Monday, January 14, 2008

Rove, McCarthy, Clinton

This morning, Bill Clinton claimed to have a "list of 80 attacks on Hillary that are quite personal by Senator Obama and his campaign going back six months that I've pulled."

I read this and wondered, "Why does this sound familiar?" And then I remembered: "Right, there was that other guy, although his list was longer, coming in at 205... what was his name again? Joe McCarthy, that's right."

I can't find Clinton's list, despite searching for it online, so I gather he hasn't gotten around to producing it yet. I doubt he ever will; after all, Joe McCarthy never released his. If Clinton is forced to release the list he claims to have compiled (I imagine advisors are feverishly putting one together as we speak), I expect that at best we'll find the former president has trouble distinguishing between a political criticism and a personal attack.

Doe Bill expect to be called on this? Yes. Does he care? No. His objective is to use the vestiges of his bully pulpit to get the "list of 80 personal attacks" into the news cycle and use it to chip away at the moral high ground Obama rightly occupies. The next step will be to resist calls for him to produce the list, thereby keeping the meme "80 personal attacks" in the news cycle and cementing it in people's minds. After that, Clinton will release highlights. After that, additional points, which will produce discussion about what's personal and what's political. And finally, when the smoke clears, people are supposed to remember, "Well, Obama's not such a prince... after all, there were those 80 personal attacks..."

I don't mean to suggest the Clintons are running exclusively on a McCarthyism playbook. They're also tapping Karl Rove, who in the 2004 election mastered the audacious technique of directly attacking your opponent's strength. Who would have thought that Bush, who hid in the Texas National Air Guard during Vietnam, could have successfully attacked for his service Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran! But Bush did, and succeeding in sowing what's known in the software industry as FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. I doubt many voters could remember or ever even knew the details of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (the name itself is a masterpiece of marketing) campaign; what they remembered was something vague, along the lines of, "Sure, Kerry was in Vietnam... but weren't there questions about his war record?"

And so, with Karl Rove as inspiration, the Clintons are now attacking Obama for is supposed inconsistency on the war in Iraq. Bill calls Obama's consistent stance on the war a "fairy tale." Hillary echoes the claim on Tim Russert's show. For the actual facts, though -- to understand just how superior to Hillary's has been Obama's record and judgment on Iraq -- you need print.

So this is how the Clintons hope to neutralize Obama's entirely justifiable claim to have demonstrated better judgment than the current "candidate of experience" on one of the most important foreign policy calls in US history. They use their celebrity status to make all kinds of claims on video that will go un-rebutted in real time, either because the interviewer is ill-informed or timid or an ally or some combination. Only later will the facts emerge, and then only in print. Which will have the bigger impact: the Clinton's ongoing televised repetitions of a lie? Or the print rebuttals? Again, when the smoke clears, even if people remember that Hillary voted for the war in Iraq while then-Illinois state senator Obama was speaking out against it, they'll also have some vague sense that Obama must have done something wrong, too... even if they can't quite remember what it was. "Sure, Hillary was wrong on Iraq... but so was he, wasn't he?"

What did Churchill say? "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Lies are faster, and the Clintons are using them to try to win a race.

What should Obama do about it? My sense is that he should continue to stick to the high road. A significant part of Obama's appeal is his call for an end to partisan rancor. I think his stature will grow if he continues not just to talk that talk, but to walk that walk, especially in the face of so many provocations from the Clintons. Yes, continue to set the record straight, but don't be drawn into the mud. Keep playing to your strengths, keep playing your positive game, not the Clinton's desperately negative one. Not only will such a positive campaign lead to an Obama victory, it'll make that victory even more worthwhile for everyone -- even for the Clintons, because they're American citizens, too, and for any of their would-be imitators.

Update: Another instance of the Clintons' obfuscation efforts regarding Hillary's war vote. Nice to see the New York Times pointing out the distortions.


Nathan Bransford said...

Unfortunately, the high ground can equally be seen as a place of weakness. Kerry initially took the high ground when he was Swift Boated and was branded as "weak" by the punditocracy because he didn't fire back hard. Obama is going to have to find a way to counterattack without validating both the style and substance of the Clinton attack -- best, in my opinion, to attack them hard as embodying politics as usual and using the dirty tricks of the establishment, since that's essentially what this is. Not an easy thing to do, since people remember the lie rather than the substance.

Jim Winter said...

All Obama has to do is say, "Hey, doesn't this sound an awful lot like George W. Bush? Is that the person we want representing the party?"

Better still, cloak it in a positive comment and let the implication filter back. "Did he just suggest Clinton=Bush?"

Anonymous said...

Barry, I think the lies/truth quote was Mark Twain, and boots not pants. But - a propos of not very much - Churchill did say, "Every effort should be made to avoid getting into warfare with terrorists; and if warfare with terrorists has broken out, every effort should be made - I exclude no reasonable proposal - to bring it to an end."

Barry Eisler said...

