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Can Clinton's Scorched-earth Tactics Work?


Doug Schoen has an op-ed in today's Washington Post urging Hillary Clinton to finally get tough with Barack Obama. Schoen's byline identifies him as a pollster, a former advisor to Bill Clinton, and the author of "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System" (which suggests you don't have to be a rabid partisan to question whether he has the Democratic Party's best interests at heart.)

The most interesting thing about the op-ed is not mentioned anywhere: Schoen is the business partner of Mark Penn, who has reportedly been arguing within the Clinton campaign for a scorched-Earth desperation final drive to take down Obama. I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that Penn helped plant the op-ed.

As far as Schoen's argument itself, he's not entirely wrong. The heart of his case is one that I've made, namely that Clinton's only chance is to make Obama totally unelectable:

The Illinois senator's success has been largely built upon his claims that he is a unifier who can work above partisan politics, that he will bring change to our government and that he will bring a new style of leadership to Washington. Without bringing a strong amount of skepticism to these claims, Clinton will not be able to make significant inroads in Obama's lead and cannot persuade the superdelegates to go against the will of the American people. ...

a positive message is simply not enough to alter the race at this point. It is too late for Clinton to wait for Obama to make another mistake.

But here's the problem with this strategy: Clinton's attacks may be harming Obama, but they're harming her even more. A new Washington Post poll, published the same day as Schoen's op-ed, found that while Obama has gotten somewhat less popular, Clinton has become wildly unpopular:

In the new poll, 54 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Sen. Clinton, up from 40 percent a few days after she won the New Hampshire primary in early January. Her favorability rating has dropped among both Democrats and independents over the past three months, although her overall such rating among Democrats remains high. Nearly six in 10 independents now view her unfavorably.

Obama's favorability rating also has declined over the same period but remains, on balance, more positive than negative.

Clinton's campaign has been arguing for more than a year thaty every negative thing about Hillary Clinton is already known, and her negatives can't go any higher. It's obviously not true. 

The poll also finds that while Obama's lead over John McCain has fallen, to five points, Clinton now trails McCain by three points. So Clinton's attacks have helped make Obama less electable, but they haven't made him unelectable. Indeed, she might be able to make him unelectable, but it's hard to see how she could do it without making herself even more unelectable. The desperation, long-shot plan -- convincing superdelegates to back her because Obama can't win -- won't work if she can't win either. If she drives both their numbers down into the gutter, supedelegates will just stick with the guy who won most of the pledged delegates. Or possibly they'll draft Al Gore. There would be no reason to pick her.

Update: Schoen is Penn's former business partner, and I'm told it's unlikely he put him up to it.

--Jonathan Chait