If the pounding on Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's debate was a predictable effort by trailing candidates to bring down the front runner, a story and editorial in today's New York Post were part of another stratagem: the Republican attempt to paint Democrats as weak-kneed, dishonest and indecisive. Voters have every right to expect some clarity from Clinton, but they shouldn't fall for the Republican gambits published in the Post.
The focus of the Post's effort was Clinton's attempt to express sympathy for Governor Spitzer's license plan--a good idea that has been savaged by demagogues--without tying herself to him so closely that she goes down with him in flames as he fails. As would be expected, her waffle on this issue was less than impressive. Her husband pulled off such stunts with much better form.
In today's editorial, "License To Waffle?", the Post said it just wanted some straight talk: "Most of the other Democratic candidates didn't have a problem taking sides: Obama is for it, Chris Dodd is against it." What about Richardson, Kucinich, Edwards and Biden? The Post didn't ask, because that's not their real goal. What they care about most is painting Clinton as another Democratic flip flopper.
This is something Republicans have been doing since at least 1992. In the fine documentary The War Room, you can watch Mary Matalin do the same number on Bill Clinton. In 2000, Republicans tagged Al Gore as unreliable and prone to serial exaggeration. And we all know what happened to John Kerry.
One of the reasons Republicans succeed at this play is that for too long they have been a party on the offensive, offering ideas--divisive ones--that Democrats must respond to. Spitzer's licensing plan--a good idea that was badly presented--has offered New York Republicans a chance to make Democrats squirm again. But on this issue, which is of course related to immigration, the Republicans may be running out of opportunities.
Republican demagoguery on the driver's license issue will alienate immigrants in general and Hispanic voters in particular. In the long run that will only hurt the G.O.P. in states like New York, Texas, California and Arizona. It wasn't long ago that demonstrations of immigrants and their supporters on the Bush immigration policy heralded a new force in American politics. That force will appear again.
In the meantime, Clinton--and the rest of the Democrats--need to overcome the Republicans. flip flop play if they are to win the 2008 elections.