challenger. In 1992, for example, Bush and Republicans maligned Bill Clinton by alleging that there was something suspicious about a trip he took to Moscow as a young man. Candidates who are inclined to use smears (and Bush, whatever his strengths as a president, had the campaign ethics of Tom Zarek) will use them, and there's no target pure enough to be immune.
  • I agree with Chait that it's silly to pretend that any politician would keep their real intentions secret until he or she reached the Oval Office. But even if they did, it wouldn't matter much, because we're well into what political scientist Richard Skinner described as the era of "partisan presidency." When a party is essentially united on policy, as Democrats are now, policy isn't what's at stake in choosing among candidates. And a president who attempted to govern based on a secret agenda would be severely constrained by his party outside -- and even inside -- the White House. For example, like Obama and George W. Bush, the next president will probably have a chief of staff with a long history within the party, but only limited experience with the president himself.
  • In any case, presidential-campaign smears are usually a waste of time. Obama won, as did Bill Clinton. People remember the smears against Dukakis or the later attacks on John Kerry's war record because of an Iron Law of Politics: The losing candidate is always thought to have run a bad campaign. Republicans today are united in believing that Mitt Romney did a poor job managing his race. Even so, presidential general elections are such high-visibility, high-information contests that campaigns probably matter less than in any other type of election. A major gaffe really can matter in a Senate race (see Todd Akin and his foolish comments on rape and reproduction in 2012), because the misstep might be all that inattentive voters retain about the candidate. That can't happen in presidential general elections, in which whatever is news in August will have been superceded dozens of times by November. In reality, neither the campaign successes or failures usually matter much, and to the extent they do. we rapidly forget the losing candidates successes and the winning candidate's failures.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net