In an act of political desperation leading into Tuesday's make-or-break Texas and Ohio primaries, Sen. Clinton has released a campaign ad that pundits and partisans will declare a reprise of LBJ's notorious "Daisy."
In that 1964 spot, a little girl innocently plucks daisy petals, counting aloud. That morphs eerily into the countdown for an ICBM launch ... and nuclear conflagration. The message: a vote for Barry Goldwater is a vote for World War III. It aired once, generating howls of indignation for its scare tactics and ultimately much more attention than it got during its 60 seconds ($24,000) on "Monday Night at the Movies."
Johnson won in a landslide.
Forty-four years later, the Clinton spot also plays to -- not to say "preys on" -- the electorate's fear of apocalyptic calamity. And it, too, personifies the stakes with small children, starting with an innocent little girl snuggled in bed. In the background, grave-sounding music and a ringing telephone.
"It's 3 a.m.," says the voice-over, "and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world."
We don't see the White House, though; we just go from bed to bed in the house, like Dick and Perry, as the kids peacefully snooze, oblivious to the looming danger.
Voice-over: "Your vote will decide who answers that call. Whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"
No countdowns, no mushroom cloud, but you get the idea. If President Clinton answers, the fighters are scrambled and allies convened. If President Obama answers, he gives an inspiring speech.
Ouch. Naturally, within minutes of the ad's unveiling, the Obama campaign responded with charges of fear-mongering -- or, in the front-runner's clever phrasing, "trying to scare up votes."
That she is, but playing to voter fear is not what's the matter with this commercial. We live, after all, in a world in which terrorists fly airplanes into buildings. We live in a world where radical Islam and Bush recklessness have conspired to spawn enemies everywhere. We live in a world where one nuclear nation, Pakistan, is vulnerable to Muslim revolution and one fascist theocracy, Iran, is deep into nuclear-fuel production. Not to mention Putin, a petrodollar-flush strongman with an arsenal and expansionist agenda.
It is legitimate to ask who we want answering that phone.
It is also, according to exit polls so far, one of Clinton's few remaining points of advantage. Her "tested and ready" positioning has been shown to give her an edge among voters who list security as their overriding concern. So now, on the brink of electoral doom, she is pulling a Rudy. Mayor Giuliani, too, pushed all his chips onto the "experience" square and let 'em ride.
Alas, Giuliani got to Florida and discovered, to his surprise, that his 9/11 leadership did not translate into votes. Perhaps Republicans wondered whether being a take-charge victim made him fitter than his opponents to protect us. And that is the problem with the Clinton ad. Unless Gennifer and Monica strap on a bomb vest, what exactly in her experience as a senator and first lady equips especially her to deal with crisis? Nothing springs to mind, does it? Which is why she is at risk asking voters whom they prefer to pick up that red phone.
Surely the senator learned this at the Rose Law Firm: Never raise a question if you don't already know the answer.