To derail Clinton, her foes take swift action
Old enemies of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton are out in force. Just weeks after she joined the Democratic Party’s flock of presidential contenders, Clinton is being targeted by conservative and Republican-allied activists intent on derailing her campaign before the start of next year’s primaries.
They have surfaced with a flurry of planned projects: a Michael Moore-style documentary film, book-length exposes, and websites such as StopHerNow.comand StopHillaryPAC.com.
Conservative admirers of the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth media blitz that helped torpedo Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential candidacy in 2004 are now agitating to “Swift-boat” Clinton.
“People are doing what they’re doing because they want to defeat her before she has a chance to win. You can’t hold off your silver bullet to the end,” said veteran Republican operative David N. Bossie, who is involved in the film project with Dick Morris, a former advisor to Bill Clinton.
The emerging moves against the New York senator reflect the accelerated pace of the 2008 race and conservatives’ growing conviction that she poses a formidable threat that requires fast and early footwork.
Clinton has been publicly bracing for “Republican machine” attacks from the moment she launched her exploratory committee last month.
Whether she can strike back quickly may prove crucial to winning over Democratic primary voters looking for assurance that she can survive a bruising general election and Swift-boat-style attacks.
“For Democrats, there’s a strong sense this time around that they can’t allow those same tactics to define Democratic candidates,” said Democratic media consultant Jim Margolis.
At a recent Democratic National Committee gathering in Washington, Clinton told party officials, “I know how they think, how they act and how to defeat them” -- a battle call echoing her 1998 evocation of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” during the furor over her husband’s affair with intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
Every presidential candidate is scrutinized by opponents. But conservative antipathy toward Clinton is especially deep and long-standing -- inflamed in part by her husband’s two terms in the White House, her steady rise from first lady to senator, and the widespread belief on the right that the Clintons evaded justice during the nonstop investigations of the 1990s.
Clinton’s foes on the right openly tell their supporters she is a ripe target for a campaign reminiscent of the challenge to Kerry’s Vietnam War record.
“Those Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were the real heroes of the 2004 election,” one online exhortation reads. “We at the StopHillaryPAC want to do the same thing to Hillary.”
That group’s website, headed by former Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.), collected enough early funding to launch a round of negative television ads on Iowa stations timed to Clinton’s visit there in late January.
StopHerNow.com mocks her with cartoon skits. And several books marketed as exposes are in the works, in addition to at least six other anti-Clinton books already hawked on conservative talk radio and blogs.
Bossie’s film, scheduled for release by year’s end, is being funded through appeals from Citizens United, a conservative interest group.
Bossie, a blunt-spoken opposition researcher who has mined Clinton controversies since Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, said that the film would mimic the hard-edged partisan style of left-wing filmmaker Moore and that camera-carrying “trackers” would tail Clinton during campaign events.
Bossie is delving into Clinton’s roles in the Whitewater real estate deals, her $100,000 profit from cattle futures and the firing of White House travel officials -- well-trod controversies that Clinton aides dismiss as old news. He and GOP allies are convinced new nuggets will turn up -- and they also see new opportunities in contrasting Clinton’s avowed centrism with what they call her “polarizing liberalism.”
“Conservatives believe she’s more dangerous today as a potential president than when she tried to take over the healthcare plan and root it in socialism,” said public relations man Greg Mueller, who handled media appearances for anti-Kerry veterans in 2004.
Bossie and his Citizens United partners have long vexed the Clintons and Democratic presidential contenders. Morris -- the architect of Bill Clinton’s mid-1990s political revival until he was fired in August 1996 after revelations he consorted with a prostitute -- declined interview requests from The Times, though he has discussed the movie on Fox News. Bossie said his partner’s past “is an acceptable risk we’ll take because of Dick’s personal knowledge of Hillary Clinton.”
Citizens United’s chairman is Floyd G. Brown, a GOP media consultant who worked on the 1988 “Willie Horton” ad that blamed Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis for the weekend furlough of a convicted murderer who went on to commit a rape. Democrats charged that the ad exploited racial fears.
