Hillary Clinton’s 10-point victory in the Pennsylvania primary should put to rest the wishful thinking of Barack Obama’s campaign that the United States has slid painlessly into some “new politics” that can transcend character smears and McCarthyistic tactics, the sort of ugliness that has defined U.S. elections for the past two decades.
Some political observers had hoped that the painful results for the nation from two decades of this style of politics – including the disastrous two-term presidency of George W. Bush – would have convinced the public that a change was needed; that the old tactics wouldn't work anymore.
But what the Pennsylvania results proved is that the tactics of Campaign 1988 – the prototype of this slash-and-slime politics – are alive and well.
Before the crucial April 22 primary, Sen. Clinton, her staff and some well-placed friends in the news media succeeded in diverting the Democratic campaign from any serious debate about policy solutions – or how the United States might get back on the right track – into a referendum on whether Barack Obama is a “real American.”
That was the significance of the questions at the Philadelphia debate about why Obama wasn’t wearing an American flag lapel pin (when the two ABC News moderators and Sen. Clinton weren’t either – and John McCain also hasn’t been wearing one.)
Obama, the black man with the foreign-sounding name and Muslim relatives in Africa, had to “prove” he was a patriotic American. That was what ABC News moderator Charles Gibson was driving at when he said that questions about Obama’s patriotism were “all over the Internet.”
George Stephanopoulos, the other moderator (and former senior aide to President Bill Clinton), added other McCarthyistic guilt-by-association twists, asking Obama about his relationships with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and a former Vietnam War-era radical (now middle-aged college professor) William Ayers.
Then, for good measure, Sen. Clinton threw in links (via Rev. Wright) to Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan and (via a church newsletter) to an op-ed written by a Hamas leader. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Are the Clintons Playing Joe McCarthy?”]
Obama surely didn’t help himself with some unforced errors, including his comment at a fundraiser in San Francisco that some out-of-work Pennsylvanians had grown “bitter” toward Washington and thus were “clinging” to religion and issues like guns.
However, in turning Obama’s “bitter” remark into a major attack theme, Sen. Clinton went further. At CNN’s “Compassion Forum” on April 13, she used “San Francisco” as an epithet meaning out-of-step-with-real-Americans, much like "family-values" Republicans frequently do.
Clinton called Obama “someone [who] goes to a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco and makes comments that do seem elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing.”
It is like the ghost of the late Republican attack strategist Lee Atwater is back haunting another U.S. political campaign, albeit this time from within the Democratic Party against a rival Democrat.
The key element of Campaign 1988 was the success of George H.W. Bush’s political advisers – most notably Atwater – in painting Michael Dukakis as a liberal elitist with a foreign-sounding name, a softness toward dangerous criminals (especially black ones), and an uncertain love of the American flag.
The conventional recollection of that campaign holds Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis as an inept politician, a not-ready-for-prime-time player, and a rookie lightweight who was easily dispatched by a seasoned heavyweight, then-Vice President Bush.
However, before all the negative attacks and his bumbling reactions, Michael Dukakis was generally regarded as an effective administrator who advocated practical government that could cut deficits and deliver quality services. He eschewed ideology in favor of thoughtful solutions to the nation’s then-worsening-but-still-manageable problems.
What George H.W. Bush and his operatives did was transform Dukakis into a caricature – an egghead liberal of dubious patriotism with a funny name. They slammed Dukakis for being a card-carrying member of the ACLU who vetoed a bill that would have made pledging allegiance to the flag mandatory in Massachusetts schools.
Though Dukakis’s veto was based on principle – that the pledge should not be compulsory – Bush questioned the governor’s love of the flag. At the Republican convention, Bush pledged the flag at the end of his acceptance speech. He also made a high-profile trip to a flag factory, forcing further negative comparisons with Dukakis.
Some of my conservative contacts were fond of mispronouncing Dukakis’s Greek name as “do ka-ka.”
But Bush and his team struck real pay dirt when they zeroed in on Willie Horton, a black convict who raped a white woman while on a Massachusetts furlough, a program that Dukakis had supported (although it was created by his Republican predecessor).
Atwater spotlighted the Horton case in a national ad, while in a separate ad, a pro-Bush outside group featured Horton’s menacing black face, which voters soon associated with Dukakis. Atwater commented, "The Horton case is one of those gut issues that are value issues, particularly in the South."
By tearing down Dukakis and playing the race card, Bush managed to negate his own high negatives, which were derived, in part, from the widespread suspicion that he was lying about his “not in the loop” claim regarding the Iran-Contra scandal as well as from his own image as a preppie elitist.
To counter his “wimp” image, Bush went out on the campaign trail, eating pork rinds and trying to act like a regular guy.
Meanwhile, Dukakis made the fatal mistake of trying to keep the campaign on a higher policy plane and holding back on possible counterattacks. He also made his own unforced errors, like taking a ridiculous-looking ride in a tank.
