February 26, 2008—While some cynics still view Barack Obama’s appeal for “change” as empty rhetoric, it’s starting to dawn on Washington insiders that his ability to raise vast sums of money from nearly one million mostly small donors could shake the grip that special-interest money has long held over the U.S. government.
Right now, the front line for the Washington Establishment is Hillary Clinton’s struggling presidential campaign, which has been stunned by Obama’s political skills as well as his extraordinary ability to raise money over the Internet. Obama’s grassroots donations have negated Clinton’s prodigious fundraising advantage with big donors.
Powerful lobbies – from AIPAC to representatives of military and other industries – also are recognizing the value of keeping their dominance over campaign cash from getting diluted by Obama’s deep reservoir of small donors. It’s in their direct interest to dent Obama’s momentum and demoralize his rank-and-file supporters as soon as possible.
So, neoconservatives and other ideological movements – heavily dependent on grants from the same special interests – are now joining with the Clinton campaign to tear down Obama by depicting him as unpatriotic, un-vetted, possibly a “closet Muslim.”
On Feb. 25, the New York Times’ new neocon columnist William Kristol attacked Obama’s patriotism by citing the Illinois senator decision to stop wearing an American flag lapel pin because, Obama said, he saw how George W. Bush was exploiting the flag to stampede the nation toward war with Iraq.
“You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Obama said when asked about his lack of a flag pin in October 2007. “As we’re talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”
In a column entitled “It’s All About Him,” Kristol mocked this explanation as an example of both Obama’s dubious claim to patriotism and his pomposity.
“Leaving aside the claim that ‘speaking out on issues’ constitutes true patriotism,” Kristol wrote. “What’s striking is that Obama couldn’t resist a grandiose explanation. … Moral vanity prevailed. He wanted to explain that he was too good – too patriotic! – to wear a flag pin on his chest.”
Kristol then turned on Michelle Obama for her comment about how excited she was by the public outpouring for political change that has surrounded her husband’s campaign: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country,” she said.
Kristol wrote: “Can it really be the case that nothing the U.S. achieved since [the mid-1980s] has made her proud? Apparently.” [NYT, Feb. 25, 2008]
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign – having burned through $130 million and needing a $5 million emergency loan from the Clintons’ personal finances – has gone hat in hand to some of the special interests with a strong stake in protecting the Washington status quo.
For instance, campaign finance director Jonathan Mantz met with donors from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a Washington hotel lobby when these pro-Israel AIPAC supporters were in town for other business, the Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 14.
The approach made sense because these pro-Israeli lobbyists remain wary of Obama’s advocacy of high-level talks with Iran, his opposition to the Iraq War, and his skimpier record of supporting Israel when compared with Hillary Clinton or John McCain.
One former Israeli official told me that the Israeli government feels it can work with Obama, Clinton or McCain, but that the Israeli lobby in the United States is adamantly opposed to Obama, preferring Clinton because “they own her.” The ex-official said the lobby has some concern, too, with McCain because of his independent streak.
Like other powerful lobbies, AIPAC is threatened by Obama’s ability to raise large sums of money from everyday Americans, thus reducing the need of Washington politicians to hold out their tin cups to AIPAC’s legendary network of wealthy donors. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Far Will the Clintons Go?”]
After having lost 11 consecutive contests, the Clinton campaign is now turning to what its “kitchen sink” strategy of throwing whatever it has at Obama.
Over the past few weeks, Clinton surrogates have been spreading rumors about Obama’s association with people with Arab names and contributions he has received from 1970s-era student radicals (though they’re now gray-haired, middle-class professionals). Some are packaging the attacks under the title, “The Obama Scandals.”
On Feb. 26, Internet gossip Matt Drudge reported that a Clinton staffer e-mailed a photo taken of Obama during a 2006 trip to Kenya when he was dressed in a turban and other traditional garb of a Somali Elder. That reinforced earlier rumors spread about Obama as a secret Muslim, though he has long belonged to a Christian church in Chicago.
Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe denounced the Clinton campaign for circulating the photo with the goal of “shameful offensive fear-mongering.”
The Clinton campaign denied knowledge of how the photo was disseminated, but campaign manager Maggie Williams attacked the Obama campaign for overreacting. “If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed,” she said.
Sen. Clinton herself seemed torn between showing voters her softer side and releasing her inner combative persona.
At the end of a Texas debate on Feb. 21, Sen. Clinton extended her hand to Obama and expressed how “honored” she was to be on the same stage with him. But she soon switched tactics and launched harsh attacks on Obama.
On Feb. 23, reacting to flyers that the Obama campaign distributed in Ohio criticizing her positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement and the mandate included in her health insurance plan, Clinton rebuked her rival.
“Shame on you, Barack Obama,” Clinton shouted, before instructing him to “meet me in Ohio, and let’s have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign.”
To some observers, Clinton’s outburst had the look of an angry queen scolding a misbehaving servant boy, or a principal pulling a wayward student by the ear to the school office.
“Enough with the speeches and the big rallies and then using tactics right out of Karl Rove’s playbook,” she added, suggesting that the flyers contrasting the positions of the two rivals were somehow a novel or diabolical concept.
In reality, the Obama flyers were pretty standard stuff, more from the playbook of Tom Paine than Karl Rove. If Rove’s playbook were in use, the flyers would have claimed to come from a pro-Hillary group while advocating legalization of child pornography.
But the Clinton campaign was only warming up. On Feb. 24, during a stop in Rhode Island, Clinton mocked Obama’s speeches calling for change:
“Now, I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”
Amid some chuckles from her supporters, Clinton added, “Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and the special interests disappear.”
Though this Clinton line of attack is popular among some of her backers – ridiculing the supposed naivety of Obama’s young supporters – Obama has never suggested that countering the entrenched special interests of Washington would be easy.
Obama’s argument has been that only an energized American public can elect representatives to bring about change and then the people must stay vigilant to make sure there is no backsliding.
While it’s true Obama doesn’t spell out all the difficulties ahead, his argument is at least as realistic as Clinton’s – that Republican obstructionism can be countered with “hard work.” That approach failed miserably when her initial health care plan collapsed in 1994 despite her strenuous efforts on its behalf.
More to the immediate point, however, Obama’s success in getting out from under the special-interest financial dependency may be the most significant political development of this election cycle.
That success also helps explain the emerging war on Obama – and the rising hysteria among Establishment figures about his surging candidacy.
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This story was published on February 26, 2008.