“Some in Party Bristle At Clintons’ Attacks,” ran the headline on a story in yesterday’s Washington Post, “Anti-Obama Ad Heightens Unity Fears.” The story said that a Hillary Clinton radio advertisement had taken remarks of Obama’s out of context and reported that some Democrats saw this as “part of an increasing pattern of hardball politics by her and former president Bill Clinton.” Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, told the Post that the Clintons were employing the “politics of deception,” and he compared Bill Clinton to the late Lee Atwater, the notoriously rough Republican operative.
Bill Clinton and Lee Atwater are both dirty players, it’s true, but it’s worth keeping something in mind here: They both came out on top. The former is the only Democrat to win the presidency since Jimmy Carter, who 32-years ago eked out a narrow victory against Nixon-pardoner Gerald Ford. Atwater helped George Bush Sr. win the 1988 campaign with vicious ads that painted Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. (Of course, Dukakis helped by being the perfect punching bag. Recall that during one debate he restated his opposition to the death penalty, even, he said, in the event that his own wife had been raped and murdered. Dignified, yes. Smart, no.)
If Obama wants to be president he and his handlers should stop moaning about the Clinton campaign and fight fire with fire. Because if he thinks Hillary is mean just wait (in the event he were to win the nomination) until he gets a load of the Republican attack machine in a general election.
Voters, the media, and even politicians complain about negative campaigning, but it works, as seen in the cases of Atwater, Karl Rove, and the Swift Boat Vets. “It’s very frustrating to watch our guys stand up there and act like pacifists,” Jason Stanford, a Texas-based Democratic opposition researcher, told me. “We thought we had nominated a war hero last time and then Kerry couldn’t even defend himself.”
Stanford said Obama appears to have fallen victim to his own cult of personality, surrounded by too many adoring fans. “Politics is not supposed to be nice, it’s not a process where everyone feels good at the end,” he said. “He’s got pros on his team, they should have been ready for this stuff. There is a whole generation of black politicians who could tell Obama about how tough it was to run office. The question now is: will this galvanize him or immolate him? He’s going to have to fight for the nomination, it’s not going to be handed to him.” (Incidentally, Stanford’s preferred candidate in the race is Edwards, followed by Obama, and then Clinton.)
Jordan Lieberman, the publisher of Politics magazine (formerly Campaigns & Elections), said that dirty pool was having a big impact on Obama’s campaign. He noted that Bill Shaheen, a Clinton backer and Democratic Party powerbroker in New Hampshire, had recently raised the subject of Obama’s drug use , which he discussed openly in his 1996 memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Then, just as the story was dying down, Shaheen publicly apologized for his remarks–thereby bringing the entire topic back up for yet another media cycle.
Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and another prominent Clinton backer, also raised the specter of Obama’s drug use and then issued a belated apology for doing so. “That was no accident,” Lieberman said admiringly. “It was four good hits by two people. It was political genius and the best part was that it was unrecognized genius. The media didn’t even pick up on what they were doing.”
Lieberman described the Clintons as being “in a league of their own” when it comes to their talent at going negative, adding, “They are so good at what they do.” But if Obama were to win the nomination, Lieberman said, the gloves would really come off. “The Republicans would be a lot less subtle than the Clinton campaign,” he said. “You’d be hearing a lot more about Barack Hussein Obama.”
Are there limits to negative politics? Sure, Atwater’s racist ads (featuring Willie Horton) for Bush Sr. were way over the line. And a Democratic candidate is never going to hit a primary opponent the way he or she would a Republican during the general election.
That said, Hillary Clinton’s history makes her a rich target. Obama, for example, should be hammering her on the Iraq War (he finally started to do so yesterday). Instead, Hillary put him on the defensive at the recent Democratic debate by making Obama look like the one who supported the invasion and she the one who opposed it. That’s akin to Kerry being portrayed as a Vietnam coward by hatchet men for Bush, who evaded service in the Alabama National Guard.
Last summer, I interviewed Warren Tompkins, the South Carolina political consultant who worked with Atwater and who helped Bush win in the nasty campaign against John McCain in the GOP primary in 2000. He predicted at the time that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, about which he had mixed feelings. “With Hillary we could gin up the vote, but it would be a mistake to underestimate her,” he said. “She’ll have the money and she has the best people. They are good, tough and ruthless, and will do whatever they need to win.”
Which is why she’s winning so far.