It's back to the future for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Struggling mightily to avoid a reversed direction, it pulled a two-decade old political trick out of its hat yesterday.
Back in 1987, the presidential campaign of Delaware's senator, Joseph Biden, began to take hold. Particularly effective for Mr. Biden was a portion of his stump speech taken from the oratory of a British Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, which struck a populist chord. "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?" Mr. Kinnock's comments said. When Mr. Biden turned to that language at the Iowa State Fair, he failed to credit Mr. Kinnock: "Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family to go to university?" Mr. Biden said.
Subsequently, the campaign of Mr. Biden's strongest opponent, Michael Dukakis, quietly circulated a video juxtaposing the comments of Messrs. Kinnock and Biden, thereby killing the national political aspirations of the Delaware senator, who promptly dropped out of the race.
Yesterday, Mrs. Clinton's campaign attempted to Kinnockize Mr. Obama, who invoked the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. The campaign seized upon statements Senator Obama made Saturday night at an event in Wisconsin in an attempt to counter his opponent's argument that he offered rhetoric and not substance. Here is the passage in question: "Don't tell me words don't matter! 'I have a dream.' Just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words, just speeches!"
Mr. Patrick, a close ally of Mr. Obama, said something very similar when he was running for his position in 2006: "But her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is that all I have to offer is words ó just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Words ó just words! 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words! 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' Just words! 'I have a dream.' Just words!"
In an interview with politico.com, Mrs. Clinton's director of communications, Howard Wolfson, called the similarity between the comments a case of "plagiarism." He told reporters in a conference call: "If your campaign is premised on rhetoric and the rhetoric is not your own, and your campaign is premised on promises, and you are breaking them, there are problems."
The Obama blunder is a far cry from Mr. Biden's use of Mr. Kinnock's speech, which the senator had credited in earlier speeches. That Messrs. Obama and Patrick are close political allies is well settled, but it makes a huge difference in how the similarity of the rhetoric is viewed.
Mr. Obama came to Boston to endorse Mr. Patrick, who was the former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, just as the soon-to-be governor was waging the word vs. action battle against his opponent, Kerry Healey. For almost a year, Mr. Patrick has been conversing with Mr. Obama, making suggestions and talking about what lines of attack to expect from opponents ó one obviously being the charge of only being able to give a good speech. They also, it has been reported, share a campaign consultant, David Axelrod, and similar biographies.
Mr. Patrick is so adamant about the value of well-phrased language that he is known to remind listeners that candidates' words, not policy papers are written on their monuments.
The saddest thing about the Clinton campaign's attack on Mr. Obama's oratory is that her team should have been ready for it. President Clinton came to Massachusetts on October 16, 2006, to campaign for Mr. Patrick, when he was making his "just words" speech. Mr. Clinton hosted a fundraiser for Mr. Patrick, whose own campaign was filled with rhetoric of hope. If anyone should have been prepared for and ready to counter such a campaign, it is Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Patrick's language was so similar to that of Mr. Clinton during the 1992 campaign that the Boston Globe published a story about their similarities, "In Patrick, A Clinton Echo." The article quoted a key passage of a speech given by Mr. Clinton in 1992: "This election is a race between hope and fear, between division and community, between responsibility and blame, between whether we have the courage to change, to stay young forever, or whether we stay with the comfort of the status quo." The language was, in fact, so similar that Mr. Patrick could not tell if the words were his or Mr. Clinton's.
Later that same day, Mr. Clinton praised his former appointee, Mr. Patrick, calling him "magnificent." There is no record of him criticizing Mr. Patrick's language as too similar to his own. Mrs. Clinton has a sliver of a chance in this presidential race. But yesterday's tired trick will likely do more to hasten the end of her national political career than sustain it.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.