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Collateral Damage

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 28, 2008

Talk about not being able to catch a break. To pummel a boxing metaphor, it was Barack Obama who got tagged with a roundhouse right, flush on the chin -- but it was Hillary Clinton, from early indications, who ended up nursing a sore jaw and wondering what hit her.

A week of hearing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's jeremiads more or less continuously on cable news channels seemed certain to hurt Obama politically. Indeed it did -- but only slightly, according to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. The candidate who really suffered, according to the same poll, was Clinton.

Clinton must look back at dodging bullets in Bosnia and bringing peace to Northern Ireland as mere walks in the park compared with this crazy campaign. Then again, accurate recollection hasn't been her strong suit of late.

The NBC-Journal poll, released Wednesday, found that the percentage of voters with negative views of Obama increased by four points in the past two weeks, from 28 percent to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage with positive views of Obama declined by two points, from 51 percent to 49 percent. It's hard to attribute this slippage to anything other than the controversy over Wright's sermons. All in all, it wasn't what you'd call a great fortnight for Obama.

Surprisingly, though, Clinton's was considerably worse. The percentage of voters holding negative views of her increased by five points, from 43 percent to 48 percent, while the percentage of voters who had positive views of Clinton declined a full eight points, from 45 to 37 percent.

I've been through the rest of the numbers in this poll, as well as those in a recent CBS News survey -- and I won't cite them here for fear of running out of space before I get to the point. Take my word that Obama's " A More Perfect Union" speech on race relations, generally but not universally well received, probably helped minimize any loss of support from the Wright controversy.

What's not unambiguously explained in the polls is why Clinton, basically a bystander, took a bigger hit in popularity than the guy who had the pastor problem.

The NBC-Journal survey was taken before Clinton's claim of having braved sniper fire upon landing in Bosnia in 1996 was admitted to be untrue, so that can't have been the reason her negative ratings jumped and her positive ratings fell. And when the poll was being taken, Clinton hadn't even said anything about Obama's relationship with Wright.

Subsequently, she did have something to say: that if she had been Wright's parishioner, she would have left the church. I can't fault her for answering a direct question, especially one offering a chance to take a shot at her opponent. That's considered fair in politics. I do find it odd, though, that she would answer any kind of question from the editorial board of a Pittsburgh area newspaper, the Tribune-Review, that promoted the vile and untrue allegation that she had something to do with the death of Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel in her husband's administration who committed suicide. The Tribune-Review is owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, who is considered by Clintonistas to have been puppet master and chief financier of the "vast, right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton famously perceived.

Here's a hypothesis: The fact that Clinton's poll numbers suffered more than Obama's might have something to do with the way her campaign gives the impression of being willing to do anything it takes -- anything -- to win the nomination.

Obama drew a line in his speech about race, repudiating Wright in the strongest terms but refusing to "disown" a man who has been an important spiritual influence. Many commentators saw this stance as a mistake that ultimately will cost Obama support among working-class white voters -- and those commentators may be proved right. It's possible that he drew the line in the wrong place. But he did draw it.

Hillary Clinton is a brilliant woman whose many exemplary qualities are obscured by a campaign that fights as if it couldn't care less about collateral damage it might inflict -- on the Democratic Party or on the front-runner for the nomination.

That was always Bill Clinton's political method: Do what you have to do; apologize later, if necessary. You can't save the world unless you get elected, and to get elected you have to be what the people want.

But maybe what the people want this time is a real person, rather than an image or a strategy. Hillary Clinton might start by making clear that she wants to be president, but not at any cost.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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