Over the past week, lots and lots and lots of Hillary Clinton’s supporters have very publicly come to the conclusion that Barack Obama is all talk and no substance.
This is not a coincidence.
In the days leading up to the Wisconsin primary, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign e-mailed talking points to its top supporters and surrogates under the subject “Just Words,” and separately, Clinton staffers sent out a blog post likening Mr. Obama to his beleaguered ally, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. (“Deval Patrick and his good friend Barack Obama have much more in common than their prosaic words, the depth of the color of their skin, their Harvard backgrounds, and their female political opponents,” the post reads.)
The staffers also distributed—from their private e-mail addresses—a Boston Globe story suggesting that Massachusetts Democrats had voted against Mr. Obama in the primary because of the subpar administration of Mr. Patrick, an Obama ally who also ran on a platform of hope.
And the campaign has reinforced the talk-over-substance idea—multiple times—in conference calls with top supporters.
“It comes from the campaign,” explained one prominent Clinton fund-raiser who has received the talking-point e-mails as well as verbal briefings from members of staff saying the same thing. “People are saying, ‘Look. Spread this around. Talk about this with your donors, with members of the press on background. They are really pushing hard on this and [campaign manager] Maggie Williams did it on a conference call three times last week. She said, ‘Remember if Hillary is in the solutions business, Barack is in the promises business.’”
Another prominent fund-raiser to Mrs. Clinton, also speaking on background, referred to that line—delivered by Mrs. Clinton numerous times on the stump in recent days—as the campaign’s “mantra,” and said that members of the campaign’s finance committee and surrogates had also been inundated with negative talking points about Mr. Obama’s purported act of plagiarism, in which he delivered a portion of a speech nearly identical to a passage delivered in 2006 by Mr. Patrick.
“First there was an e-mail describing the situation, then there was a video clip showing the situation, then there were conference calls highlighting it,” said the fund-raiser. “It’s the biggest thing since the Zapruder film.”
This fund-raiser also said that the campaign had encouraged surrogates to disparage the nearly hysterical enthusiasm of some of Mr. Obama’s supporters, and to “cultivate the ‘another groupie for Obama’ thing.”
The attempts to turn Mr. Obama’s perceived strengths—his ability to deliver inspiring speeches, the intensity of his support—into weaknesses may well represent the Clinton campaign’s best opportunity to change the course of an election that has seemed to be getting away from them. Hence, Hillary Clinton’s frequent pronouncements that “there is a difference between speeches and solutions,” or Bill Clinton’s remark at a campaign event this week in Canton, Ohio that “you have the power of speeches against the promise of solutions by a world-class change-maker.”
But, as some of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters publicly and privately attest, it’s a risky strategy, and one that invites a potentially damaging response.
“Bill Clinton’s first year was difficult,” said Bob Kerrey, a former senator and governor from Nebraska whose endorsement was proudly announced by the Clinton campaign in December. “I don’t know if The Boston Globe included his first year. That was a tough first year. And the low-water mark was October ’93.” (Mr. Kerrey was referring to the killing of American soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia.)
As for the idea—which went viral in the national media after Super Tuesday, with the encouragement of the Clinton campaign—of Mr. Obama as a false Messiah to a frenzied, deluded flock, Mr. Kerrey was brutally dismissive.
“He is a natural talent with a set of experiences and an entire life story that makes him very inspirational—he’s the real thing,” said Mr. Kerrey, even as he reasserted his support for Mrs. Clinton. “He’s got plenty of experience, and he has surrounded himself with even more people who give you the indication that he can really do the job. One thing that I watch in any campaign is ‘Who do you hire?’ Well, he hired David Plouffe, and he hasn’t had to fire David Plouffe.”