Clintonian Controversy

Hillary’s false claim that she landed in Bosnia under hostile sniper fire has gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Was her statement part of a larger political strategy?

Hillary Clinton's statements and actions have recently been so erratic-from her likening of herself to Rocky Balboa to her pyrotechnic account of her 1996 arrival to Bosnia-that some political observers are speculating whether she really could be suffering from campaign fatigue, the reason she cited for having told the Bosnia tale. And there may be some accuracy to Clinton's justification. The candidate, overwrought by the rigors of a highly challenging campaign, may be losing some emotional composure. But while many of Clinton's decisions of late appear bizarre and baffling, they also fit into a discernable pattern-belying a potential strategy behind them.

The Bosnia incident has deservedly received a good deal of attention. Hillary Clinton dramatically and repeatedly claimed to have come under sniper fire upon her arrival to Bosnia. After photos and television footage of her official welcoming were re-released, the senator backtracked from her account, and said she "misspoke" in her version of events.

But the Clintons have made a succession of moves that seem counterproductive, irrational and atypical of their modus operandi. Hillary Clinton recently met with right-wing media mogul Richard Mellon Scaife and the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. As Slate's Timothy Noah points out, this would be the one and the same Scaife who claimed the Clintons probably killed Vince Foster and bankrolled investigations into numerous conspiracy theories regarding Bill and Hillary Clinton. Clinton's meeting with a man who has reviled her so publicly suggest a disconcerting degree of sangfroid. It also seems wholly incongruous to the Clintons' professed liberal agenda, in part because Scaife has gained notoriety for uttering some misogynist and highly vulgar epithets.

Hillary Clinton said at the meeting with Scaife and others: "It was so counterintuitive, I just thought it would be fun to do." She subsequently featured Scaife's own personal column professing his newfound admiration for Clinton on her official website under the heading "If You Read One Thing Today."

But the Clintons have made a series of moves that have raised eyebrows and ire. As the New Republic's Christopher Orr noted on the magazine's blog, Bill Clinton made an appearance on the Rush Limbaugh Show the day of the Texas primary and Hillary Clinton's campaign circulated an American Spectator hit piece on an adviser to Senator Barack Obama. These actions, along with Clinton's recent praise of Senator John McCain, have enraged some fellow Democrats, particularly because the protracted Obama-Clinton race appears, according to recent polls, to be playing to McCain's favor. But considering the sources of Clinton's support in the primaries, this maneuvering may not represent as large a political risk to Clinton as they may initially seem.

Exit polling indicates that Clinton tends to do well with Democrats that are on the lower end of the income scale and have less education. In polls that constituency has cited concern for economic issues and is presumably receptive to populist elements of Clinton's economic message. It may not be particularly liberal on a host of social issues, though. In that regard, it may even share some affinity with Republican voters.

Indeed, Andrew Kohut theorized in a January 10 op-ed for the New York Times that this constituency may have played a pivotal role in the New Hampshire primary and pollsters' errors in predicting its outcome. "Poorer, less well-educated white people refuse surveys more often than affluent, better-educated whites. Polls generally adjust their samples for this tendency. But here's the problem: these whites who do not respond to surveys tend to have more unfavorable views of blacks than respondents who do the interviews," he said. As Kohut also points out in his column, it is that contingency, along with women and the elderly, that voted for Clinton in New Hampshire.

The members of this demographic group that tend to hold "more unfavorable views of blacks" may not have taken much offense to Clinton's meeting with Scaife or other recent statements. And Clinton's self-described likeness to Rocky Balboa and her dramatic tale of dodging Bosnian bullets may have resonated well with that group-particularly if Clinton was not forced to backtrack on the latter. Indeed, in this context, Clinton's comments and actions do not appear so "counterintuitive" and begin to make some political sense.

These anecdotes do demonstrate, though, the hazards of supporting a candidate based on gender or race. Surely, the "Women for Hillary" are nonplussed by Clinton's courting of Scaife-if they are aware of Scaife's history and background. And those that claim to support Hillary out of enthusiasm for equality also may not be pleased with the Clinton team's decision to circulate a slanted American Spectator article targeting Obama.

Indeed, the Bush administration in nominal terms has done much to promote diversity and equality, by naming the first black secretary of state and the first black female national security adviser and, subsequently, secretary of state. But it would be difficult to argue that either the former or current secretary of state have demonstrated notable leadership or have enduringly revised perceptions of race in this country.