Bossie worked with Brown in the 1992 presidential campaign and later served as chief investigator for a House investigation of Clinton administration fundraising scandals. Bossie was fired from that post in 1998 for releasing transcripts of prison conversations involving Hillary Clinton’s convicted former law partner, Webster L. Hubbell.
Several people behind the upswing in anti-Clinton activity say there is no coordination among the groups.
“We’re doing our own thing,” said Dick Collins, a Dallas businessman who gave $135,000 in StopHerNow.comseed money. The site is a spinoff from a PAC originally aimed at Clinton’s Senate reelection by New York GOP strategist Arthur Finkelstein.
Collins, who has also donated $10,000 to GOP presidential hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani’s political action committee, said the site was starting out with “light humor,” featuring Clinton as a cartoon character: the host of an imaginary left-wing talk show.
But he added that the site -- now organized, like the Swift-boat group, as a “527" organization that can raise unlimited “soft money” donations -- would “try other things.”
Collins hopes for financing from heavyweight Texas GOP donors like oilman T. Boone Pickens and Houston real estate developer Robert Perry. Multimillion-dollar donations from the two businessmen underwrote the Swift-boat group’s campaign against Kerry.
“The Swifties played hardball,” Collins said, “but the Clintons play the game a lot tougher than anybody else.”
Hillary Clinton’s longtime spokesman, Howard Wolfson, dismissed the early GOP moves with characteristic terseness: “One thing people know about the Clintons is they know how to fight back.”
When a thinly sourced report from a conservative Web magazine falsely claimed last month that Clinton researchers had uncovered evidence showing that presidential rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had been educated at an Islamist madrasa in Indonesia, Clinton’s team moved swiftly to dismiss the story.
Clinton’s allies criticize Kerry’s response to the 2004 Swift-boat ads as inconsistent and slow. And though Kerry used surrogates to repeatedly counter the attacks, he didn’t personally respond until the ads had sown deep doubts among voters.
“She’s going to face the same choices,” warned one former Kerry aide. “It’s not just how fast you respond, it’s choosing the right time to unload your big guns.”
Advertising her toughness poses a delicate problem for Clinton as she tries to temper her reputation for ambition and political calculation.
“She wants to make clear she won’t be a punching bag,” said a prominent Democrat who requested anonymity because of past relations with several contenders. “But you don’t want to reinforce the very thing you’re trying to soften.”
Clinton campaign insiders say Web-savvy staffers are immersed in monitoring suspected enemy blogs and websites and conservative cable TV and radio talk shows.
Clinton also reportedly spent lavishly to hire a large team of opposition researchers headed by Judd Legum, previously research director for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank headed by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta.
Clinton allies say she helped launch Podesta’s group in 2003 and played a key role in starting Media Matters for America, which describes itself as “monitoring, analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”
Run by David Brock, a former conservative muckraker who once targeted the Clintons and now defends them, Media Matters was a latecomer to the Swift-boat volleys of 2004 but now has a full staff of researchers.
Brock said the emerging conservative efforts targeting Clinton operate as an “organized defamation industry” using “the same tactics in mutually reinforcing ways, often with the same funding, with a vast media echo chamber at their disposal.”
L. Brent Bozell III, who heads the conservative Media Research Center, said Brock’s group does the same, only as “part of the Clinton machine.”
Bozell has more than a passing interest in Clinton’s campaign. He is working on his own Clinton book, aiming to expose “media complicity in Hillary’s attempted makeover as a centrist.”
Clinton intimates said she would also eventually rely on veterans of her husband’s administration such as James Carville and Paul Begala to run interference on television, and on the street-fighter instincts of longtime political aide Harold M. Ickes for behind-the-scenes advice.
“We tend to think the blogs will drive a lot of the news,” Ickes said recently.
“Even if you think it’s completely false or outlandish, you ignore it at your peril.”