I've been citing Josh Marshall a lot lately, I know, but he's really doing a good job covering the post-Ohio/Texas scuffles between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. This post, in particular, nicely describes how Hillary has been "bitch-slapping" Obama pretty much constantly, and it's keeping him on the defensive. I'm not sure how much that moves voters, but that's not the point. It shows the superdelegates (who are going to end up deciding this contest) that she's nasty and tough and that he's a wuss whose ass will be kicked up and down the street by the GOP.
When I teach campaign ethics, I always assign William Galston's 1989 essay "The Obligation to Play Political Hardball," which I highly recommend. Galston has a somewhat unconventional view of ethical behavior by political candidates. His argument, in short, is that candidates' first obligation is to their supporters -- those who have given their time and money to see this person get elected. Thus, candidates have a responsibility to play "hardball," treating rivals toughly, though not cruelly. Attacks should be met with immediate and proportional counterattacks. Playing "softball," or "rising above the fray," displays weakness and invites attacks by others.
Galston's case study in this essay is Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, during which the former Massachusetts governor refused to dignify Vice President Bush's attacks on his character and chose to stay focused on issues. The result, of course, was that Dukakis went from a double-digit lead in opinion polls in the summer of '88 to an eight-point loss in November. By staying above the fray, Dukakis was being selfish, says Galston. He stayed true to his own moral code but ignored his obligations to his supporters.
Obama's behavior right now is vintage softball. He doesn't want to win in the current political environment -- he wants to change the current political environment. That's certainly a noble sentiment. And who knows, maybe it's possible to do. Obama's done amazingly well so far without going negative.
Still, the fact that pretty much everyone who's tried this route before has lost doesn't really give one great confidence in his approach.