Media run with anonymous claim that Clinton win "will require exercising the 'Tonya Harding' option"

››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS & JEREMY HOLDEN

After ABC's Jake Tapper quoted "an anonymous Democratic Party official" saying that Hillary Clinton's "securing the nomination is certainly possible -- but it will require exercising the 'Tonya Harding option,' " numerous media figures have repeated the "Tonya Harding option" analogy in reference to the Clinton campaign -- some going so far as to assert that it is a specific strategy adopted by the campaign.

Following a March 25 report by ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper on his ABCNews.com blog, Political Punch, that an anonymous Democratic Party official claimed, regarding Sen. Hillary Clinton, "Her securing the nomination is certainly possible -- but it will require exercising the 'Tonya Harding option,' " numerous media figures have repeated the reference -- some going so far as to assert that the purported "Tonya Harding option" is a specific strategy adopted by the Clinton campaign.

Indeed, Tapper's headline -- "Democratic Party Official: Clinton Pursuing 'The Tonya Harding Option' " -- asserts that, according to an anonymous source, Clinton is in fact "Pursuing 'The Tonya Harding Option.' " But that's not what Tapper wrote in the post itself. Rather, he quoted the anonymous source saying that to secure the nomination, Clinton would have to "exercis[e] the Tonya Harding option," not that Clinton was actually "pursuing" such a strategy. Tapper referenced his blog post in an appearance on the March 25 edition of ABC's World News.

On the March 27 edition of MSNBC's Countdown, host Keith Olbermann questioned if the Clinton campaign was "second thinking" the "reported 'Tonya Harding' strategy" and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd cited Tapper to claim "as one Democrat described it ... Hillary is going for 'the Tonya Harding option' -- if she can't get the gold, kneecap her rival." Additionally, during the March 26 edition of Fox News' America's Election HQ, co-host Megyn Kelly said of the purported "Tonya Harding" strategy: "According to one Democratic Party official, Clinton is reportedly using that same strategy -- destroy her leading competitor." Fox News contributor Dick Morris said in response, "Well, of course they're going to try that. They're going to try anything they can. That's their M.O." By contrast, later in the show Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin said of Clinton: "I don't think she seized this Tonya Harding strategy, which is being pitched so hard by the punditry and the blogosphere."

At one point during the March 26 America's Election HQ segment, Fox News displayed a graphic of Harding and Clinton side-by-side beneath a caption reading "ON THIN ICE":

MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan, during the March 25 edition of MSNBC's Race for the White House with David Gregory, said: "Desperate times call for desperate measures. Just like Barack Obama changed the subject away from Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright by suddenly introducing Bill Richardson and then flying off to the Virgin Islands, she went to the Pittsburgh Post Tribune [sic: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] and she reintroduced Reverend Wright as the subject, brought him back up, talked about hate speech, 'he wouldn't have been my pastor.' It's back on the board; it's political hardball. But it is legitimate even if some Democrats are grumbling about the Tonya Harding option."

On the March 26 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, guest host Laura Ingraham discussed Tapper's report with Time magazine senior political analyst Mark Halperin. Ingraham said: "But I heard, and I know you've read, the Tonya Harding option and the Tonya Harding strategy line that was reported on, I believe, yesterday. To have that kind of description out there about Hillary Clinton, that can't be helpful."

References to Tonya Harding in the context of Clinton are not new. During the March 11 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, GOP strategist Pete Snyder asserted, "an Obama/Clinton ticket is like having a Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding couples pair skating out there. I mean the body language between the two are so stilted." Additionally, during a discussion of the primaries on the January 27 edition of Fox News' Hannity's America, conservative radio host Bill Cunningham asserted, "The most dangerous place to be in politics, as I'm sure [Fox news contributor] Kirsten [Powers] knows, is between a desired goal and the Clintonistas, because you will get run over. You will get [Harding ex-husband Jeff] Gillooly and the Tonya Harding."

