Adam Ash

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hillary vs. Barack - first little Dem foodfight

Obama passes the first test – by Michael Goodwin/NY Daily Nedrws

It's often said that Sen. Hillary Clinton is like a sphinx who gives away nothing about what's going on inside her head. She can come across as so programmed that the cottage industry of Hillary watchers is often stumped about what she's up to.

Not so last week, when we got a sudden peek behind the mask of computer-style control. Clinton, it turns out, suffers from political panic attacks. And she gets really nasty when she's in the grips of one.

Her broadside on Sen. Barack Obama was so over the top and foolish that it couldn't have been planned in rational moments. Not only did Clinton's snarling prolong a bad story for her, it also recalled past blowups. They reveal Clinton's unappealing habit of turning fairly routine criticisms into life-or-death threats. Then she panics and goes ballistic.

Obama basically kept his cool while she lost hers, so he gets an "A" on his first big test of the 2008 presidential race. For one week at least, he stood head and shoulders above her.

Yet he couldn't have emerged as a bigger man without her help. The Illinois rookie senator didn't so much as win the throwdown as she lost it. That dynamic, if it becomes a pattern, could boost his chances of taking the Democratic nomination from her.

The dustup began when former Clinton bankroller David Geffen embraced Obama and threw a Hollywood fund-raiser that pulled in $1.3 million. But Geffen didn't stop there. He stuck a sharp stick in her eye in the pages of the liberal bible, The New York Times.

Geffen called Clinton "incredibly polarizing" and told columnist Maureen Dowd he didn't think Clinton could win the general election. He blasted hubby Bubba, too, saying, "I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person." He didn't mention Monica Lewinsky, but he cited Clinton's disgraceful pardon of Marc Rich, a financier who fled America rather than face criminal fraud charges. Rich's ex-wife then made a big donation to Clinton's library.

In a few sentences, Geffen reintroduced the tiresome controversies of the Clinton presidency. Republicans couldn't have done it better.

The sting was bad, but it would have passed quickly if Team Hillary hadn't made it worse. The seasoned pros looked like trigger-happy amateurs as they fired blast after blast, demanding that Obama denounce Geffen and give back the $1.3 million. Otherwise, Clinton's camp repeatedly said on television, Obama would be a hypocrite for pretending to run as a different kind of candidate. Clinton herself complained of "the politics of personal destruction," a phrase she trots out when she wants to be seen as the victim.

Too late. Even if Geffen had made her the victim, her harsh blowback made her the villain.

Her bizarre response reminded me of what Clinton did recently in Iowa. Challenged on her 2002 vote to support the Iraq war, she claimed Bush misled her into believing the vote was only to threaten Saddam Hussein. That's a big-time whopper - everyone in America knew the war vote was a war vote, which is why the resolution was titled "Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq."

Panic over the liability of the war vote also led her into another foolish twist. The setting was a January 2006 event in Harlem to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. When a man in the audience said Dems were spineless and cited her vote, Clinton acted desperate. She pulled the race card out of her bag of dirty tricks and told the black crowd that the House of Representatives was "run like a plantation." It was a moment of pander and panic, designed to get her off the spot.

Clinton is accomplished and savvy, which is why she's the front-runner. But Obama is a genuine threat because he represents a fresh-faced break from the same old, same old. To defeat him, she needs to play to her own strengths, not his. Taking her finger off the panic button would be a good start.

(Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Goodwin started writing a column for the Daily News in May 2004. Goodwin previously served as The News' Executive Editor and Editorial Page Editor. In 1999, he led the Editorial Board to its first Pulitzer Prize in 58 years for its successful campaign to rescue the Apollo Theatre from mismanagement. Goodwin also led the board to a coveted Polk Award for efforts to win expanded rights for migrant farm workers. Born in Lewistown, Pa., Goodwin spent 10 years as a reporter at The New York Times. He has taught at the Columbia University School of Journalism, co-authored "I, Koch," a biography of New York's former mayor, and was host of a cable TV show. Goodwin lives in New York with his wife and two children.)


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