Is Bosnia Hillary’s “Swiftboat”?
The View from the North
On occasion, the battle to become the President of the United States features a negative characterization of one of the candidates that just won’t go away, and which sticks with people well after the new President has been sworn in.
In the 1980 Presidential election, it was Reagan’s line in an October debate: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”. Carter, with an approval rating in the twenties, nonetheless was in a neck-and-neck race with Reagan until that point. The comment solidified perception of Carter as a weak and faltering president, a perception popular to this day. Reagan won in a landslide a few weeks later. (Close second? Reagan: “A recession is when your neighbour loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. A recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job”.).
In 1988 it was the infamous “Willie Horton” ads run by George H.W. Bush’s campaign. Willie Horton, a convicted murder in Massachusetts, was released under a furlough program supported by the Democratic candidate and Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. Mr. Horton went on to rape and assault a woman in Maryland, and Mr. Dukakis was portrayed as having a revolving door policy on crime. George H.W. Bush went on to win forty states on his way to the Presidency.
In 2004, of course, it was the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” (subsequently renamed, “Swift Vets and POWs for Truth”) who portrayed John Kerry, the Democratic Candidate for President of the United States, as a liar and exaggerator. In a tight race which many Democrats were thoroughly convinced would end in a Kerry win (after the popular vote had gone in favour of the Democrats in the 2000 election), the Swift Boat issue helped secure a second victory for George W. Bush. “Swift-boating” continues to be synonymous with an effort to undermine the credibility of an opposition candidate.
If Mrs. Clinton defies all odds (and the math…) and ends up the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, will her claims to have encountered sniper fire during a 1996 visit to Bosnia be the issue Republicans use to “swift-boat” her chances? There are a few reasons to think it will.
First off, Mrs. Clinton would enter the battle against her Republican opponent, John McCain, already suffering a significant credibility gap. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, Mrs. Clinton is perceived as “honest and trustworthy” by just 39% of the American public. That’s 13 points down from a poll just eleven months prior. Even Democrats have lost faith in Hillary: the poll reports Obama with a 23 point lead in “honesty” over his Democratic rival.
Secondly, in order to win the Presidency, Mrs. Clinton would need to convince at least some Republican voters to defect to her camp. Republicans, however, have an even worse view of Hillary Clinton’s honesty: that same Washington Post/ABC News poll shows just 16% of Republican voters consider Mrs. Clinton honest. Well, you might argue, that’s to be expected from Republican voters. However that number is down seven points (or 30%) over the past two years.
Thirdly, self-aggrandizement doesn’t play well with voters, particularly those at the core of Mrs. Clinton’s support: working-class/union voters and older women. These voters aren’t stupid: they want to hear how a candidate’s policies are going to affect their day-to-day lives. What they don’t want to hear are lies, and while any candidate can be forgiven for mis-speaking (President Bush, after all, has given the public nearly a decade’s worth), it’s quite another thing to repeat the same mistake at least three times, add the qualifier, “That’s what happened” and include it in one’s speaking notes.
Mrs. Clinton, it seems, may have swift-boated herself…