The media have also invoked Harding while discussing other political figures. During the January 27 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said that Obama "doesn't have to be Tonya Harding to fight back." Additionally, during the 2000 presidential recount, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) compared then-Vice President Al Gore to Tonya Harding. During the December 3, 2000, edition of CNN's Late Edition, McConnell -- discussing the Florida recount -- said, "Al Gore, at this rate, is going to become -- will be remembered as the Tonya Harding of American presidential history, unwilling to accept the results after we've had a count, a recount, and a selected hand recount in overwhelmingly Democratic areas." Later that day, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer repeated the analogy saying, "You know, Senator Mitch McConnell was also on our program earlier today. He echoed the same theme. He went a little bit further, though, saying that what Al Gore is doing by contesting the certified election in Florida, he was in effect, in his words, becoming the political Tonya Harding. I guess that means that he was anxious to win at any price, no matter the damage it cost to the country?" McConnell repeated the analogy on the December 6, 2000, edition of CNN's Larry King Live.

From Tapper's March 25 Political Punch post headlined "Democratic Party Official: Clinton Pursuing 'The Tonya Harding Option' ":

l just spoke with a Democratic Party official, who asked for anonymity so as to speak candidly, who said we in the media are all missing the point of this Democratic fight.

The delegate math is difficult for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, the official said. But it's not a question of CAN she achieve it. Of course she can, the official said.

The question is -- what will Clinton have to do in order to achieve it?

What will she have to do to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, in order to eke out her improbable victory?

She will have to "break his back," the official said. She will have to destroy Obama, make Obama completely unacceptable.

"Her securing the nomination is certainly possible - but it will require exercising the 'Tonya Harding option.'" the official said. "Is that really what we Democrats want?"

The Tonya Harding Option -- the first time I've heard it put that way.

It implies that Clinton is so set on ensuring that Obama doesn't get the nomination, not only is she willing to take extra-ruthless steps, but in the end neither she nor Obama win the gold.

(In this metaphor, presumably, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would be Oksana Baiul. Does that make former President Bill Clinton Jeff Gillooly?)

From the March 27 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

OLBERMANN: The reported "Tonya Harding" strategy, the idea to kneecap Senator Obama's candidacy, to make him unelectable and thus, force the superdelegates to turn to her at the convention.

Is there any indication that there's any kind of second thinking about that, any second thought whatsoever from the Clinton campaign now that there are more signs that it doesn't matter? Once you bring the baseball bat out, whoever is standing is going to get hit? That the winner for the nomination and the loser for the nomination are going to suffer an equivalent amount of kneecap damage?

RICHARD WOLFFE (Newsweek White House correspondent): Well, I do think it's interesting that Senator Clinton's negatives have actually been on the rise recently. But, look, loyalty is key inside the Clinton camp. So there's no sign of second thoughts going on. But there is another path for them.

I mean, if the Clinton camp is really convinced as many people are inside the Clinton camp, that Obama will implode, there will be some scandal, there will be some reason for him to fall down. It's not going to happen because the Clinton folks prompt it to happen.

They will be much better off riding into the convention on a white horse, having suspended the campaign, and then rescue the party from itself. It's not going to happen because of a Tonya Harding strategy. It will just happen.

OLBERMANN: Well, Tonya Harding didn't listen to that advice. We'll see if her equivalent in the candidate -- in the campaign does. Great thanks to Richard Wolffe of Newsweek, joining us tonight. Thank you, sir.

WOLFFE: Thank you, Keith.

From the March 26 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

OLBERMANN: Time now to saddle up our own Dana Milbank, national political reporter of The Washington Post. Good evening, cowboy.

MILBANK: Howdy.

OLBERMANN: I promised those polls, here's one of -- one set, you know, kind of buoying numbers. In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll coming out tonight, 37 percent of those surveyed rated their feelings toward Senator Clinton as positive, 48 percent negative. She was at 45 percent positive, 43 percent negative in the same poll two weeks ago.

Senator Obama, the numbers, same question -- 49 percent positive, which is down two points. Thirty-two percent negative, that is up four points. This suggests, does it not, Dana, that the Wright controversy damaged Obama less than just Senator Clinton's campaign has damaged her?

MILBANK: This poll does suggest that, Keith, but I think there's a lot of evidence here that it's harming both of them greatly. There's also a Gallup poll out tonight that should send chills down the spine of every Democrat in the country right now, suggesting that Obama would lose 28 percent of the voters who are now voting for Clinton and that Clinton would lose 19 percent of the voters going with Obama.

That doesn't even include the larger number, four in 10 or so who just would sit out the race. They have some serious, serious divisions right now. This thing really seems to have crossed a threshold here. Clinton may have been unelectable because of her high negatives; it now seems that she may be on the verge of making Obama unelectable as well, which is an extraordinary thing, given the circumstances of this election.

