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The Inevitable Clinton Attack Ad

I suppose it was inevitable that a Clinton would wind up in a GOP attack ad this year. And Bill, he of the red-faced primary-season rants and the passive-aggressive general election analyses, was the most likely candidate. Sure enough, John McCain this week released a spot using the 42nd president’s words in an effort to help make McCain the 44th.

The ad, though, is a strange one--60 seconds long, ostensibly about the mortgage crisis, with the Man from Hope not making his appearance until second number 28, an eternity by attack-ad standards. The Clinton clip, meanwhile, isn't even about Obama. It's an inside-baseball explanation of ways the Democrats share some of the responsibility for the tumult at Fannie and Freddie: "I think the responsibility that the Democrats have may rest more in resisting any efforts by Republicans in the Congress, or by me when I was president, to put some standards and tighten up a little on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," the ex-president is shown telling an interviewer. "You’re right, Mr. President," a narrator primly declares.

I wonder whether this ad, eventually, winds up helping Obama. If nothing else, it serves as a warning to Clinton that, like it or not, he’s a symbol of his party whose words are fair game: You're not a pundit who's free to lay out the pros and cons of all sides, Mr. President! Sticking him in a GOP attack ad might prove a very effective way of getting Clinton to shut his trap between now and election day. A chastened Clinton means fewer troubling stories for Obama. Like clockwork, Clinton’s first scheduled appearances on behalf of Obama were announced soon after the ad appeared.

The collateral cost to Obama of this shot across Bubba’s bow? Not that high. For one thing, Clinton’s criticism is remarkably tepid by his finger-wagging standards. Not so much as a word in there about fairy tales or historical South Carolina primary results. For another, the sorts of people likely to be swayed by a yanked-from-context ex-president’s quote are likely to be the sort whose thoughts about the crisis involve the management nitty-gritty of federally chartered lending organizations. If you believe the devious Clinton really did mean his for those comments to get picked up in an ad that would help McCain, the convoluted scheme didn't work. Which is pretty much par for the course for him this year.

--Michael Schaffer