March 10, 2008—Throughout history, it’s been common for politicians to shade the truth when caught in a tight spot. But sometimes politicians push the limits, crossing the line into an Orwellian world where up is down, where bullies are victims, where people objecting to the lies are shouted down.
As for Bush, remember how Iraq War critics were treated in 2002-03. Anyone who spoke up against the rush to invade – the likes of Al Gore, weapons inspector Scott Ritter and the Dixie Chicks – saw their loyalty, their motives and even their sanity questioned.
Gore was bitter and delusional. Ritter was a Saddam Hussein sympathizer for questioning Bush’s clams about Iraqi WMD. For disrespecting Bush, the Dixie Chicks deserved to face boycotts, have their CDs crushed under trucks, and even have their lives threatened.
Angered that France urged caution on Iraq, Bush’s backers poured French wine into gutters and re-named “French fries” as “Freedom Fries.” At a lower level, our Consortiumnews.com articles, which objected to the twisted pre-war intelligence and to the wishful thinking about the war, drew a flood of venomous e-mails.
Even though Bush’s aides encouraged this bullying and Bush winked at the harsh treatment of dissenters, much of the U.S. news media treated him as the victim. In this view, he was the target of irrational hatred from crazed Americans suffering from what was termed “Bush Derangement Syndrome.”
Reality had no place in Bush World. When Iraq’s WMD never materialized, Bush blamed Saddam Hussein for not letting U.N. inspectors in, although the inspectors had been scouring Iraq for months until Bush forced them to leave in March 2003, just before the invasion. [For more details on Bush’s lies, see our book, Neck Deep.]
What’s been striking about recent turns in the Democratic presidential contest is how the tactics of Hillary Clinton’s campaign have come to mirror the Bush strategies – simultaneously playing the bully and the victim, asserting that up is down, and bashing anyone who notices the contradictions.
Stunned by Obama’s surprising successes and his delegate lead, Clinton’s campaign has thrown what it calls the “kitchen sink” at the Illinois senator – including overt attacks on his ethics and sub rosa insinuations about his race and religion.
On Feb. 26, Internet gossip Matt Drudge reported that a Clinton staffer e-mailed around 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, complaining of “shameful offensive fear-mongering.”
Instead of showing remorse, the Clinton campaign denied knowledge of the photo and went on the attack. “If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed,” said Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams.
Some Clinton defenders went further, arguing that Sen. Clinton was the real victim, since there was no hard evidence that the Clinton campaign was orchestrating the Internet smears of Obama, which also have been spread by right-wing operatives in talk radio and on the Internet.
On March 2, however, when Hillary Clinton had a chance to slam the door on these tactics, she didn’t.
Asked on CBS’s “60 Minutes” whether she believed rumors claiming that Obama was a closet Muslim, Clinton responded in a way that left the question open. “No, no, why would I?” she said, before adding: “there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know.”
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called Clinton’s response “one of the sleaziest moments of the campaign. … As far as I know. If she had been asked if she thought President Bush was a Muslim, would her response have included the caveat ‘as far as I know’? What about Senator McCain? Why then, with Senator Obama?” [NYT, March 8, 2008]
But the Clinton campaign has been filled with such moments of injecting doubts about Obama’s truthfulness and integrity, a nasty strategy that the Clintons used to call “the politics of personal destruction” – when they were on the receiving end in the 1990s.
Now, Hillary Clinton has become a chief practitioner of this brand of politics, taking even minor questions about Obama and hyping them into character issues.
At the Feb. 21 debate, Clinton lashed out at Obama for alleged “plagiarism” – or “change you can Xerox” – in his borrowing of a rhetorical phrase about the importance of words that was used previously and recommended to him by his friend, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
Though politicians frequently copy phrases and ideas from one another, plagiarism – the unauthorized use of someone else’s words usually in printed form – is considered a serious ethical violation and was clearly meant to suggest dishonesty by Obama.
However, during the same debate in which she leveled the plagiarism charge, Clinton twice used wording that appeared lifted from former Sen. John Edwards and her own husband. (Her campaign dismissed those complaints about plagiarism as silly and insignificant.)
Again, there was a similarity to Bush’s behavior, such as when he and his supporters attack their critics for lacking realism or not facing the facts – when it is the Bush camp that has demonstrated a breathtaking contempt for reality.
This throwing-stones-from-a-glass-house audacity may achieve some psychological advantage, creating confusion about who’s really at fault or at least giving pause to anyone who might dare point out the discrepancies.
Even earlier in the Democratic campaign, the Clintons had put this approach on display, attacking Obama over his positions – on the Iraq War, positive comments about Ronald Reagan, and Obama’s relationship with a sleazy real-estate developer – when the Clintons were arguably more vulnerable on the exact same points.
Hillary Clinton voted to give President Bush authorization to invade Iraq (while Obama opposed the invasion); the Clintons both have praised Reagan far more than Obama has; and the Clintons had closer ties to an ethically challenged developer, Whitewater’s James McDougal, than Obama apparently had with Tony Rezko. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Clinton Audacity.”]
Beyond the arrogance of this holier-than-thou behavior, it often is mixed with an annoying dose of victimhood whenever someone tries to give them a taste of their own medicine.
For instance, after scoring political points in Ohio and Texas by bashing Obama’s ethics, the Clinton campaign was outraged when Obama suggested that the Clintons should follow his lead and release their tax returns.
A New York Times editorial and many good-government activists had made the same point – and during the Feb. 26 debate, NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert asked Sen. Clinton to release her tax returns before the Texas and Ohio primaries, noting that she had loaned her campaign $5 million and that much of Bill Clinton’s income came from “overseas business dealings.”
In response, Clinton offered a disingenuous answer.
“Well, I can’t get it together by then, but I will certainly work to get it together. I’m a little busy right now. I hardly have time to sleep,” she said.
The truth is that she could have her tax returns released with one or two phone calls to her accountant and her press office. She appears instead to have something in those returns that she doesn’t want the voters to know – even as she insists that she’s been fully “vetted” and Obama deserves more intense scrutiny from the press.
When Obama pressed on the tax-return issue, the Clinton team – surprise, surprise – accused him of acting like a Republican.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson implied that Obama was “imitating Ken Starr,” the right-wing special prosecutor who pursued the Clintons in the 1990s. Clinton adviser Ann Lewis said Obama was “using Republican talking points” and had “recycled many of the same Republican attacks.” [Washington Post, March 7, 2008]
Yet, using Republican attack lines was exactly what Clinton did to Obama in the Feb. 26 debate when she claimed Obama had “basically threatened to bomb Pakistan.” That was a charge that President Bush and Sen. John McCain had made against Obama earlier.
It also wasn’t true. As Obama explained, his real position was that he would authorize an attack on al-Qaeda bases inside Pakistan if the Pakistani government refused to act. He wasn’t threatening to “bomb Pakistan” in any reasonable interpretation of his words.
In the days before the key Ohio and Texas primaries, the Clinton campaign also made hay out of a leaked Canadian government memo saying that an Obama adviser, University of Chicago economics professor Austan Goolsbee, had equivocated to a Canadian diplomat about Obama’s tough talk on renegotiating the NAFTA trade deal. [NYT, March 4, 2008]
Clinton accused him of giving “the old wink-wink,” again portraying Obama as untrustworthy. It took the Obama campaign several days to pin down and explain the details of the meeting, which both Obama and Goolsbee said had been misrepresented in the memo. But the political damage was done, especially in NAFTA-averse Ohio.
Much less attention was given to disclosures in Canada – after the primaries – that the Clinton campaign had given similar NAFTA assurances to the Canadian government to assuage its concerns about Clinton’s equally tough talk on NAFTA.
Ian Brodie, chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told reporters that the Clinton campaign had called the Canadian Embassy in Washington to tell officials to take her anti-NAFTA rhetoric “with a grain of salt,” the AFP wire service reported on March 6.
Inside Canada, the leaking of the Obama memo – especially while documents about any Clinton assurance apparently were withheld – prompted complaints that Harper, a close ally of President Bush and the Republican Party, may have been interfering with the U.S. political process to help his conservative friends in Washington.
But the bigger question may relate to whether Democratic voters want a nominee whose campaign seems to have bought into the negative, reality-bending, albeit winning strategies of the Republicans.
Some Democrats may view Clinton’s adoption of these Republican tactics as wrong and even disqualifying. Others, however, may look kindly on the Clinton approach, under the old theory: If you can’t beat them, join them.
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This story was published on March 11, 2008.