Opinion polls are the vital political weather reports that all politicians rely on, especially during campaigns. Arguably, there has been no political couple in history more vigilantly attentive to their fluctuations than the Clinton's -- and never more so than during the stormy conditions of electoral contests. Senator Clinton's campaign has used polling data as more than a guide on how to adjust her message to the prevailing winds. It has utilized such surveys to point up potential weaknesses of the Obama brand that can be exploited, even if the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts are the Republicans.
On March 2 an ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 59% of Americans were worried "that someone might attempt to physically harm Barack Obama if he's the Democratic nominee for president." By March 6 Hillary Clinton was reminding her interviewer, Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel, of "the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A." This was a response to a question about whether her decision to stay in a race she couldn't win would hurt her party. It only seemed like a thoughtless non sequitur.
As we have recently learned, two months later, on May 23, while discussing the same issue with the editorial board of the Argus Leader, she called upon her audience to "remember [that] Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California." When two utterances of the same "gaffe" are nearly identical, like Senator Clinton's oft-repeated Bosnian sniper "misstatements," such mistakes are likely to be motivated, either by a conscious strategy or an unconscious wish. Of course, at this distance, we cannot know which. But what do we know?
We know that Senator Clinton's determined efforts to assassinate Barack Obama's character have not killed off his chances for the Democratic nomination. We know, as I observed in my last post, that her primary strategy has been to portray him as an effeminate, elitist, and fragile ectomorph who will be weak in the face of aggression, and who will be readily done in by America's more burly antagonists. She, on the other hand, we were often told, is the only one butch enough to stick it to the baddies of the world.
We know that on March 2 it was widely published that Americans saw Obama as vulnerable to assassination. We know that it took only four days for her to remind us that he could indeed be knocked off, just like that other premature peacenik, Bobby Kennedy. What can we conclude? Perhaps her infelicitous phrasing was driven, in part, by a conscious or unconscious death wish towards Obama. After all, in her remorseless "apology" she never apologized to him, only the Kennedys. The other, perhaps more likely determinant is Clinton's by now reflexive effort to paint her opponent as a vulnerable, sweet-talking pretty boy -- more likely to find himself in the sight of another's gun, than pulling the trigger of his own.
Stephen J. Ducat, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist from the San Francisco Bay Area, an advanced candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California, and has published widely on the psychology of politics. His most recent book is The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity.