February 2, 2008—Barack Obama argues that the Democrats will have a better chance for victory in November if they have a presidential nominee who opposed the Iraq War from the start and who can contrast that judgment against John McCain’s enthusiasm for a centuries-long U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Hillary Clinton would be open to similar attacks since she voted in 2002 to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq and remained a staunch war supporter almost until the eve of Campaign 2008, when she realigned herself with the anti-war sentiments of rank-and-file Democrats.
She was for it, for it and for it – before she was finally against it.
But another factor that plays to Obama’s advantage as the prospective nominee – when compared to Hillary Clinton – is that the Right’s powerful media apparatus and the Republican attack strategies appear less successful against Democrats with strong oratorical skills and the ability to inspire enthusiasm and passion.
Over the past two decades when the Democrats have put up candidates who are competent but who lack pizzazz – think Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry – the Republicans have been most effective in leveraging their media advantages to damage the Democrats and deny them the White House.
In contrast, Bill Clinton bested the Republican machine by exploiting his impressive speaking skills and by generating excitement and hope. Even though the Right never gave up trying to destroy President Clinton, his ability to communicate with the American people was always his saving grace.
Today, that eloquence edge clearly goes to Barack Obama, who has demonstrated the capacity to excite and uplift voters, even drawing comparisons with the brilliant oratory of John F. Kennedy.
That ability to inspire a young generation has earned Obama the public embrace of iconic members of the Kennedy clan, including the late President’s daughter Caroline and his surviving brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Hillary Clinton herself has likened Obama’s oratory to “poetry” and her detailed policy prescriptions to “prose.” But the painful truth is that the solid prose of Dukakis, Gore and Kerry wasn’t a match for the grinding nastiness of the Republican attack machine.
When both parties have fielded less-than-riveting candidates, the Right’s media power has enabled the Republicans to drag even the most inarticulate candidates, such as the two George Bushes, across the finish line. But the Democrats don't have that advantage.
If anything, that media imbalance is even worse today.
Over the past few years, the Right has continued to pour tens of billions of dollars into its media infrastructure – ranging from books, magazines and newspapers to talk radio, cable news and the Internet – while the Left still resists any comparable media investment, leaving its few outlets – like Air America Radio – to struggle along under-funded.
So, one of the few certainties of Campaign 2008 is that whoever is the Democratic nominee can expect a full-scale barrage of Republican attacks, anti-Democratic “oppo” injected into the public debate.
This has been a pattern for the past two decades, from 1988 when the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times spread false rumors about Michael Dukakis’s mental health to 2004 when Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News raised doubts about John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism.
If the pattern holds, the anti-Democratic themes also will resonate through the mainstream media, which is conditioned to picking up attack lines from the Right, partly as a defense against accusations of “liberal bias” from conservative anti-press organizations.
Given this right-tilted asymmetry, the Democrats have little choice but to make the question of vulnerability to Republican smears a factor in their nominee selection process. The euphemism for this assessment is called “electability.”
Some observers argue that the certainty of Republican assaults should favor Clinton over Obama (because the Clintons already have been “vetted” and Obama is a fresh target). But that analysis may not be entirely accurate.
While it’s true that the Clintons were subjected to extraordinary scrutiny during their eight years in the White House, their past seven years offer a whole new set of targets. There are also legitimate questions about the secretive fundraising for the Clinton presidential library, Bill Clinton’s overseas speaking fees, and his business ventures.
One senior Democrat told me that he’s heard complaints from Washington lobbyists about getting “shaken down by Clinton Inc.” with pressure to not only pony up for Hillary Clinton’s campaign but also to chip in large sums to Bill Clinton’s library and philanthropic foundation.
Stories already are appearing in major newspapers about Bill Clinton’s mixing of business and politics, and about the tens of millions of dollars he has earned by making speeches around the world.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the former President stands to make $20 million as he unwinds a complicated business relationship with Yucaipa Cos., the investment firm of his longtime supporter, billionaire Ron Burkle, which has connections to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. [WSJ, Jan. 22, 2008]
The New York Times described the help Clinton gave Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra in securing a lucrative uranium deal with the repressive government of Kazakhstan in 2005, shortly before Giustra made an unreported $31.3 million donation to Clinton’s foundation. [NYT, Jan. 31, 2008]
Clinton insiders are nervous, too, about possible Republican access to Secret Service records detailing the couple’s movements over the past seven years.
Though some Democrats don’t want to believe that George W. Bush would let political operatives exploit such confidential records, his father – President George H.W. Bush – green-lighted an illegal search of Bill Clinton’s passport file in fall 1992. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.”]
So, whether Democrats like it or not, they will have to evaluate the relative risks of Republican attacks on their presidential nominee. Either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama can expect “the treatment,” whether fairly or not.
That is part of the price American liberals and progressives have to pay because of their failure over the years to invest in information outlets that could create some balance between the media power of the Right and Left. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
Part of that risk evaluation must be who can better survive the assaults: Hillary Clinton with the experience – as well as the scars – from the partisan battles of the 1990s, or Barack Obama, who may not be as battle-tested but who has demonstrated a rare ability to lift Americans out of the foul and muddy trenches of past political wars.
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This story was published on February 4, 2008.