Revisiting the Clinton-Obama Wars!

by Jonathan Chait | January 12, 2010

My friend, and TNR alum, David Greenberg writes in the Los Angeles Times:

During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama's campaign perfected a brilliant technique for gaining the upper hand in the short-term news cycle -- feigned outrage. In the Democratic primaries, Obama's team would alight on an ill-phrased but ultimately innocent choice of words by his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton or one of her surrogates -- like her claim that President Lyndon Johnson did as much as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to pass the Civil Rights Act -- and use it to whip up outrage and score political points. Often, the indignation would be joined by a call for the aide who uttered the supposedly offensive remark to be, in the reigning cliche of 2008, thrown under the bus.

The Clinton campaign soon taught its spokespeople to huff just as indignantly over stray remarks made by Obama or his surrogates, giving words like "cling" and "bitter" and places like Pennsylvania an undeservedly long sojourn in the headlines.

David proceeds to make some sound points about the feigned outrage game. But I'm curious at his perception that the Obama campaign began the process of feigned outrage and the Clinton campaign only responded in kind. Even before the LBJ comment, Clinton:

expressed outrage that Obama had compared himself to President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., noting that Kennedy was a war hero who had served for 14 years in Congress.

(Miami Herald, January 8. I can't find the link.) By no means am I suggesting that Clinton started the grievance-mongering. It seems to me that supporters of both candidates nursed grudges about race and bias, bubbling up slowly to the candidates themselves in a mutually reinforcing pattern. I haven't done a complete study of this pattern, but you can find some examples of the deep grievance by Clinton supporters here and here. No doubt you could find similar emotions from the Obama side.

I don't think you can characterize the use of feigned outrage -- some of which I actually think was real, if overheated -- as a tactic first deployed by one side against the other. It was probably inevitable that a contest of historic firsts with deep bases of support held among liberal activists would devolve into insinuations of racism and sexism.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/revisiting-the-clinton-obama-wars