PHILADELPHIA – Lost in the Clinton campaign’s aggressive attacks on Sen. Barack Obama in recent days is a deep and enduring problem that threatens to undercut any inroads Clinton has made in her struggle to overtake him: She has lost trust among voters, a majority of whom now view her as dishonest.
Her advisers’ efforts to deal with the problem – by having her acknowledge her mistakes and crack self-deprecating jokes – do not seem to have succeeded. Privately, the aides admit that the recent controversy over her claim to have ducked sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia probably made things worse.
Clinton is viewed as “honest and trustworthy” by just 39 percent of Americans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared with 52 percent who felt that way about her in May 2006. Nearly six in 10 in the new poll said that she is not honest and trustworthy. And now, compared with Obama, Clinton has a deep trust deficit among Democrats, trailing him by 23 points as the more honest, whereas she once led both him and former Sen. John Edwards on that question.
Among Democrats, 63 percent called her honest, down 18 points from 2006; among independents, her trust level has dropped 13 points, to 37 percent. Republicans held Clinton in low regard on this in the past (23 percent called her honest two years ago), but it is even lower now, at 16 percent. Majorities of men and women now say the phrase does not apply to Clinton; two years ago, narrow majorities of both did.
Clinton advisers argue that her positive ratings have dipped as she has been defined by her opponents – a normal turn of events in a campaign – and that her honesty problem reflects the pounding she took from Republicans during the 1990s. But the Bosnia incident and the way the campaign handled it have left her advisers divided over what a candidate can do after slipping so far on the trust scale.
Some of her aides believe that after Clinton told the Bosnia story – of having run from her military aircraft into a hangar to avoid sniper fire – when television images of the event showed otherwise, the campaign had no choice but to say she “misspoke.” Communications director Howard Wolfson first did so on a conference call with reporters, and Clinton herself repeated the explanation over the course of several days.
But other Clinton advisers believed that this response did not come quickly enough – and that when it did, without further explanation or talking points for surrogates to use, it only worsened the perception that she had lied. Making the situation more difficult was a split within the campaign over whether Clinton exaggerated or simply confused the landing with another trip. One Clinton insider announced in a strategy meeting that it was simply ridiculous to have imagined the first lady ever having been in danger, or for Clinton to have thought she was – a slap at Clinton that other advisers described as disrespectful.