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Andrew Gumbel Headshot

George W. Obama?

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Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, as we now know, began falling apart the moment her husband compared Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson back in South Carolina. Its final death rattle may well end up being her latest gambit - comparing him to George W. Bush.

Twice in the last three days, she's tarred Obama with the Bush brush, suggesting her rival is just as untested and, potentially, just as dangerous as the man now occupying the Oval Office.

First, on Saturday, she told an audience at the Cincinnati State Technical and Community College that voters in 2000 fell for Bush's promises of change -- "and the American people got shafted". For good measure, she said the Obama campaign's latest mailers, on health care and NAFTA, were "right out of the Karl Rove playbook".

Then, in her foreign policy address at George Washington University today, she couched the same argument in the context of Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, the AIDS crisis and the Darfur genocide. "We've seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security," she said. "We can't let that happen again."

Why is this a campaign strategy doomed to failure? Because she underestimates Obama - and her own propensity to enrage the electorate - at her peril. And because, when it comes to experience and wisdom in foreign policy matters, she is hardly on the side of the angels herself.

Back in January, when Bill Clinton tried to insinuate that Obama, like Jesse Jackson before him, was just another black guy making vigorous but ultimately futile inroads into the power of the Democratic Party establishment, it instantly lost Hillary the black vote, not just in South Carolina but across the country.

Now, she is essentially insulting the intelligence of millions of Democratic voters who have already cast their ballots for Obama, and insulting millions more who, up to now, have thought of her as the better candidate but want no part of demonizing her rival, in whom they see much to be attracted to also.

Clearly, Hillary is in mega-negative mode because she can think of no other way to keep fighting as her presidential aspirations evaporate before her eyes. But it's also worth unpacking some of statements, because they are more broadly revealing of who she really is.

1. Obama is untested, just like Bush was. Actually, Bush wasn't all that untested. We knew he was calling himself a compassionate conservative who had no interest in "nation-building". But we also knew that, as governor of Texas, he had pandered to corporate interests and the Christian right like there was no tomorrow. He had signed the execution warrants of Gary Graham and Karla Faye Tucker, and almost 150 others, in a mockery of his claim to be either compassionate or "pro-life". He might have acted dumb on the Middle East in his debates with Al Gore, but he was already starting to associate with the neo-cons of the Project for the New American Century - Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Perle - and had told some people on the campaign trail that he intended to "finish the job" his father had started with Iraq.

Where is Obama's similar record of saying one thing and doing another? If it exists, she hasn't exposed it yet.

2. Bush promised change too. The only change I recall Bush promising was to "restore honor and dignity to the White House", which was a coded way of saying he wouldn't drop his pants in or near the Oval Office to pizza-delivering female interns. As far as we know, this is one promise Dubya has managed to keep.

3. Experience and wisdom. What exactly is Hillary talking about here? She was wrong on Iraq. Just in the past week, she was spectacularly wrong on Kosovo. She blew health-care reform in 1993-94. I'm not saying she is without achievements, but a little perspective, and humility, might be in order here.

4. Shame on you, Barack Obama! Shame on him for saying what exactly? That Hillary has talked about garnishing wages to make her health-care mandates work -- absolutely true. And that Hillary was a fan of NAFTA -- at least until she tried to make out that she wasn't for electoral purposes. NAFTA' s an interesting one, because Hillary is really trying to rewrite history -- by pretending that the original 1994 trade deal somehow had more to do with President George H. W. Bush than with her husband, and that he and she both had reservations about it from the get-go. The truth is the Clintons were huge free-trade advocates -- against stiff opposition from their own party -- until Bill was humiliated at the 1999 WTO talks in Seattle, when 50,000 street protesters besieged his hotel (and everyone else's), closed down the official proceedings and forced the president into acknowledging that some aspects of corporate globalization might be problematic after all. If Obama is going after her on this issue, the only possible shame attached is hers.

The greatest damage Hillary is doing to herself is coming across as just another self-interested candidate willing to do and say anything to stay in the race. Her likeability has always been a weak spot. The more she lays into Obama, the more she risks coming out of this campaign not just defeated, but actively loathed.