For all the speculation that Hillary Clinton was going to strap herself with explosives and fling herself at Barack Obama last night (figuratively, figuratively), the whole affair was pretty tame. But there was one notable exception, and it fell so flat—and here’s some more wild speculation, but bear with—it might well have killed high-caliber negative attacks for good in this primary.
It came when Campbell Brown raised the issue of similarities between Obama’s words and Deval Patrick’s. Obama said that notion that he plagiarized from one of his national co-chairs is "silly" before drifting from the topic: "What I’ve been talking about in these speeches—and I gotta admit, some of them are pretty good. What I’ve been talking about is not just hope and not just inspiration, it’s a $4,000 tuition credit every year in exchange for national service so that college becomes affordable," etc. The line was somewhat canned, but it also turned a question about attacks in the direction of substance.
In her response, Hillary veered back to plagiarism: "I think that if your candidacy is going to be about words, they should be your own words. Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change what you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox."
Even as she’s saying it, you can tell it’s going to sag. "Come on, that’s not what happened," Obama says without looking up. It had echoes of Obama’s "You’re likeable enough" moment in New Hampshire, only this time, it was Hillary being unduly petty. The audience boos. That is the sound of the last week backfiring. (Watch the whole thing here .)
Going into Wisconsin’s primary, Clinton ratcheted up the "contrast" with ads charging Obama with skipping debates because he’s scared, as well as the plagiarism accusations. The Wisconsin vote, in which Obama won the majority of people who had made up their minds in the previous week, proved just how ineffective the attacks had been. Something about the charges wasn’t sticking. But the Clinton camp apparently hadn’t learned its lesson. During the debate, Hillary does conspicuously decline to attack Obama in a few places. Twice, when asked whether he could be commander in chief, she demurs. But the Xerox line—so plodding, so preplanned, so poorly timed (Obama was coming off an elegant flourish about words vs. deeds)—will survive the night.
The debate has not changed the master narrative for the coming weeks. In Texas and Ohio, Hillary is still facing her Alamo; Obama is still catching up in the polls. If anything, last night was a draw, and a draw favors Obama. But if it does change anything, it should give the Clinton camp pause about the negative tactics. Not for any moral reason but for a pragmatic one: It doesn’t work. If Clinton wants to take the high road back to the Senate, she will drop the cheap shots in the coming weeks. Maybe the two key states will reward her for it.