How the Gas-Tax Pander Brought Clinton Low

Clinton
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There was a certain you-had-to-be-there quality to the homestretch of the Indiana Democratic primary. Through most of last week, national newspapers and cable pundits stayed fixated on the Jeremiah Wright imbroglio. But over the past week, the headlines in Indiana turned to the split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the idea of a gas-tax “holiday.” So did the political ads flooding Hoosier airwaves. And the result was last night’s nasty surprise for Clinton.

It’s easy to see why Clinton was tempted to hop aboard the Pander Express, once John McCain floated the idea of suspending the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon for the summer. Giving some badly needed relief to truckers, farmers, and vacationers fit right in with the hash-slinger-in-a–Wal Mart–pantsuit image Hillary honed in Ohio, perfected in Pennsylvania, and was deploying all over Indiana. And when Obama derided the idea by saying it would only save consumers “pennies,” he seemed to be handing the Clintons one more opportunity to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist.

But as things turned out, when Hillary called for suspending the gas tax, she threw Obama the kind of rope he desperately had been seeking to pull himself out of the Wright train wreck. Wright screwed Obama as hard as any noncandidate has ever screwed an American presidential contender. And even after counterattacking and distancing himself from his former pastor, Obama was noticeably off his game. But the gas tax became a rare instance where Clinton and Obama directly and diametrically opposed each other on a policy issue, automatically generating headlines and coverage that helped push Wright out of the local news in Indiana.

Further, the gas tax turned the national media against Hillary over the weekend, because the Clinton campaign hadn’t bothered to line up (or just couldn’t find) a single expert to support suspending the tax. That left Clinton herself and surrogates like Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) insulting economists on national television, which looked ridiculous. It also left the media free to report the story without trying to be evenhanded and essentially to tell viewers that suspending the tax is a stupid idea.

Most importantly, the new debate let Obama rediscover his voice. He not only opposed the “holiday” on principle. In a way he hasn’t done on issues such as wearing a lapel flag pin, he also stated his objections loudly, pithily, and in keeping with the themes of his campaign. Liberal bloggers kept writing that Obama needed to argue that suspending the tax wouldn’t save drivers any money. Instead, he hammered away at it as a “gimmick” and a symptom of the Washington politics he says he wants to change.

Opposing Clinton on a matter of substance got Obama off the defensive in the final days of the campaign and let him draw a new and sharp contrast without seeming negative. Opposing Clinton on this particular matter of substance finally gave Obama a chance to connect his “broken politics” theme to the concrete issue of energy independence, where he is on much firmer ground against the Clintons than on other economic issues, while simultaneously questioning Hillary’s honesty.

And he took full advantage. Six days ago, Obama introduced the single most brilliant ad of the Indiana campaign, called “Truth.” And, palpably relieved at the partial change of subject, he incorporated a detailed denunciation of the gas-tax suspension into his stump speech, in which he hit full stride again on Monday night.

And in response, Hillary doubled down, cranking out ads that said, “Barack Obama wants you to keep paying that tax.” Her campaign must have thought the issue was a winner. But it’s also true that her campaign just hasn’t been able to overcome its instinct for overkill. And voters noticed.

On election night, the economy was the number-one issue for many of Indiana's voters, as it had been in most recent states. But whereas Hillary had carried those voters 55 percent to 43 percent in Ohio and 59 percent to 41 percent in Pennsylvania, she won them by just 51 percent to 49 percent in Indiana, according to CNN exit polling. Among voters who said the recession had affected them “a great deal” or “somewhat,” she won by the same small margin. Late-breaking voters had gone overwhelmingly to Clinton in recent states, but Indiana voters who decided in the past week favored Hillary by just 55 percent to 45 percent. Fewer than half of voters said Wright was an important issue. And 44 percent — of Democratic primary voters in a state Clinton won! — said Hillary is not “honest and trustworthy.”

None of these numbers were enough for Obama to actually win Indiana. But he didn’t have to win. He only needed to net enough popular votes and delegates to close off Hillary’s remaining avenues to the nomination. A week ago, he was bleeding, and probably couldn’t have closed that deal. But the gas tax turned the primary into a referendum on Clinton’s character for just enough voters that Obama was able to exceed expectations for the first time since February.

Tragedy or poetic justice, Clinton went one pander too far in Indiana. —Peter Keating

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For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.