The Plank

"i Know You Are, But What Am I?"

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Sometimes, imitation is just the sincerest form of lameness, and Clinton adviser Mark Penn's effort to brand Barack Obama the "establishment" candidate is one of those occasions. As Mike reported, in a conference call this morning, Penn referred to Obama's "establishment campaign of big endorsements, money, and Super Bowl ads." But, of course, Obama's endorsements have appeared to be born more of love than of tribute (in contrast to Clinton's earlier-in-the-process hoard) and his money has come from smaller donors than Clinton's. The Super Bowl ad? Whatever you think of it (I wasn't terribly impressed), it was hardly an establishment move. (Any of you remember Bob Dole's big half-time promo? Me neither.)

Moreover, it's all just so fourth grade. Obama makes headway by framing himself (accurately) as a change agent? Clinton abruptly starts pitching herself as a change agent, too. Obama describes Clinton (again, accurately, at least in relative terms) as the status-quo candidate in last night's speech? This morning we have Penn's I'm-rubber-you're-glue routine. Next thing you know, Clinton will start attending rallies in a men's suit and skinny tie and talking about how much she loves "The Wire," too.

Silly, obvious fibs like this are one reason that so many in the media are skeptical of anything that comes out of the Clinton camp. It's an insult to the intelligence of the people being spun. (Massachusetts was an upset win for Clinton? Obama's the establishment candidate?)

But the worst part of it all is that the GOP has won the last two presidential elections largely by framing the Democratic nominee as book-smart but inauthentic, someone who really doesn't know who they are. Hillary's attempted reinventions over the last few weeks--from establishment juggernaut to counter-establishment rebel; from Strong Woman to Sensitive Soul; from "leader" to "change agent"--are just doing the GOP's general-election work for them.

Hillary Clinton is who she is, and she has plenty of substantive advantages in this race. But shamelessly trying to appropriate any message that seems to be working for Obama and constantly re-calibrating in light of every poll (last night, voters said they want "change" more than "leadership": which do you think we'll hear more of from Clinton in the coming week?) seem more likely than not to prove counterproductive. Such moves sour the media on her campaign and fill the GOP quiver with general election arrows. With Mitt Romney possibly getting out of the race (and probably relegated to non-factor regardless), there's an opening in the current political narrative for a transparent phony who will say anything to be elected. Clinton should be careful what she auditions for.

Update: I'm not the first to notice this habit

--Christopher Orr

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