Hating Hillary Not Enough

Reason‘s Dave Weigel takes to the pages of The American Conservative to warn Republicans that they’re not going to win in 2008 simply by bashing Hillary Clinton.

Conservatives are fraught, angry at their traditional party, unable to decide on a standard-bearer, unsure even what they stand for. They don’t think this is the year to sort those problems out. They’re counting on a short-cut when the Democrats nominate an unelectable cold fish who has infuriated the Right for a decade and a half. Millions remember how they felt when she belittled other wives for “staying home and baking cookies,” and Bill Clinton promised voters “two for the price of one” if they sent his family to the White House.

On the Right, the list of grievances was even longer. Both Clintons were seen as ambassadors of 1960s radicalism and cultural decadence, and Hillary was the worse of the two: a pro-choice feminist who didn’t take her husband’s name until pollsters told her it would help him make a political comeback.

Yet for all of that outrage, Republicans lost that election to the Clintons. And the hope that voters will see what they see and reject what the Clintons stand for resembles the plan Democrats clung to in 2004. They choose John Kerry on the theory he would be the least controversial general-election candidate, then counted on an electorate fed up with George W. Bush to deliver the election.

While negative campaigning and pointing out the weaknesses of one’s opponent can be quite effective, there hasn’t been a presidential election in my lifetime decided on that basis. (Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an example of that happening, period.) Drawing a contrast with Hillary Clinton will be effective in mobilizing the base. But Republicans won’t keep the White House if they don’t inspire the public with a positive agenda of their own.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum disagrees with my conclusion, asking, “Is there any doubt that the Swift Boat ads that ran virtually nonstop in Ohio managed to switch at least a hundred thousand votes and thus swing the state — and the election — to George Bush?”

I do think there’s substantial doubt, yes. I’m honestly not sure how much the Swift Boat ads mattered in the long run, although they certainly weakened Kerry’s attempts to capitalize on his Vietnam service. And to the extent that they were effective, I continue to believe it was the legitimate attacks on his post-Vietnam activism, including the Winter Soldier smears, that hurt rather than the nonsense about Kerry’s faking injuries to get his Purple Heart and so forth.

Indeed, I’d cite the 2004 campaign as a classic case of what I’m talking about here. The Kerry campaign was built almost entirely on attacking the Bush presidency rather than presenting an alternative vision. Given the unpopularity of the war, he came close but not quite close enough.

Could Kerry have run that campaign and won were it not for the Swift Boat ads? Maybe. But he could more easily have picked up another hundred thousand-odd votes in Ohio by giving the people something to vote for rather than just highlighting what they should vote against.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SeniorD says:

    Interesting perspective and, given the current political climate, instructive. There are, however, a couple other aspects that should be considered. In the first race, Bill Clinton’s enormous personality and charm took away George H.W. Bush’s natural effectiveness. On top of that, Mr. Bush was simply not Ronald Reagan. In the second race, Bob Dole was simply out-classed again by Mr. Clinton’s charm. In both races, history now records Hillary Clinton as the force behind both campaigns.

    Hating the junior Senator from New York is easy to do. First of all, Hillary can’t hold a candle to Bill Clinton’s personality (assuming she can find one that is). Whitewater, Rose Law Firm and Travelgate scandals have her fingerprints all over them. She made the blatant, Alinsky-esque move to socialize a sizable portion of the American economy. Her control-mania ensured only those people she wanted got the Cabinet posts she wanted them to have. The Waco siege should be laid at her feet as Janet Reno was Hillary’s ‘creature’ at the Justice Department. The episodes with Vince Foster, Greg Livingston, Sandy Berger and others give strong credence to a driven acolyte of anarchist philosophy.

    Regardless of what anyone says or does, getting a person to make a major change in thought, attitude or behavior is almost impossible. There is enough history in Hillary Clinton to attack and keep in the minds of the voting public.

    One thing may prevent a negative campaign. In her attempts to ‘soften’ her image, Hillary is also laying a potential trap. Continued post-primary attacks (assuming she is the selected contestant) will enable her to play the Gender Card as the first woman to legitimately run for the Presidency. By attacking, and staying on the attack with workable solutions, Republicans can negate the Gender Card now.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Historically, the candidate who’s able to paint the brightest picture of America and its future wins.

