Is 'Sniper-Gate' Hillary's Dukakis Moment?

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Originally published at The Political Machine.

The reporting on Hillary Clinton's inaccurate recollections of her trip to Bosnia as First Lady has been escalating steadily over the past week or so, as each day brings new revelations, or some new fact dug up out of the archives of the Clinton-era internet, ironically now not benefiting from the dot com boom. Just yesterday, Brandon Barker posted the video below, fromBarelyPolitical.com.

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Hillary Clinton's account of the trip included references to sniper fire, a canceled welcome ceremony, and running, heads-down, to their cars. As the week has progressed, her campaign's increasingly ham-handed attempts at damage control only succeeded in amplifying the issue, until finally, they were left with a horrible excuse about being tired, made worse when juxtaposed with the now-infamous 3 a.m. ad.

The worst thing about this is not the "misstatements," although that's what made it such a huge story. People will claim that, but I don't buy it. The most damaging part of this is that it makes Hillary seem like another weak, humiliated Democrat. The Dukakis comparison has been kicking around in my head for a few days, but it really came into relief when I saw the video. After the jump, will this story sink Hillary Clinton? Is the Dukakis analogy really appropriate? Why do Democrats think they have to be near guns to get elected?

I was only 19 or so during, so a lot of the details are a little fuzzy, but I will never forget the slap I gave my forehead when I saw Mike's head popping up out of that tank like a jack-in-the-box. That was the moment the Democrats completely surrendered to the Republicans on national security issues, and on the larger issue of toughness. It was at that moment that the collective Democratic cojones went POOF! and disappeared.What they should have done was to fight the un-American notion that the American President needs to be some kind of militaristic Marlboro man. They've been reeling ever since. Even Bill Clinton only managed to skirt this by campaigning on a "peace dividend."

Now, the Dukakis chickens have come home to roost again. It will be known in short order just how damaging this is to Senator Clinton. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken Monday and Tuesday, as this story was unfolding, indicates that it could be significant:

As expected, one of the two major Democratic candidates saw a downturn in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, but it's not the candidate that you think. Hillary Clinton is sporting the lowest personal ratings of the campaign. Moreover, her 37 percent positive rating is the lowest the NBC/WSJ poll has recorded since March 2001, two months after she was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York.

Recent polls show that Obama's support has stabilized, and even edged up slightly, since his speech on race in America. The full effect of the Bosnia story won't be measurable for a week or so, and will be magnified in November if Hillary is the nominee.

Of course, there are other analogies to the Dukakis bid. The issue of race was put front-and-center with the Bush campaign's use of black boogieman Willie Horton to scare voters away from Mike. I never thought that this had nearly the impact that the tank thing did. I remember thinking two things: If they could only find one guy from that furlough program who messed up, maybe it wasn't so bad. Secondly, I wondered why no newscasters ever clarified that the man in the ads was not Detroit Tigers slugger Willie Horton. If the Unabomber had been named Cal Ripken, I bet they would have mentioned it.

A key difference here is that the Horton and National Security attacks on Dukakis came from a Republican, not a fellow Democrat. One detail I did not remember, that is directly comparable to this campaign, is that Dukakis' camp sank Joe Biden's candidacy by releasing embarrassing evidence of plagiarism.

It remains to be seen if Hillary Clinton's campaign can effectively counter this, or if they will even try. The strategy of ignoring the issue is what blew it up in the first place, so they do so at their own peril.

Update: On today's Clinton campaign conference call, I asked Howard Wolfson about this. Here is an abridged version of the exchange:
TC: How does your campaign plan to counter the "Dukakis Effect" of the Bosnia/Sniper story going forward, particularly as you press Sens. Obama and McCain on national security issues?

Howard Wolfson: I think that's rather overstated. I do not expect it will have that kind of impact.

TC: Senator Clinton has said that she "believes" she has passed the Commander-in-Chief test, and she is "certain that John McCain has." When I asked this question earlier in the week, you essentially said that McCain is wrong about Iraq, but I want to ask you what is there, positively, about Senator McCain that shows he passed the test, and failing that, do you now think he did not pass the test?

Howard Wolfson: I think Senator Clinton was clearly speaking in the broader political context, that Senator McCain has the experience, but he is clearly wrong...

TC: This is Howard?

HW: Yes.

TC: So what you are saying is that he passed the test by being wrong?

HW: No, well, I appreciate the follow-up, and I would appreciate being able to finish my answer to you without being interrupted. Senator Clinton was speaking about Senator McCain in a broad political context. He served in uniform, as a POW, he has served in the Senate, he has the experience, Senator Obama does not, but we have been clear that Senator McCain is wrong on Iraq.

TC: Wouldn't a fairer and wiser contrast, then, be that Senators Clinton and Obama are right on Iraq, and McCain is wrong?

HW: I appreciate you having asked this question several times, but I think you are conflating two things that are not related. We have been clear, and I'm sure Senator Clinton has said it before, at the debates, that Senator Obama's and Senator Clinton's positions on Iraq are in clear contrast with McCain's.

So, there you have it. Am I missing something? How do you pass a test by being completely wrong? How does Senator Clinton defeat John McCain when he beats her at least 2 to 1 on her own test? As for the Dukakis Effect, time will tell, and not that much time.