The harshest thing Hillary Clinton could come up with about Sarah Palin at a Sept. 6 campaign event at Wagner College on Staten Island was that there was no evidence at the convention in St. Paul to suggest Republicans would “guarantee equal pay for equal work for women.”
“I heard nothing!” she said.
Reporters tried to get Mrs. Clinton to talk about John McCain’s running mate at a tiny press conference after the event, but she refused even to mention Mrs. Palin’s name, saying only, “I am campaigning for Senator Obama and advocating on behalf of the Democratic Party and our positions.”
Stop the presses.
With the McCain campaign running tactical circles every day around the Obama outfit—which has failed, somewhat unbelievably, to come up with even a semi-compelling response to the Palin selection—one might think Mrs. Clinton, to say nothing of her sidelined husband, would be a useful surrogate on the counterattack right about now. Apparently, the Obama campaign does not agree.
“My concern is that I see them as totally reactive right now as opposed to getting out there on their own and saying what the hell they are about,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton who has advised Mr. Obama. “They seem to be intimidated by the Palin pick. They seem to be intimidated by how the Republicans are coming at them on change. And you cannot win if you are constantly on defense.”
Mr. Panetta added, “As president of the United States you are going to have to learn how to deal with people you may not particularly like, because if you are trying to get things done, you have got to use everything and everybody that you can to get it done. I do think that they absolutely in this race have got to make use of the Clintons in every possible way, because they need them. He has clearly got some problems out there.”
Depending on who’s doing the telling, the reason the Clintons have been apportioned such a modest role—even as the Obama campaign gets pasted on a daily basis by the opposition—is either that remarkably little has been demanded of them, or simply that they don’t feel up for doing much more.
Most of the former and present Clinton staffers interviewed for this story, as well as Mr. Obama’s campaign, say that the limited role she has taken in advocating Mr. Obama’s candidacy is by design, and that she is doing precisely what is asked of her.
We’re not seeing more of her, in other words, because that’s how they want it.
“If they asked Hillary to do more, she’d be happy to do it,” said one Clinton adviser.
But one source close to the Clintons provided a slightly different version of events, saying that a high ranking Obama staff member indicated to a Clinton counterpart that they would like Mrs. Clinton to take a more aggressive tack, and that the answer was no.
Either way, the fact that it has taken so long for this discussion about the Clintons’ role to occur—while polls show a sharp shift in support toward the Republican ticket—is a source of wonderment in Clintonland. The consensus there, based on conversations with present and former Clinton advisers, is that the Obama campaign has isolated itself both as a result of its desire to break with the Clintons and establish itself as the future of the Democratic Party, and out of primary-victory-inspired hubris.
The effect, they say, has been a disastrous passivity.
“[McCain chief strategist] Steve Schmidt and company organized speeches that basically totally misrepresented Obama’s record—they were basically lies,” said one former Clinton aide. “They aren’t idiots. They know what his proposals are. But they said, ‘Fuck it, we’re just going to go out there and say he is going to raise taxes and do all this bad shit.’ And they got a decent bounce. And then you see the reaction from the Obama people saying, ‘We’re not going to be bullied, we’re not going to let our record be misconstrued.’ The second you start hearing that kind of rhetoric, you are being bullied and your record is being misconstrued.”
The problem, the former Clinton aide said, is that “they don’t have any attack dogs.”
“To address Palin, you need a prominent tough woman,” said another former aide. “I can’t think of any others who really work and who could really zing her with a smile on her face and look really good doing it.”
“Either it says that they don’t think they need him or that they don’t want him or some combination of the two,” said a Democratic operative close to the Clintons, referring to the former president. “I think they want to do it without him—without both of them. A lot of this is psychological.”