OLBERMANN: And those were taken -- those numbers were compiled before her comments on Reverend Wright, before the news yesterday from Jake Tapper at ABC about the so-called "Tonya Harding" strategy, even before that was articulated. So this was just perception, this wasn't, you know, people saying, oh, this is a bad campaign.

From the March 26 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

HALPERIN: Hey, Laura, how are you doing?

INGRAHAM: So in your interview, you describe Senator Clinton as cheery and confident. But when you look at the numbers, the delegate count, and where she has to go from here in order to win this thing, how can she be so confident? And is the cheery thing an act?

HALPERIN: Well, I don't think it's an act. I think she believes that, while time and the delegate situation are not necessarily on her side, that she has the ability to make her case.

The next thing that happens in about a month is Pennsylvania. She's feeling pretty confident about that. And this Reverend Wright issue, while not the only controversy, and of course she's dealing with her own controversies this week, it is the thing that gives her the most hope that electability will be foremost in the minds of these superdelegates, and that they'll choose her.

I think she's amongst the most optimistic people in her camp. And she feels her responsibility to go forward. And she doesn't feel particularly burdened.

Remember, Barack Obama's ahead of her. She's still raising millions of dollars. She still won the most recent big primaries. And she still feels that the upcoming race is in her favor. So she's got enough going forward that she feels at least slightly chipper. She laughed a lot during the interview. And I think whether part of it's an act or not, she intends to go forward, even though I was interviewing her, amidst the beginning of some pretty loud calls, surprisingly loud calls for her to get out of the race.

INGRAHAM: And I'm going to touch on that in a bit. But I heard, and I know you've read, the Tonya Harding option and the Tonya Harding strategy line that was reported on, I believe, yesterday. To have that kind of description out there about Hillary Clinton, that can't be helpful. And obviously, referring to kind of a scorched-earth policy against Obama now, bringing up the Wright issue, saying he wouldn't be my pastor and that kind of thing. Could that backfire, Mark?

HALPERIN: Laura, you know, I'm a little surprised that our colleagues are focused on this latest iteration of what has been the essential Clinton policy for several weeks, maybe even over a month.

It's been clear since she fell behind in the elected delegates that the only way she can win is have the superdelegates overturn the will of the elected delegates. And that the only way to do that would have to be to have Barack Obama be destroyed either through her own actions or through things like Reverend Wright, which are at least partly organic as they arrive.

So I don't think this is anything new. If anything, what's new is you now have the Obama campaign, for a variety of reasons, feeling that they need to go after her. That's escalated things. But it certainly means that she's not the only one engaged and use whatever metaphor you want, "scorched earth," "with the gloves off," whatever. They're both going at each other. That may be bad for her, but I don't know that it's great for him either.

From the March 26 edition of Fox News' America's Election Headquarters:

KELLY: Well, [co-anchor] Bill [Hemmer], with Clinton's delegate count sorely lacking and the intense scrutiny on her this week, some believe she's getting desperate. So desperate, she might pull a "Tonya Harding"?

Remember her? An Olympic figure skater back in 1994. Harding conspired to take out her chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan, with a good whack at the knee. According to one Democratic Party official, Clinton is reportedly using that same strategy -- destroy her leading competitor.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, campaigning in West Virginia today, adding a bit of fuel to that fire saying, quote, "If a politician doesn't want to get beat up, he shouldn't run for office. If a football player doesn't want to get tackled or want the risk of an occasional clip, he shouldn't put the pads on."

Former Clinton adviser Dick Morris joins us now. You can read his column and newsletter for free at Dickmorris.com. Hi, Dick.

MORRIS: Hey, Megyn. Of course, they'll try.

KELLY: Yeah. So that's the question. Do you think, knowing the Clintons, knowing Hillary Clinton, that it's possible she's employing this Tonya Harding strategy?

MORRIS: Well, of course they're going to try that. They're going to try anything they can. That's their M.O.

[...]

KIRSTEN POWERS (Fox News political analyst): Hello, Megyn.

KELLY: All right. So the blogosphere and even the, you know, the papers are replete with new theories on why she's going after him so hard. Number one is, of course, she's just hemorrhaging and she'll do anything to try to overtake him in the superdelegate count.

