This Is Your Campaign On Drugs

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JULY 18, 2012

This Is Your Campaign On Drugs

In December 2007, I was in New Hampshire covering the presidential primary, and drove over to Dover, in the Seacoast region, to check in with Billy Shaheen, the Democratic power broker married to the state's former governor and current senator, Jeanne Shaheen. I knew Billy Shaheen from my days working at the Concord Monitor and wanted to take his temperature on the state of the Democratic presidential race, in which he had a personal stake: he was the chairman of Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire campaign. It so happened that the day I drove over, a poll appeared showing Barack Obama gaining on Clinton in New Hampshire, despite the Clintons' strong base of support in the state. The poll may have helped explain what happened next: soon after I arrived at Shaheen's law office, he ventured into an area I wasn't expecting. As I reported at the time:

Shaheen also expressed his personal misgivings about whether Obama or Edwards would be electable if they became the party's nominee.

Among his concerns about Obama as the nominee, he said in an interview here today, is that his background is so relatively unknown and that the Republicans would do their best to unearth negative aspects of it, or concoct mistruths about it. Shaheen, a lawyer and influential state power broker, mentioned as an example Obama's use of cocaine and marijuana as a young man, which Obama has been open about in his memoir and on the trail.

“The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight ... and one of the things they’re certainly going to jump on is his drug use,” said Shaheen, the husband of former N.H. governor Jeanne Shaheen, who is planning to run for the Senate next year. Billy Shaheen contrasted Obama’s openness about his past drug use—which Obama mentioned again at a recent campaign appearance in New Hampshire—with the approach taken by George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000, when he ruled out questions about his behavior when he was “young and irresponsible.”

Shaheen said Obama’s candor on the subject would “open the door” to further questions. “It’ll be,‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’” Shaheen said. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It’s hard to overcome.”

Was this a planned tack by the Clinton campaign, to publicly raise Obama’s well-acknowledged drug use as a young man, or was Shaheen freelancing, perhaps out of frustration with Obama’s rise in his state? I never could figure that out for sure. In any case, after a furor over Shaheen’s remarks, he apologized for them and resigned his chairmanship. The epilogue came a short while later on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport in Washington, where Hillary Clinton apologized to Obama over the remarks, only to have the exchange turn so tense that Clinton’s people for weeks later tried to claim that Obama had personally manhandled the former First Lady.

The irony, of course, was that John McCain’s campaign never raised Obama’s drug use, or at least not in a concerted attack as Shaheen had warned against. But this week, Shaheen has gotten a measure of vindication, for apparently Mitt Romney operates by a different set of rules than John McCain:

Indeed, facing what the candidate and his aides believe to be a series of surprisingly ruthless, unfounded, and unfair attacks from the Obama campaign on Romney’s finances and business record, the Republican’s campaign is now prepared to go eye for an eye in an intense, no-holds-barred act of political reprisal, said two Romney advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity. In the next chapter of Boston’s pushback — which began last week when they began labeling Obama a “liar” — very little will be off-limits, from the president’s youthful drug habit, to his ties to disgraced Chicago politicians.

“I mean, this is a guy who admitted to cocaine use, had a sweetheart deal with his house in Chicago, and was associated and worked with Rod Blagojevich to get Valerie Jarrett appointed to the Senate,” the adviser said. "The bottom line is there’ll be counterattacks.”

The reference to Obama’s past drug use seems to suggest that former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu wasn’t going off-script after all when he dinged the president for spending “his early years in Hawaii smoking something” during a Tuesday morning Fox News appearance.

The Sununu connection adds a curious element to this latest turn: what is it, exactly, about New Hampshire campaign surrogates talking drugs? Apparently the Live Free or Die state’s live and let live ethos makes an exception for campaign gambits at moments of slowly mounting desperation.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

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posted in: alec macgillis, concord, hillary clinton, barack obama, billy shaheen, george w. bush, jeanne shaheen, john mccain, new hampshire, senate, senate, the plank

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