Senator Clinton's Martin Luther King Day speech was perhaps the first gaffe in the 2008 presidential race. While it would be silly to characterize this mistake as a huge issue that is going to derail her candidacy, it does provide an opportunity to take a look at Hillary's candidacy and her chances for the Democratic nomination and the Presidency.
For those unaware of Hillary's "plantation" remark, this is what she said at Al Sharpton's event to a predominantly black audience in Harlem:
When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation and you know what I'm talking about…..
There are several offensive angles to her accusation, and the words don't do justice to the malevolent tone with which she attacked her political enemies. First, it marginalizes the evil and suffering of slavery by comparing it to the Democrats' minority status in the House of Representatives, and second, it is the type of crude racial politics that is unbecoming and increasingly less effective for Democrats. Politically, where it hurts Hillary the most, is it immediately reminds people of the liberal, attacking image she had at the beginning of her husband's Presidency. The humiliation of the Lewinsky scandal tempered this impression in her 2000 Senate race, but it is not the image Hillary wants on display as she sets out to run a national campaign.
Since winning her Senate seat, Clinton has done exactly the sort of things she should be doing to lay the groundwork for a 2008 run. Getting a seat on the Armed Services Committee was the right move, as has been her hawkish position (at least for a Democrat) on Iraq. The Clintons fully realize Democrats have a profound weakness on national security issues — something that will only be complicated by the fact she will be the first woman running on a major ticket for the job of Commander in Chief. And recognizing she already has 100 percent national name ID, she has attended to local New York state issues and worked hard to take her duties as a Senator seriously — smart moves. While the overtures to moderate her position on abortion and the photo ops with Newt Gingrich are blatant moves to the center, and recognized as such by the political punditocracy, the public only gets glimpses of these stories, and I think in general she has had success in moving to the center over the last four years.
Which is why Monday's gaffe could be particularly damaging. It showed the nasty, very partisan side of Senator Clinton, and it raises the question of whether Hillary will ever be able to outrun the first impression she formed with the American public in the early '90's. The issue isn't that huge numbers of the public are paying close attention to this particular story, but rather what sort of judgments the political elite in the Democratic Party may draw from the Hillary "plantation" dust-up.
For all of Bill Clinton's personal faults, he was undoubtedly one of the best natural politicians the country has ever seen. Hillary, to put it kindly, is not. She is unable to get a partisan crowd revved up without stooping to nasty attacks that invariably get her in trouble and reinforce the sort of liberal stereotype that could be fatal in a general election.