But with that looking less and less likely, the theory is that she needs to get on that ticket as the vice presidential nomination. And Kirsten, could this be true? She brings him down to the point where he can't make it without her?

POWERS: Well, I think she's trying to win. That's what actually I think she was doing. I think the idea that she has some strategy to try to get on his ticket at this point is not real.

She -- I think she still thinks that, yes, he's ahead in pledged delegates but he can't do it without the superdelegates. There are enough of them that are undecided. And who knows what's going to happen between now and then? And she's going to do everything she can to make him stumble, to him trip and, you know, and hope that something else comes down from the gods that happens and that she can convince the superdelegates.

And in terms of whether, you know, he would want her on the ticket, there's a poll out today that shows 28 percent of Hillary voters would vote for McCain over Obama, it's a much larger margin than Obama supporters over, you know, voting the other way.

So I think she could make that argument when the time comes --

KELLY: Right.

POWERS: -- I just don't think that we're there yet.

KELLY: -- that he needs her. Michelle, what do you think about it? Because if you do the math, most analysts say she can't do it, I mean, without some sort of political miracle she's not going to get this nomination. So could she be vying right now for the V.P. spot?

MICHELLE MALKIN (syndicated columnist): I think Kirsten's read on it is absolutely right. I think she is trying to win. I don't think she seized this Tonya Harding strategy, which is being pitched so hard by the punditry and the blogosphere.

I can't imagine that she buys it. And in any case, she's in no position to be kneecapping anyone else when she's so crippled herself.

From the March 25 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:

CHARLES GIBSON (host) Some Democrats are saying, look, she can't catch up in terms of delegates. And is that a significant number of Democrats? Or is that a minor few, saying that if she continues in the race it only helps the Republicans?

TAPPER: It is a growing, quiet number of Democrats here in Washington. But they're very concerned. And they're speaking out more and more. They're very concerned with the damage the two candidates are doing to each other. Specifically, the damage that Clinton is doing to Obama, since he is in the lead. One Democratic Party official said to me that the only way Clinton can win, is by destroying Obama. Destroying him, making him unelectable. And this official referred to this as the Tonya Harding option. The idea that Clinton can't win the gold medal on her own, so she has to kneecap her leading competitor.

GIBSON: All right. Jake Tapper, reporting from Washington. Thanks.

From the March 25 edition of MSNBC's Race for the White House with David Gregory:

GREGORY: Pat Buchanan, your headline tonight.

BUCHANAN: I think I'm very close. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Just like Barack Obama changed the subject away from Reverend Wright by suddenly introducing Bill Richardson and then flying off to the Virgin Islands, she went to the Pittsburgh Post Tribune [sic] and she reintroduced Reverend Wright as the subject, brought him back up, talked about hate speech, "He wouldn't have been my pastor." It's back on the board; it's political hardball. But it is legitimate even if some Democrats are grumbling about the Tonya Harding option.

From the 11 a.m. hour of the March 11 edition of Fox News Live:

ALEXANDRA ACKER (executive director of the Young Democrats of America): However, you know, the first thing John McCain did as nominee was run into the arms of George Bush --

SNYDER: Oh, please --

ACKER: -- and go to the White House --

SNYDER: Alex, Alex.

ACKER: -- and it's going to be very easy for us to continue to run against that.

SNYDER: An Obama/Clinton ticket is like having a Nancy Kerrigan, you know, Tonya Harding couples pair skating out there. I mean, the body language between the two are so stilted.

ACKER: Unfortunately, my voters do not remember who Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding are.

JANE SKINNER (host): Alexandra and Pete, we're going to have to leave it there. Pete, you know, I'm proud of you today. No images of boiled rabbits or anything coming up.

SNYDER: Well, Roger cut out the gin and tonics in the green room. So no fun here.

SKINNER: Too bad, we got to get serious. Thanks to both of you. We will see you next week.

From the January 27 edition of Fox News' Hannity's America:

CUNNINGHAM: The most dangerous place to be in politics, as Kirsten I'm sure knows --

SEAN HANNITY (host): All right, but --

CUNNINGHAM: -- is between a desired goal and the Clintonistas, because you will get run over. You will get [Tonya Harding's ex-husband Jeff] Gillooly --

HANNITY: Let me ask this question --

CUNNINGHAM: -- and the Tonya Harding.

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