Clinton Borrows from GOP Playbook

Earlier in this primary season, Hillary Clinton warned Democrats that if Barack Obama won the Democratic presidential nod, he would wilt under attacks from the GOP in the fall.

Lately, as if to prove her point, she's been running a pretty good imitation of a Republican campaign herself.

It's not just the video of her chatting up Bill O'Reilly on his conservative TV talk show on Fox News, or the endorsement from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its wealthy right-wing publisher, Richard Mellon Scaife.

It's more about the issues she's emphasizing and the lines of attack she's opened on her rival.

Lately, her big idea has been to suspend the gas tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day — a gas tax holiday. It has become her emblem of solidarity with working families. Never mind that her campaign could not name a single expert who thought this was a good idea. And never mind that it was already the centerpiece of Republican John McCain's anti-recession package.

It was enough that the gas tax idea got applause at rallies and that Obama was opposed. It gave her another chance to portray herself as down-to-earth and Obama as elitist.

Truth is, there are few ways to sound more Republican than by calling for a tax holiday. It plays into the essential Republican contention that taxes are the chief cause of economic discomfort and unfairness for working families and the middle class.

The gas tax is a special case in point. It's been Republican doctrine for generations that taxes crank up the cost of a tank of gas. Some stations used to put out signs listing all the taxes included in the price at the pump. It's not the oil companies who are sticking you up, they seem to be saying, it's the government.

In fact, the 18-cent-per-gallon federal tax does not go up as the cost of gas does, so it becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of the cost we all pay as prices (and oil company profits) hit record levels. And that's not even to mention the ecological arguments for discouraging gas consumption.

None of that matters to the Clinton campaign right now, because the gas tax holiday is not about the economy, the energy crisis or the environment. It's a psychological device to establish empathy. It's this week's version of having the candidate belly up to a blue collar bar for a shot and a beer. Hillary Clinton looked a little ridiculous knocking them back in Pennsylvania, but it was better than the sight of Obama rolling gutter balls. Note to future candidates: power drinking beats bowling because it is very difficult to miss one's mouth.

All this sports bar chatter and the gas tax are temporary gimmicks that will have their day and then pass into history. The larger Clinton strategy is to portray Obama as suspect on the issue of national security.

Remember the red phone ringing at 3 a.m.? It started ringing nearly two months ago and has yet to be answered by any of those sleeping, innocent children, one of who resembles a juvenile version of the junior senator from Illinois. It's a Clinton ad, of course, but the first time you see it you could swear it's an ad for McCain. What could be more familiar than the Republican candidate pillorying the Democrat as a peacenik?

After the April 16 debate in Philadelphia, when Obama complained about the focus of the questions and argumentative nature of the moderators, Clinton all but called him a cry baby. Her next ad on the air was a lecture on all the tough calls a president has to make in the Oval Office, capped with the Truman dictum: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Their assault has been largely successful, as it has been for candidates in both parties over the years. Few now remember, but John F. Kennedy ran against the Eisenhower-Nixon administration in 1960 from the right on national security. Among other things, he decried the supposed superiority of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the failure to project U.S. power in defense of certain islands off the coast of "Red China."

More recently, the flag-waving and fear-mongering campaigns have been run by conservative activists and ad makers such as Karl Rove, Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes. They have helped the GOP win seven of the last 10 presidential elections by painting a succession of Democratic candidates as liberal, elitist, irreligious, weak and out of touch — a bad bet for a country striving to hold off foreign enemies.

Theirs is the playbook from which many of the current Clinton tactics seem to have been borrowed. It is a game plan many of Clinton's current advisors have themselves have struggled against in the past. This is their chance to make it their own. And they are making the most of it.

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