As Newsweek correspondents Mickey Kaus and Jonathan Alter wrote in a retrospective on the campaign, “the experts soon began to hail the negative [Bush] strategy as brilliant. ... And somehow, everyone forgot Bush went to prep school.”
In campaign years since, there have been frequent echoes of Atwater’s “brilliant” strategy of 1988, often carried forward by one of his top protégés, Karl Rove.
In 1992, then-President Bush tried to paint his new rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, as unpatriotic or even disloyal, but the scheme blew up when Bush's subordinates were caught improperly searching through Clinton’s passport file. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
By 2000, with a powerful right-wing news media in place, Texas Gov. George W. Bush benefited from constant attacks on Vice President Al Gore’s honesty and integrity, including apocryphal claims about him saying he “invented the Internet” and bogus allegations linking Gore to Chinese nuclear spying. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
In 2004, an outside group – Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – questioned John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism and attacked his loyalty for returning home and criticizing the war. Meanwhile, at the GOP convention, Republican operatives played off those themes by passing out “Purple-Heart Band-Aids” to mock the severity of Kerry’s war wounds.
Other Bush’s operatives suggested Kerry “looked French” and didn’t act like a real American.
Though some good-government groups wagged their fingers at these kinds of negative campaign tactics, the bottom line was that they worked.
Still, some Americans felt that Campaign 2008 would be different, that the widely recognized disaster of the Bush presidency had awakened the public to the risk of evaluating candidates based on these clever distortions. This time, there was a chance for more serious-minded policy debates.
However, what happened instead was a curious Democratic reaction to having Democratic nominees savaged time and again. In effect, Hillary Clinton’s campaign set out to apply the same destructive tactics to Barack Obama, under the rationale that if Democrats didn’t do it now, Republicans would later.
At Consortiumnews.com, we began noting Clinton’s low-road trend in January along with her readiness to play the sensitive gender and race cards. But Obama’s rhetorical skills and the enthusiasm of his young supporters seemed to protect him from the negative attacks for a while.
However, when an increasingly desperate Clinton decided to “throw the kitchen sink” of allegations and suspicions at him, the intensity of the clamor eventually had its effect. Obama’s negatives began to rise, as did Sen. Clinton’s.
Before the Pennsylvania primary, Sen. Clinton also echoed George H.W. Bush’s pork-rind-eating ploy. To demonstrate her common touch – even if she and her husband did earn $109 million over the past eight years – she went to a bar in Indiana and knocked back a shot of whiskey before the cameras.
In another similarity with past cases of Republican-style campaigning, the good-government advocates reacted too late. By the time they start noting the unfairness of Clinton's tactics, the smears had taken their toll.
Along those lines, the New York Times editorial page, which endorsed Clinton before the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5, belatedly came to the recognition that the paper's home-state senator was running a dirty campaign.
On the morning after her critical Pennsylvania primary success, the Times published a lead editorial entitled, “The Low Road to Victory,” suggesting some regret for the paper’s earlier endorsement.
The Times called the Pennsylvania campaign “even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it. ...
“It is past time for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to acknowledge that the negativity, for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election. ...
“On the eve of this crucial primary, Mrs. Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11. A Clinton television ad – torn right from Karl Rove’s playbook – evoked the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the 9/11 attacks, complete with video of Osama bin Laden. ...
“By staying on the attack and not engaging Mr. Obama on the substance of issues like terrorism, the economy and how to organize an orderly exit from Iraq, Mrs. Clinton does more than just turn off voters who don’t like negative campaigning. She undercuts the rationale for her candidacy that led this page and others to support her: that she is more qualified, right now, to be president than Mr. Obama.” [NYT, April 23, 2008]
Typical of these belated critiques, the Times assumes that negative campaigning doesn’t work, that it is counterproductive. However, the reality, as has been demonstrated at least since 1988, is the opposite: the reason that ruthless politicians use these methods is that they have a proven track record of working very well.
Indeed, some Democrats who send us e-mails maintain that Hillary Clinton’s willingness to engage in character assassination against Barack Obama proves her readiness to compete against the Republicans in the fall. These Democrats mock Obama’s “Kumbayah” approach of post-partisan politics as naïve and doomed to fail.
Yet, whatever the rationalization, the Clinton campaign has reduced American politics once more to the level of questioning people’s patriotism and linking them through guilt by association to controversial figures.
We are back to Joe McCarthy’s dichotomy of “the good Americans” and “the other kind of Americans” whose loyalty is suspect.
The morning after Obama’s double-digit loss in Pennsylvania, some of his advisers were urging him to address his perceived deficit in patriotism by relenting and putting on a flag pin. The black man with the funny name would have to “prove” his patriotism, whether he finds the idea offensive or not.
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This story was published on April 24, 2008.