The politics of desperation is never pretty, but it's always instructive. With only 20 days to go before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, we're getting a preview of what to expect over the next three weeks.
Sinking poll numbers on the eve of destruction always gets a pol's undivided attention, and Hillary Clinton has the numbers. She's sagging in Iowa and dead even with Barack Obama in New Hampshire. Only a fortnight ago she looked invincible with a 20-point lead. Now she just looks inept.
Mzz Clinton, who had earlier raised questions about Barack Obama's policy positions as set out in a "white paper" he wrote when he was in the third grade, yesterday fired her national campaign co-chairman for getting caught going her one better. Bill Shaheen suggested that Republicans are lying in wait to ask whether Mr. Obama was not only a little dopehead but a child drug dealer, too. Does Mr. Shaheen believe that himself? Well, one never knows, do one? But one is pretty sure that this question was not raised to get an answer, but to sow mischief.
So Mr. Shaheen had to drink the hemlock. He "deeply regrets" saying naughty things, and the remarks were "in no way authorized by Senator Clinton or the Clinton campaign." (Who could think that?) Said Mr. Shaheen: "Senator Clinton has been running a positive campaign." (Of course. We're talking Clintons here.) Nevertheless, the accusation is out there and it's worth the trouble. Hillary has to keep her reputation for abhorring all lies, for thoughtful kindness and for always telling the truth even if it hurts. Bill Shaheens are available at the five-and-dime.
Hillary's inevitability began evaporating when it began to dawn even on the Clinton idolaters that Hillary, whatever else she is, ain't Bill. Her campaign strategy, devised by Mark Penn, her chief pollster, was to run her as an incumbent "buy the new one and get the stale one free." The idea was to pursue "moderation" lest she drive higher her "negatives," unrivaled in American politics. The "Bill wing" of the campaign team, remembering the happy days of the campaign war room in Little Rock, wants her to get tough, to adopt a much more aggressive strategy. (Such as, perhaps, sending a national co-chairman out to suggest that Barack Obama was a boy crackhead and grade-school drug dealer.)
The Republicans, on the other hand, are pursuing the art of the artful apology. Some of it is pretty artless. After Rudy Giuliani accused Mitt Romney of not bothering to check whether grass-cutters at his "mansion" had green cards, Mr. Romney, eager to show how tough he is, fired his Mexican gardener. Mike Huckabee has a gift for the artless apology, too. When one of his wisecracks comes back to haunt him, he parses what he said with the enthusiasm if not necessarily the imagination of Bill Clinton.
Mr. Huckabee has had a rough week. When someone found a prescription for "isolating" AIDS carriers in a speech he made nearly two decades ago, he argued that he said "isolate" and not "quarantine." Everyone recognized this as attempting to draw a distinction without a difference. He should have said, "Yes, that was a dumb thing to say at a time when everyone was terrified of AIDS and nobody knew very much about what to do about it. We were told that 'everybody is at risk' and that 'AIDS is a death warrant.' Now everyone knows better, and I do, too."
He's learning, with considerable pain, how to keep a story alive. This week, the one-time parson threw new fuel on Mitt Romney's simmering Mormon problem. When an interviewer asked whether he believes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (which is the name Mormons prefer) is a cult, the Huckster sensibly replied that he didn't know, that he had enough work trying to be a faithful Baptist. But Huck couldn't resist a wisecrack about a point of Mormon theology, and asked the interviewer from the New York Times: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" Another artless apology naturally followed.
Nobody did keister-covering better than Ronald Reagan. "When I make a mistake," he said as the Iran-Contra episode unfolded, "it's a beaut." Nobody could stay mad at the Gipper.