Nathan, that's a great point. I think (and hope) that what looked like weakness in Kerry will come across as strength from Obama. It's not just the tactic, but also the tactician that influences perceptions.

Jim, I hope Obama will use a version of exactly that.

Lee, I hadn't heard that quote attributed to Twain, but I looked it up, and you're right, there's a Twain variant, too. Proving either that great minds think alike, or that bad artists borrow, while great artists steal (the latter, appropriately enough, sometimes attributed to T.S. Eliot, sometimes to Picasso)...


Anonymous said...

Barry--I see your points about the Clintons. They are and always will be the team of cyclones who take people down who are in their way no matter what is it. Its so sad (but are we really suprised?) that this former southern governor is playing the race card for his wife's campaign? They are running scared of the Obama movement, and yes, its a movement. And the black vote the Dems have taken for granted is up for grabs for the first time in decades. This will only gets worse before it get better. I am a Republican and plan to vote for the GOP in the fall, but I hope the Obama movement will put the Clinton on the political sidelines for good for the sake of the Democratic party. The Dems won't say it, but they are tired and fed up with Bubba and Hillary. But sadly its the Clinton that bring in so much of the Dems milk money, which we know Washington has a hard time turning off. Keep up the great work:)

Sean Wright said...

I still find the cack-handed way America votes absurd. Excuse my ignorance but Clinton and Obama are on the same side of politics right?


Nathan Bransford said...


Looks like you successfully called the strategy. From the the Times: Obama Tries to Stop the Silliness."

Barry Eisler said...

DCNoir, how do you mean that the Clintons bring in Washington's milk money? Not saying they don't; just not sure of your meaning.

Sean, I don't know much about Australian politics, either, but things you're ignorant about do sometimes seem absurd. Have you tried Google or Wikipedia on Clinton and Obama, or any of the links in my original post? That should help bring you up to speed.

Nathan, thanks for the link. Hillary ostensibly follows Obama's call for an end to the silliness... but her surrogates keep attacking. Obama will have to walk a fine line -- hitting back, but not slinging mud. Here's a great piece on how.

Swanny said...

Great post Barry. It's a shame that the Clintons have been reduced to this. I used to be a Bill Clinton supporter, mainly because he seemed to be the only Dem with enough balls to attack the GOP in the same way they attacked him. But for Clinton to bring this about when Hillary and Obama are (supposedly) on the same side? It's ridiculous and, sadly, further proof that the system of experience is incredibly flawed.

Jim Winter said...

"I still find the cack-handed way America votes absurd."

The primary system is a farce, Sean. I never understood why, for example, two rather minor states hold so much sway over the process. Also, someone like me can't really vote in the primaries in my state. I either have to register as a Democrat or a Republican, which gets me a whole slaughtered forest of junk mail as soon as I do. (I am a proud, militant independent.)

Furthermore, the conventions are an expensive dog-and-pony show. If the nominees aren't already crowned on Super Tuesday, they will be in March. Yet everyone acts surprised when the nominee accepts.

Unless McCain, whom independents generally like, is nominated, I'm probably going to have to hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton in November.

Unless Obama can walk that tightrope.

Hmm... Obama vs. McCain.

Could I finally get my coin-toss election? Or at least one where I don't care if my guy loses?

ssas said...

I'm no huge fan of the Clintons, but I'm researching Obama and he's not doing it for me. He might be moral (such a slippery word), but I've yet to find his strength. His website feels "dumbed-down" for the masses, and it's a repeat of old ideas that didn't pass or work in the past. I also have yet to find a solid stance on women's issues. When it comes to family, most of his rhetoric is about men. It feels all too typical of "men-in-power" to me, and I tend to identify more with men on nearly everything!

I hate to say it, but when it comes to Hilary or Obama, I'd rather see a woman in the White House. The world needs to witness it and we need a new sensibility. Obama just seems more of same-ole to me. This is not to say that in a few years he might not make a great president. He also feels terribly "young", even though he's got eight years on me.

Of course, I live in Colorado and I'm registered Independent, so who makes the ticket will be decided long before I get a crack at it. I am looking closely at McCain, though, as well, more as a point of interest.

Interesting post, Barry.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the post Barry.

Edwards has said he's staying in the race until the convention in the hopes that Clinton will implode between now and then; I hope when it happens she doesn't drag Obama down with her.

David Terrenoire said...

As a lifelong Democrat, this whole disgusting affair saddens me.

That we've been reduced to copying that amoral slug, Rove, just goes to show how far we've descended into the politics of slime.

Excellent post, Barry, as usual.

PBI said...

The Clinton use of race with regard to Obama has indeed been disturbing, but I think it's minor league stuff compared to what has been coming out of the GOP for the past several elections.

Take a look at what they're doing with McCain these days (see here) if you want to get a gander at how real smears are executed. McCain got similar treatment in 2000 from the Bush gang, and while there are PLENTY of reasons to criticize John McCain - his membership in the Keating Five, his pandering to the religious right, his ham-handedness with regard to Middle East policy - this is really beyond the pale.

Sensen No Sen