Kindergarten Cops

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 9:55 AM

Hillary Clinton's campaign was determined to respond to Barack Obama's insistence that, unlike some candidates, he had not been planning to run for president for years.

So the Clinton camp dug up a series of reported statements in which Obama had expressed interest in the White House. And it went way back--to the point that it invited ridicule. To wit:

"In third grade, Sen. Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want To Be a President.' "

And: "In kindergarten, Sen. Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want to Become President.' "

"Our mistake was putting the early examples in, because they undermined the bottom line," Clinton communications chief Howard Wolfson told me. "He's been attacking her for being ambitious when his ambitions are far better documented." Clinton strategists were also miffed that Obama was alluding to what they consider a bogus report that Hillary and Bill had a 20-year plan to share the presidency.

When a candidate goes on the attack, the media reaction can go one of two ways. Either reporters seize on the criticism and demand a response from the target of the assault, or they raise questions about whether the attacker has gone too far.

In Hillary's case, it's definitely been the latter.

I'm mildly surprised by this, since I don't think Hillary has said anything particularly harsh about Obama, and certainly not compared to the blistering negativity I've seen in so many campaign cycles. (Obama hasn't been over the top either, though he did call the former first lady "disingenuous.") The kindergarten caper was obviously overkill; nothing else she's said has struck me as out of bounds.

So why is Hillary getting so much grief? Because journalists love to hunt for signs of panic? Because the needling of Obama doesn't seem to revolve around large issue differences? Because reporters have somehow concluded that it's more unseemly for a woman to start smacking her opponent?

I don't know the answer, but I do know that this is a dangerous narrative for Clinton, since it makes her the issue rather than what she's saying about her rival from Illinois.

"For months," Wolfson said, "some of your colleagues were explicitly urging Senator Obama to attack Senator Clinton more directly. When he attacked her character, this was seen as a good thing. For some time, we did not respond in kind. But at some point, you need to set the record straight."

David Corn, now with Mother Jones, sees an anger-driven campaign:

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