  3. floyd says:

    James; How do you think Carter got elected?
    All we heard was,,, “Ford wasn’t legitimately President.”& “Ford pardoned Nixon”

    Comment to Dave Weigel: Give it a rest, it isn’t even election year yet. The Spiel Spinners haven’t even warmed up. Right now, it’s like you’re knocking the orchestra before the curtain, when all they make is noise.
    The “Sweet Sirens of Spin” shall soon sound satifactory, luring voters out of the “mainstream” to the jagged rocks of their demise on Both shores!

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    There is some truth that the GOP suffers from Clinton Derangement Syndrome. But I think the personality traits of Hillary (vs Bill) will make Hillary bashing more lucrative.

    The key for the GOP is to build the case every time when bashing Hillary, not start with the assumption that her past actions are known.

  5. Bithead says:


    I was about to say the reverse in the defeat of Carter… Negative campaigning was huge in Regan’s victory… the difference being it was negatives he didn’t have to spout… the American people decided on those negatives themselves… 21% inflation, Iran Hostages, gas lines, interest rates through the ceiling and the economy in the WC.

    Reagan didn’t have to go negative, because the American people are in the new what the negatives were, and we’re wrestling with them daily.

    That seems to me to be of great import in this coming election. Given the recent polling which suggests that 50% of those polled would never vote for Hillary Clinton, my guess is the American people know what her negatives are, as well, and without being told.

  6. whipoorwill says:

    Hating the junior Senator from New York is easy to do. First of all, Hillary can’t hold a candle to Bill Clinton’s personality (assuming she can find one that is). Whitewater, Rose Law Firm and Travelgate scandals have her fingerprints all over them. She made the blatant,

    Although I’m not a big HC fan, It must be pointed out that 60 million dollars worth of GOP persecution prosecution yielded zero, zip , nada HC fingerprints on anything.

  7. rtaycher1987 says:

    Two words Michael Dukakis also while it was already in the bag negative campaining sealed a huge re-election for LBJ.

  8. Bithead says:

    Heh… Well, there’s another example of the candidate doing the opponent’s dirty campaigning for them. I mean, com’on… he did that to himself.

  9. ronbo says:

    “Historically, the candidate who’s able to paint the brightest picture of America and its future wins.”

    I agree. I also agree that there is little difference between “Vote for me, I’m not Hillary Clinton” and “Vote for me, I’m not George Bush.” It’s a significant, and hopeful, sign that the Republican candidates haven’t – yet – forgotten to stand for something while they whale on HRC.

  10. PersonFromPorlock says:

    Although I’m not a big HC fan, It must be pointed out that 60 million dollars worth of GOP persecution prosecution yielded zero, zip , nada HC fingerprints on anything.

    On the other hand, there were a lot of carefully wiped surfaces!

    The Republicans real problem is that while they have a lot of (arguably) good ideas, they’ve already proven that they don’t take them seriously. That leaves negative campaigning.

  11. ajacksonian says:

    The Clintons had damage control down to an art form, along with ‘triangulating’. Both of these things point to a long term problem from them, in that they could not or would not address those problems first so they did not happen, nor clearly state a meaning and purpose to their campaigns.

    On the first part, Bill and Hillary had how to smear those that had been the subjects of Bill’s interest down pat: always accuse them of having ‘other motives’. That is a first step in compartmentalizing damage, focusing attention on a person (usually female) rather than the activity. Anyone who had been a backer of the Clintons that stood up to try and defend such people or who simply disagreed with the Clintons were also attacked. Outside of the sexual realm, the multiple donation scandals that have popped up (1996, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2007) have each had connections to outside organizations looking to buy influence. When turning on a political backer would not suffice, the reporting, itself, was attacked as being ‘biased’ or part of a ‘vast rightwing conspiracy’ even when done by those on the left who had helped the Clintons. After *Monika* the reporting was soon about the reporters doing the reporting and not about the event itself. And those personal follies cast before the public were used to distract from the funding follies which were heavily buried due to being non-charismatic and only associated with foreign Nations, billionaires and underworld crime figures. Nothing beats a sexual scandal, it appears.

