Politics & Policy

Candid on the Candidates

If only Senator Clinton had called Caddell …

I think their campaign has been just awful. There’s no way around that.” Democratic strategist Pat Caddell doesn’t mince words when asked to assess the floundering Clinton campaign.

Caddell has a reputation for candor that’s unique among political consultants on either side of the aisle. He’s had a colorful career in politics working on the McGovern, Carter, and Hart presidential campaigns, among others. He’s also acquired quite the C.V. in Hollywood, where he’s served as a consultant and writer on numerous films and TV shows about politics, including Air Force One, In the Line of Fire, and The West Wing.

But more important, and unique, are Caddell’s forthright opinions of his fellow Democrats — a bounty that has earned him equal doses of admiration and ire. National Review Online called Caddell Friday for some straight talk on the state of the current Democratic race; he did not disappoint.

Elaborating on the weakness of the Clinton campaign, he claims, “She’s never had a convincing message. They basically just thought they’d Bigfoot their way to the nomination. It hasn’t worked. They’ve made no convincing argument, and she can’t seem to find one. I’m not saying it’s over, but I am saying that at this point, she’s got her back solidly against the wall.”

Still, Caddell acknowledges that Obama has generated excitement for a reason. “Obama’s a very intriguing, an exciting new figure on the scene,” he says. “The Democratic party has [always] been about change — I don’t know exactly what that means this year — but it certainly hasn’t helped Hillary.”

So why can’t Hillary make the charge that Obama is inexperienced stick? “There is a lot of concern and there will be more if he is the nominee … about his experience. It’s legitimate,” he says. “But the Clinton campaign has gone at it rather clumsily, basically indirectly raising [the inexperience issue], sort of attacking him rather than going at him in a comparative way.”

The central problem with a strategy that relies on Hillary’s attacking Obama’s character, Caddell points out, is that it raises the issue of Clinton’s own character. “Every time she attacks him, she attacks his character with her character. I’m not sure that’s the best exchange, particularly since her character also drags somebody else’s character with it,” he says.

Given the position that Clinton is in, and that the concern over Obama’s inexperience is legitimate — especially when contrasted with likely GOP nominee John McCain — Caddell thinks that the Clinton can “let the issue raise itself.” Meanwhile, Clinton should concentrate on campaigning on issues where she has a clear advantage, such as “the economy which is her strongest issue or has been until recently… particularly in the states that are coming up.”

But if Clinton has her back up against the wall and Obama is the likely nominee, Caddell cautions that Democratic exuberance over Obama might be blinding the party to his weaknesses. Enthusiasm early on doesn’t automatically translate to votes. “First of all he’s got probably the greatest support in national press I’ve seen since John McCain [in 2000]. And that’s one of the things he’s had going for him. But as I said, there are going to be more and more questions. I’m not sure he’s really developed a very detailed and deep message other than the fact that he’s letting himself be defined much more conventionally as a liberal … I think his instinct is to be much more discerning than that,” Caddell explains.

Regarding Obama’s “instinct,” Caddell elaborates further: “Many of his instincts are not ideological, if you read his book and his past and so forth, he tends not to be an ideologue — although I think he’s letting himself get more and more defined that way.”

If Obama lets others define him as a conventional liberal that could spell trouble in the general election. “I think there will be natural concerns. Voters are very intelligent people, particularly in the aggregate. They weigh very real concerns. Partly it will be his attractiveness for change against the question of does he have enough experience. This is something Democratic-party polls were still showing ten days ago: The majority of Dems say he needs several more years of experience,” Caddell says. “That’s why I was saying Hillary has done such a poor job of [raising the inexperience issue] because she’s made it an attack issue rather than an issue for people to consider.”

However, even if Obama’s feet turn out to be made of clay, Caddell notes that McCain has his own set of difficulties to deal with before he can go after Obama. “First of all he’s got to give the Republican party some meaning … The most important problem the Republicans have — in 2002 and 2004 the differential between people who preferenced Republicans and Dems was about 2 points. It’s twelve today! Those numbers don’t change that rapidly,” Caddell says. “That took place in ‘06 and has been going on ever since. In part that’s a function of a lot of disappointed Republicans and conservatives who have become independents. To pretend that this is the same landscape it’s been for conservatives and Republicans is not the case.”

While the Democrats cling to some amorphous vision of “change,” that message seems to be better what the Republicans have to offer, Caddell adds.

Fortunately, Caddell notes, McCain’s appeal transcends his party. “So McCain’s challenge in part is to invigorate both the Republican party and it’s standing with the American people. But he’s a very popular man with the American people. The most important ingredient he has going for him in numbers is character, probably not his issue positions,” he said.

Solidifying his reputation for honesty, Caddell carefully qualifies his remarks. Regarding Hillary Clinton, he says “She’s not my favorite person, so it’s hard for me to give my best judgment,” he said. “It’s hard for me to get overly excited [about her],” he said.

It’s hard for an honest critic like Caddell and hard for Democratic primary voters.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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