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The Rove question



Why is Karl Rove attacking Hillary Clinton?

Since he announced he was leaving the White House, Mr. Rove, the president’s longtime strategist, has made more news than ever.

In two interviews, one with Rush Limbaugh and one with Reuters, he repeated and expanded on his earlier criticisms of Mrs. Clinton as a “fatally flawed” candidate. He told Mr. Limbaugh, “There is no frontrunner who has entered the primary season with negatives as high as she has in the history of modern polling.” He went on to attack her for opposing the administration’s efforts on the health care issue, and for opposing the Patriot Act and warrantless domestic surveillance.

Primary politics being what it is, the Clinton camp reportedly, and understandably, appears to be welcoming the attacks of someone who is more disliked by liberals than Mrs. Clinton is by conservatives. “I feel so lucky that I am now giving them such heartburn,” she said in response.

If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then being attacked by Karl Rove should make liberals warm to the former first lady. On the other hand, Obama strategists are spinning the attacks as an effort by Rove to see that Hillary DOES get the nomination because Rove views her as easier to beat than Mr. Obama. The idea is that by helping Clinton among liberals, Rove aims to ensure that Democrats will nominate the most vulnerable candidate, rather than the strongest.

Who’s right? Only Karl Rove knows for sure. Maybe he’s just trying to make headlines and make clear that, even though he’s giving up his White House job, he’s not going to fade quietly into the night. Maybe he enjoys being viewed as so important that his comments merit the sort of scrutiny that everyone, myself included, is giving them. Maybe he enjoys watching Democrats fight among themselves, which was the approach Phil Singer, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, used to tie Obama to Rove when he responded, “It sounds like Mr. Rove and Senator Obama are reading off the same set of talking points.”

It is a commentary on the state of American politics that more attention is being paid to the strategic goals that might loom behind Rove’s comments than to the substance of the comments themselves. Politics today, and political coverage, is much more about tactics than ideas, more focused on where candidates stand in the polls – even before anyone has actually voted – than where they stand on the issues.

Has Hillary Clinton entered the race with higher negatives than past successful candidates? Probably, depending on which poll you consider. But few nonincumbents have ever entered the race as well-known as she. To state the obvious, there has never been a first lady who has run for president, and certainly few candidates have managed to achieve the icon status that Mrs. Clinton did before she even announced her candidacy.

On the other hand, Hillary’s history in electoral politics is one of success in converting those who doubt and dislike her into supporters. She entered the New York Senate race seven years ago with high negatives, high enough that some said she was unelectable. But she turned them around through the course of the campaign and, in the six years she served in office, made her reelection a virtual cakewalk.

As far as her opposition to the administration’s efforts on health care is concerned, very few people in any poll I’ve seen have given this administration high marks for dealing with health care issues. All the while, support for universal health coverage, which Republicans have labeled “socialized medicine,” has been increasing steadily. Indeed, the criticism of Mrs. Clinton, at least from liberals like Michael Moore, is that she has taken a step back from her activism of the early ’90s by accepting too much money from insurance companies and adopting a more incremental approach to reform.

Finally, there is the question of her position on the administration’s efforts to fight terrorism. No one on the Democratic side is likely to criticize Mrs. Clinton for questioning this administration’s unwillingness to allow courts any oversight of intrusions into the privacy of American citizens, or for opposing efforts to expand Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ power to act unilaterally. Nor is Mrs. Clinton, as are so many female candidates, vulnerable to the charge that she isn’t tough enough. As one very smart friend of mine put it, “People know she’s tough. What they want to know is whether she’s nice.”

It’s the latter that accounts for her negatives. But with most Americans rating terrorism as one of their biggest fears, this may be an election in which toughness counts for more than likeability.

©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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