    Triangulation indicates that the Clintons have no set concept of what they want to do while in office. The concept of triangulation is to take any semi-popular idea and craft a message that appears to encompass more groups than the idea actually does. The healthcare debacle was a prime example of this, and no amount of television ads or cajoling various groups could get past the fact of the staggering price tag and huge increase in bureaucracy, plus having bureaucrats get a say in individual health choices. When confronted with ideas that have a relatively cohesive majority, like NAFTA or reforming welfare, the Clintons will do everything possible to get as much credit for that, even while the work they put in is minimal. The charisma actually did work to triangulate a ‘peace dividend’ which was hurting the US Army by 1999 to the point where two entire divisions fell to their lowest readiness status since Vietnam. Reducing the size of the Armed Forces, reducing maintenance budgets and training budgets all came to have a high toll when multiple ‘peacekeeping’ missions that Congress did not authorize were being done on a long-term basis.

    Anyone running in opposition to HRC must recognize this pattern and outlook by her and Bill. Be it on the R or D side, the viciousness of the attacks, accusing those blaming them of having only personal animosity to them, accepting money from anyone no matter what it is tied to, and then throwing out emotional scenes that then gain high attention due to that drama is something to be contended with without respect to party. Those on the D side have not factored that into their campaigns and it is showing. None of them are good cross-counter-punchers when it comes to politics, which is the ability to deflect a counter-attack, show it to be below the waistline and then cross-attack with the original problem.

    You do not need to run *against* HRC, just redeflect any attacks to show that they are attempts to distract from the original problem. The D side doesn’t have that sort of politician left in it since the clogging of the political machines: nasty, brutal local politics is the place where you grow up on that stuff. And the R side has had very few of those, or individuals who could so recast the political terrain that their opponents did not know how to counter it. That is due to the lack of having different and competing views on a wide range of outlooks… there are deep flaws in the sclerotic visions of each party that address an era now gone and those in them do not have the political flexibility to change their stances to different ground.

  12. Thomass says:

    Just remember how stupid and annoying the left has been trying to base their program on Bush hate… That’s pretty much the bottom line; let’s not get all stupid and annoying [like them].

  13. Kerry says:

    Just remember how stupid and annoying the left has been trying to base their program on Bush hate… That’s pretty much the bottom line; let’s not get all stupid and annoying [like them].

    Unfortunately, whether it’s the left, the right, Republicans, or Democrats, they all seem to base their spewing on the actions of the extreme opposite fringe, but denigrating the entire group… e.g. a right-winger denouncing the Clintons, or Kerry, while proclaiming that all Dems are moonbats. A further example.. a leftie denouncing Bush or Cheney and stating that all Reps are gun-crazy fascists.

    Seriously, I imagine most folks are somewhere in the middle. Most folks aren’t interested in making the contest between the political parties into our own American version of the blood feuds between the Sunni & Shites. Friendly banter is one thing; however too many people regard it in this manner – Whatever I say about you is okay because it’s factual, but the things you’re saying about me are slanderous lies and taken out of context. Statistics can tell whatever story the teller wants to be told. Quotes can be taken out of context.

    We really need a return to civility in politics and the discussion of politics, a return to playing hard but fair. Who would want to watch a football game where two teams were more or less evenly matched, but the game was decided by cheating or crooked officiating? Yeah, even if your team won through use of cheating or crooked officials, it would taint the victory. Would you enjoy it as much as if you won fair and square? If you lost, but lost fairly, you would be able to shake the other guy’s hand and not feel cheated.

    Bush hating, Clinton hating.. is there really any difference in the two? Or does it (the hating) start with the fact that Bush or Clinton (depending on your preference) is from that dreaded “other” party?

  14. Karl says:

    Hating HRC may not be enough, but — as Bithead notes above — the polls consistently showing 46-52% already saying they will not vote for her gets you in the ballpark. Voters won’t need much more than gentle reminders of who HRC is, which will leave plenty of time for laying out a vision.