Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s quick backtracking from an off-the-cuff “baby bonds” proposal demonstrates her campaign’s ability to jump on damage control.

It’s been less than two weeks since the New York Democrat casually said, “I like the idea of giving every baby born in America a $5,000 account that will grow over time.”

The campaign swiftly amended the remarks to say it wasn’t a policy position, but just an “idea,” even though members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) whom she was addressing seemed to like what they heard.

As The Washington Times reported Tuesday, Republicans immediately ridiculed the idea, and some operatives said it was Mrs. Clinton’s first mistake of the 2008 campaign. Polls proved it was unpopular, so it was locked away and never mentioned again, baffling some of her Democratic rivals but illustrating a broader theme of the Clinton campaign — discipline and dominance.

“I’m intrigued by the way it came out, almost everything that we have heard from Senator Clinton has been scripted or carefully thought out ahead of time,” said pollster Scott Rasmussen, whose firm did a poll showing voters opposed baby bonds 2-to-1.

Brushing aside questions on the topic, her campaign this week pointed reporters instead to a Wall Street Journal blog post titled “Clinton Has a New Bus, but No ‘Baby Bonds,’ ” and touted her proposal to create a “401(k) plan for all Americans.”

A spokesman yesterday, in a one-word e-mail, confirmed the idea is “off” the table for future policy. Asked to elaborate, he responded: “It was never a firm policy proposal.”

Voters probably don’t care that Mrs. Clinton holds fewer press conferences and media availabilities than the other candidates, but on her latest swing through Iowa, the front-runner took few questions from her caucus-going audience.

At one stop Sunday, Mrs. Clinton had a terse back-and-forth with Democrat Randall Rolph, who questioned her recent vote on an Iran resolution because he was worried it was a precursor to war with Iran.

Mrs. Clinton first suggested his question was something “that somebody obviously sent to you.” According to published reports, after Mr. Rolph took offense, she apologized, noting she had been asked the same question in three other places.

Since then, she did not take “any questions from average voters at her four other events Monday. Nor has she, with a few exceptions, since Labor Day,” the New York Times reported this week.

Any casual observer would notice that she holds fewer press availabilities than her rivals, and less still since she solidified her position in national polls as the front-runner. Mrs. Clinton announces major news via her own campaign creation —, a Drudge Report imitation that helps manage her message. She takes her policy directly to voters in Web “chats” and detailed e-mails.

The Clinton campaign even managed the unusual feat of scoring her major interviews on all five principal Sunday political talk shows on the same weekend, a coup made possible in part by the rarity of her television appearances putting each one at a premium for each network.

William Husson, an assistant professor of mass communications at the University at Albany in New York, compared the Clinton strategy to President Bush and former President Ronald Reagan.

“George W. Bush had his press access very tightly controlled,” he said. “Because she is so far ahead in the polls, she has the most to lose, and therefore, controlling the flow of information out of her campaign is a smart strategy. It isn’t the best thing from a public communication perspective, not being very accessible to the public, but from a purely strategic perspective, it makes sense.”

Rival campaigns this year have privately noted Mrs. Clinton’s similarities to Mr. Bush, and point out to reporters that the campaign sometimes packs an event with staffers and volunteers to give the impression she has overwhelming support.

As for baby bonds, Mrs. Clinton was smart to scrap the idea once Republicans tagged her a big spender, Mr. Husson said.

“Hillary is clearly good about political public relations,” Mr. Husson said. “Rather than get wrapped up in a story that would have legs, they simply backed off of it.”

A spokesman for former Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, who trails Mrs. Clinton in the polls, joked that she was pressured “to throw out the baby bond with the bath water.”

Mrs. Clinton floated the baby bonds idea in the context of helping young people save for college or buy their first home.

Her rivals noted 4 million babies are born each year in the United States, and the Rasmussen poll showed 60 percent of the likely voters they surveyed oppose the idea.

Republicans mocked her remark, and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani joked during Tuesday’s CNBC debate: “She’s going to give $5,000 to every child born in America, with her picture on it.”

“I challenged her on it … she has backed off that,” he added, noting its $20 billion cost.

Mrs. Clinton told reporters after making the comment Sept. 28 it was “just an idea I threw out to see what kind of reaction I’d get,” and said if it was specific, she would propose a way to pay for it.

The Manchester Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire, home to the first presidential primary, editorialized that the plan smacks of “financial irresponsibility” and a “blatant pander.”

Philip Klein, a writer at the conservative American Spectator magazine, characterized it as a “sloppy” episode that “smacks of political amateurism” for the normally “cautious and programmed” candidate.

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