When a candidate gets desperate to win a primary campaign, he or she often engages in irresponsible attacks on the front-runner for the party's nomination. Unwittingly, the losing candidate often ends up framing the themes that will be used by the opposition party in the fall campaign to attack the party's eventual nominee.
In 1972, even after it was pretty clear that South Dakota Sen. George McGovern would be the Democratic nominee for president, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey continued campaigning for the nomination. The two came up against one another in a bitter California primary that saw Humphrey and his supporters savage McGovern for being soft on drugs, abortion and amnesty for draft dodgers.
McGovern won the primary pretty easily and went on to secure the nomination. But the damage had been done. Throughout the fall campaign, Republicans reprised the themes raised by Humphrey and his supporters. They often quoted Democratic criticisms of McGovern.
You would think that Democrats might have learned.
To understand how the old game is playing out this year, consider the following prospective scenario involving a commercial that Hillary Clinton's campaign has begun airing in advance of the March 4 Democratic primaries in Texas and Ohio:
It is November 2008. Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are locked in a tight contest for the presidency.
In the closing days before the election, a new campaign commercial begins to air nationwide.
"In a few days, you, the American people, will choose the next president of the United States," begins the distinguished senior senator from Arizona. "As someone who has served this country in combat and in the Congress for the past quarter century, I believe that the first responsibility of the president is to protect the American people. I believe I am best prepared to do that. What of my opponent? Barack Obama is a good man, an inspiring man. But, my friends, I ask you to consider this commercial that was put together not by my campaign but by the campaign of Hillary Clinton just a few months ago."
On the screen comes a Clinton campaign commercial that aired before the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio. It features images of children sleeping peacefully as a soothing male voice says, "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call, whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military -- someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"
An image of Clinton holding a phone appears on the screen.
Again comes the voice of the Republican nominee: "I'm John McCain, and I approve this commercial, just as United States Senator Hillary Clinton did earlier this year. I respect Barack Obama, but I believe Hillary Clinton was right to ask: 'Who do you want answering the phone?' And I am here to tell you that I am prepared to answer that phone and to protect you. God bless you, and God bless America."
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times, Wisconsin's progressive daily news source, where his column appears regularly. Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.
© 2008 Capital Times