Michael Wolraich's picture

    Who's Afraid of the Kitchen Sink?

    Most of you have probably scene this quote from today's Times:

    After struggling for months to dent Senator Barack Obama's candidacy, the campaign of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is now unleashing what one Clinton aide called a "kitchen sink" fusillade against Mr. Obama, pursuing five lines of attack since Saturday in hopes of stopping his political momentum.

    The article doesn't explicitly lay out the five lines of attack, but the following are cited in the article:

    1. Obama misrepresents Clinton's positions: It is blatantly false and yet he continues to spend millions of dollars perpetuating falsehoods. It is not hopeful. It is destructive, particularly for a Democrat to be discrediting universal health care.

    2. Obama is naive: You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear!

    3. Obama's foreign policy is Bush-like: We've seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security.

    4. Obama is divisive (and distracting?): Enough! If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely. This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country today and to attempt to create the very divisions they claim to decry. We will not be distracted.

    5. Obama is hypocritical: When it was in Obama’s interest to criticize Edwards over outside spending, he did so. Now when it is in his interest to remain silent, he is.

    To these, I would also add two more from last week:

    6. Obama is all talk, no action: In Texas, when there's work to be done, talk doesn't cut it.

    7. Obama is a plagiarizer: Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in - it’s change you can Xerox...

    Now, allow me to attempt to summarize these attacks in a single sentence:

    Obama is a naive, lying, inexperienced, divisive, plagiarizing, bullshitting hypocrite.

    Now suppose someone you just met made this statement to you about someone else you barely know. What would you conclude? I would conclude that the speaker was angry, prone to exaggeration, and not credible. The barrage of attacks would blur together, and the only message that I would retain would be that the speaker really hates the person of whom she speaks.

    The blowback from Clinton's negativity and the appearance of desperation have been much discussed, so I'll leave those matters aside. What is to me more noteworthy but less noted is that the "kitchen sink" method, or what some have called the "shotgun" approach, cannot succeed because it blurs the message. When someone shouts out 5 or 7 or more criticisms, you don't retain all of them; you retain none of them. This was the problem with Clinton's advertisements in Wisconsin. Ken Goldstein, a political science professor from U.W. who studied the ad campaigns during the Wisconsin primary, wrote:

    Furthermore, her late entry and the inconsistency in the messages
    conveyed through advertising and in her speeches speaks to some
    confusion among Clinton strategists. Clinton needed to define Obama,
    and for first time we saw significant negative advertising. Half of
    Clinton's ads were contrast, and they were largely attacks on Obama.
    That said, most observers believe that for Clinton to have a chance,
    she needs to disqualify Obama on the experience issue. Going after
    Obama for not debating or not being liberal enough on health-care
    reform simply did not resonate with Wisconsin voters.

    Moreover, the lack of a coherent message has been a problem for Clinton the entire campaign as she has vacillated from experience, to change, to hard work, to being a fighter, and back to experience.

    For Clinton to have mounted an effective attack on Obama, she would have had to select a couple of the strongest attacks and stick to them, hammering him on them month after month. Instead, she has leapt from one "zinger" to the next but has found, unsurprisingly, that nothing sticks. The problem will not be solved by throwing out whatever is left in the arsenal; that will serve only to further muddy the message.


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