THE PLANK MARCH 6, 2008
It seems pretty apparent that the Hillary Clinton campaign's "kitchen sink" strategy -- that is, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Barack Obama -- is working. It's not the only reason Clinton stopped Obama's political momentum and won the critical Ohio and Texas primaries on Tuesday. But surely it's one of them.
So it's hardly surprising that Obama and his advisers have decided to hit back. On Wednesday, Obama made clear that he would be responding to Clinton attacks more forcefully in the future -- and asking her to answer the same sorts of quesitons that she has been putting to him. His campaign got to work on this right away, demanding that Clinton release her tax returns, something she hasn't done yet.
In a press release put out this morning, the Clinton campaign responded by -- wait for this -- accusing the Obama campaign of engaging in personal attacks as a way to avoid discussing the issues:
Obama’s decision to go explicitly negative suggests that
he is unable to make an affirmative case for his candidacy beyond ad
hominem attacks. Why isn’t he discussing the hearings that he
held on the Foreign Affairs subcommittee that he chairs? Why
isn’t he talking about his travel through Latin America? Why
isn’t he briefing the public on his comprehensive plan to address
the foreclosure crisis now? Why isn’t he stumping on his
universal plan health care plan? Because he can’t and so he
is advancing a campaign strategy premised on process and personal
the Obama campaign’s idea of new politics is to recycle the same
old Republican attacks on Senator Clinton that have failed for
years. Imitating Ken Starr is not the way to win the Democratic
The Obama campaign is idignant about the whole argument, but particularly the last line. And I don't blame them one bit. I'm pretty indignant about it, too.
For those who (blessedly) have started to forget the details of that awful episode, Ken Starr's sin was to wage an out-of-control investigation into personal conduct by then-President Bill Clinton -- conduct that had nothing whatsoever to do with his official duties. How, pray tell, is that similar to what Obama is doing?
For one thing, asking questions about Clinton's personal finances is completely legitimate, because the public has a right to know where her family has gotten their income -- and what sorts of favors they might owe because of it.
More important, though, for months Clinton has been claiming that one of her biggest advantages over Obama is that she has been "vetted" and Obama has not.
Clinton's claim here is hardly self-evident. (If you think it is, I highly recommend you revisit this New York Times story about Bill Clinton and his recent foundation work.) On the contrary, it's the kind that could -- and should -- be tested.
The broader implication is pretty bogus, too. The idea that Obama has ignored substance in order to engage in personal attakcs is just silly. His campaign hasn't always focused on bread-and-butter issues as much as I would like, but it's always been serious and, for the most part, positive.
In fact, it's probably been too positive. Like it or not, this is the way American politics works. Adversaries -- whether they be political rivals within the same party, partisan opponents, or special interests -- will try to tear you down. At some point, you have to respond in kind. Obama has always reminded doubters that he's from Chicago -- i.e., he can counterpunch politically if he needs to do so. It will be good to see whether he can back up that claim.
Back to the Ken Starr analogy, though, the first time I heard it was this morning, while I was listening to a conference call hosted by Clinton campaign officials Ann Lewis and Howard Wolfson. It seems particularly preposterous that Lewis would invoke this comparison, since she was on the White House staff during the whole impeachment mess and has a first-hand appreciation for what was going on then.
Since this was all over a conference call, I couldn't see her expression. But I have to wonder if she was able to keep a straight face.