Candidates as Victims?

Clinton and other White House hopefuls have turned "attacks" into opportunities.


July 30, 2007 — -- When Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., took to the Senate floor July 18 to discuss the costs of higher education, it was unlikely she thought her appearance would result in her becoming a victim of a ferocious attack.

But Clinton's decolletage drew the attention of Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan, who penned a Style-section piece about Clinton's "cleavage."

"To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation," Givhan wrote.

In a fundraising letter, Clinton campaign strategist Ann Lewis asked potential donors to fight back, saying that "focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting."

Lewis' letter also took issue with a joke former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina made when he was asked during last week's CNN/YouTube debate to cite something he didn't like about Clinton.

Edwards had kidded, "I'm not sure about that coat."

"Clothes? … Cleavage?" Lewis' fundraising letter asked. "What's really important in this race?"

In a different fundraising solicitation that used a form of the word "attack" six times, Clinton's campaign manager claimed the candidate was being attacked by presidential rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., though in that dispute, about whether a U.S. president should readily meet with leaders of hostile nations, Clinton was the first one to personally go negative, calling Obama's views "irresponsible and frankly naive."

Claiming political victimhood seems all the rage.

In Creston, Iowa, last week, Edwards said the media focuses on trivial matters like his expensive haircuts because he speaks truth to power.

"Nobody in this room should think this is an accident," he told a crowd of supporters. "You know, I'm out there speaking up for universal health care, ending this war in Iraq, speaking up for the poor. They want to shut me up."

Edwards' campaign in previous weeks has raised money with claims that he's been unfairly attacked by conservative pundit Ann Coulter, The New York Times and the media in general.

According to Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, playing the part of the victim can be the key to getting crucial campaign funds.

"Nothing gets your base, especially your donors, more fired up than feeling as if you've been attacked and they want to defend you," she said.

Walter also noted that for candidates who are long-established D.C. politicians, claiming to be the victim of an unfair attack also allows a politician to profile as an "outsider" taking on the Washington establishment.

Republicans aren't immune to the culture of victimhood. Claiming to be the victim of an elite liberal media is a longtime Republican rallying cry.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., regularly gripes that reporters are more interested in writing his political obituary than focusing on the issues. Last week on "Hannity & Colmes," actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson said the media have been negative toward him because they don't like that he hasn't yet declared his candidacy.

"They're a little bit upset I'm not playing by their rules," he said.

It seems that all the candidates want to avoid the fate of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who in 2004 let attacks go unanswered, but critics wonder how strong candidates may end up seeming if they're always claiming someone is picking on them.

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