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Scot Lehigh

The Clinton gospel

THOU SHALT not criticize Hillary Clinton.

That may as well be the mantra of the Clinton camp.

Why, the way Clinton's campaign acts, you could be forgiven for thinking she was an absolute monarch, and not merely the Democratic front-runner.

Consider: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, currently Clinton's chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, began his campaign on lofty themes of change and hope. But his effort has plateaued, and so Obama recently told The New York Times that he intends to confront Clinton more directly and draw more pointed distinctions.

Clinton's camp reacted as though Obama had sent a cow pie sailing her way.

"Senator Obama once promised Americans a politics of hope," said spokesman Howard Wolfson. "But now that his campaign has stalled he is abandoning that strategy and is engaging in the same old-style personal attacks that he once rejected."

Then, as the candidates prepared for this week's debate at Drexel University, the Times did a short piece suggesting that Obama planned to take Clinton on in the forum and noting that John Edwards had just criticized her.

"It's unfortunate that Senators Obama and Edwards have decided to revive their campaigns by abandoning the politics of hope," reacted Phil Singer, another spokesman.

There followed a memo from Clinton strategist Mark Penn with this subject line: "What Are The Politics of Hope?"

That sublime pursuit, it turns out, means doing what Clinton purports to be doing: "Outlining how our candidate will reverse the policies of the Bush administration and give America a new beginning for the 21st Century."

Penn then turned his gimlet gaze on Clinton's Democratic rivals.

"Considering that both Senators Obama and Edwards made their names by pledging to be positive, the last thing one would have expected was for either of them to go out and announce with pride that they were now going to go negative on a fellow Democrat," he wrote. "It's unprecedented in my experience."

Not in mine. I can recall a similar incident back in the murky recesses of the last century. A sunny Southern candidate - William Jefferson Clinton, I think his name was - was running for president on his plans to help middle-class America. But when Clinton hit turbulence and a Massachusetts boy scout named Paul Tsongas suddenly had a shot at beating him, the personable fellow from a place called Hope abruptly changed his tone.

Tsongas, who liked Clinton, thought he and the Arkansan had an informal agreement not to go after each other. But as the campaign moved south, Clinton's camp launched a sharp attack. Why after one candidates' forum, Clinton himself appeared in the press room and deftly sliced and diced the policy plans of his absent rival.

That's politics. And as long as a candidate isn't engaged in distortion - something the Tsongas folks thought Clinton was guilty of - it's a valid part of the process, one that gives voters a window into the different records and positions of the candidates.

So far, that's really all Obama and Edwards have done: draw distinctions.

So why do Messrs. Wolfson, Singer, and Penn respond with such indignation? To hear Wolfson tell it, you would think Edwards and Obama had sworn upon pain of death never to let a critical word pass their lips.

"You have two candidates who promised a different kind of politics," he says. "They are being inconsistent. We are going to continue to point that out."

Which is why it's no surprise that in reaction to Tuesday's debate, Hillary Clinton's campaign issued a website statement laden with lamentations about the negative tone and regrettable attacks on the part of the others.

This tactic is as tinny as it is transparent. Clinton's spinmeisters are trying to make her rivals look disreputable for doing something that's absolutely in-bounds.

"It gets tiresome after a while," says Paul Pezzella, a Massachusetts political operative who is a veteran of four presidential campaigns - and a Clinton supporter. "Campaigns are all about drawing distinctions. That's completely legitimate."

What's more, that stratagem contradicts a central part of Clinton's own message: The notion that she is a battle-tested veteran ready for anything the Republicans can throw at her. If so, she should prove it by engaging with her rivals and defending her positions - not by having her campaign protest each and every time another Democrat says something critical about her.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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