Hand-wringing doesn’t usually make noise – except in politics.
As the 2012 Republican presidential primary grinds on, with “Super Tuesday” failing to winnow the four-man field and the end to the process still seemingly months away, party elders have made a virtual art form of worrying. Their fears – that the candidates’ unrelenting attacks on one another’s conservatism, electability and basic honesty will hurt the general-election prospects of the party’s nominee – are rooted in both long experience and the hard polling data of the moment.
A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found 40 percent of adults saying the Republican primary has damaged their view of the party. About 60 percent of independents in the same survey spoke negatively about the protracted GOP battle.
“I think that (Mitt) Romney’s suffered, the Republicans have suffered, and (President) Obama’s benefited as a result of a divisive and bitter multi-candidate race with a heavy Super PAC presence," said Doug Schoen, the longtime Democratic pollster and Fox News contributor.
But what about the epic and expensive struggle between then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, four years ago? A review of the video and commentary from that period easily turns up much of the same kind of hand-wringing from professional analysts, who fretted that the “sharp attacks” and “bruising” nature of the Democratic dogfight were inflicting potentially mortal wounds on the party’s eventual nominee.
“(People) were forecasting how badly the Democrats were being hurt in April and May (2008) by the primary fight between Obama and Clinton,” Karl Rove, the former Bush campaign architect and current Fox News contributor, said during an appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Wednesday. “And obviously that didn't turn out to be true.”
That the Clinton-Obama contest at times grew nasty is undeniable. In Clinton’s rendering – if not in so many words – Obama was an empty suit who couldn’t be trusted. Likewise, in his portrait of her, she was a pawn of Beltway special interests whose views shifted with the winds.
“If you're going to talk,” Clinton scolded her opponent at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 11, 2008, “then you ought to mean what you say, so that people can count on it.”
“That’s the difference between me and my Democratic opponent,” she had said earlier, on Feb. 14, in Warren, Ohio. “My opponent makes speeches; I offer solutions.”
“In this campaign,” Obama shot back the next day, during an appearance in Milwaukee, Wis., “she has taken nearly double the amount from lobbyists than any Democrat or Republican running for president. That's not being a part of the solutions business. That is being in the business-as-usual business."
And on March 21 in Salem, Ore.: “She doesn't believe in transparency,” Obama said. “She doesn't believe in, I think, bottom-up democracy.”
Most famously – and repeatedly in early March of that year – Clinton said she and the GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, offered a “lifetime of experience” on foreign policy issues, while Obama offered only “a speech he gave in 2002” opposing the Iraq war. That same month, Obama dismissed recent comments by his opponent as "ridiculous” and “wrong-headed.” And the two exchanged negative attack ads.
Schoen told Fox News that such remarks show how tame the 2008 Democratic primary was when contrasted with the current Republican contest. Data from Kantar Media, a company that tracks political advertising, "shows that somewhere around 90 to 95 percent of the ads that are being run now are negative," Schoen said. "And my recollection of the 2008 contest is that the ad buys were about 50-50 positive-to-negative, maybe even 60-40 negative-to-positive. But you didn't have nine or 10 negative ads for every positive ad.”
Accounting for this disparity between the two contests, Schoen asserts, is the presence of the Super PACs, which a 2010 Supreme Court ruling empowered to raise and spend unlimited sums on behalf of individual campaigns; and the fact that four GOP candidates are vying for voters’ attention, as opposed to the “binary choice” between two candidates that confronted Democratic primary voters four years ago.
One prominent veteran of the 2008 election cycle argues that the drawn-out, often harsh nature of the 2012 Republican primary offers the GOP no real cause for concern.
“I think that the competition strengthens all the candidates,” Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential nominee, now a Fox News contributor, said Tuesday during an appearance on Fox Business. “The process should continue.”
Even that sentiment had a familiar ring to it.
“Every day someone says to me, ‘I can't make up my mind between the two of you. I am so torn,’” Clinton said in March 2008. “I think that's a good problem to have.”
It would be almost another three months before she would concede the race to the man who is now her boss.