Obama Responds to Clinton’s Smear Campaign

When a campaign is the subject of a campagin based upon smears it is always a difficult decision as to how to respond. This was the case with John Kerry and the Swift Boat Liars in 2004, and with Barack Obama and the smear campaign being run by Hillary Clinton today. One problem is that time devoted to smears can distract from the positive message you wish for the campaign to portray. The Washington Post reviews how this problem has affected the Obama campaign.

The hundreds of people who turned out at the University of Nevada on Friday heard Sen. Barack Obama deliver a lofty stump speech about bridging the nation’s divides and creating a groundswell for change. But they also witnessed him engage in the more mundane task of rebutting attacks from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on his positions on Social Security taxes and on the proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

“When Senator Clinton implied that I’m for Yucca when I’ve never been for it, that’s a problem. That erodes people’s confidence in our politics,” Obama said.

It was a sign of a lesson learned the hard way: Let no attack go unanswered.

After his victory in the Iowa caucuses, Obama arrived in New Hampshire more as the head of a movement than as a candidate, greeted by huge crowds that lined up for hours to hear a speech that could have been delivered at a suburban megachurch, all empowerment and inspiration.

I have previously discussed the smears regarding Social Security here. The Washington Post next mentions the smears regarding Obama voting present, which I discussed here.

While the Democratic senator from Illinois was holding his rallies, though, Clinton’s campaign sent out a mailing accusing him of being soft in his support for abortion rights, organized 24 prominent New Hampshire women to send an e-mail echoing that charge and distributed a flier accusing him of seeking a big tax increase on working families. The charges were debatable, but Obama’s only response was a hastily arranged automated phone call decrying the abortion attack. Clinton won the primary with strong support from the mailings’ target audiences — women and working-class voters.

It is understandable that the campaign did not see a need to respond more aggressively to Clinton following the victory in Iowa, and this will hopefully be a lesson Obama does not forget. The loss in New Hampshire following these smears might have been a necessary lesson for Obama to learn should he face the Republicans in a general election campaign.

“We came into New Hampshire on a high,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser. “The iconic rallies, combined with the polling, conveyed a sense that we were taking it for granted. She [Clinton] looked like she was working for it, scraping for it.” He added, “This is a long process, and this is how you learn.”

But the new, more aggressive strategy also poses a challenge for Obama: The more time he spends rebutting Clinton attacks, the more difficult it is for him to focus on the broader themes and uplifting rhetoric that have been drawing voters to him. While Obama may have the facts on his side — at least in several instances — engaging with the senator from New York may seem to many voters to be a wearying and obscure show of tit-for-tats that distracts from his overarching offer of a “new kind of politics.”

The article notes that Obama responded to the Reagan issue, which I’ve now commented on in several recent posts reporting that, “The Obama campaign quickly arranged its own call with congressmen, arguing that the remarks were a historical observation, not an endorsement of Reagan’s politics.”

The article provides further detail of Obama’s responses to the attacks raised earlier in the article:

Clinton’s charge questioning Obama’s credentials on abortion rights surfaced a month before the Iowa caucuses; she cited Obama’s votes of “present,” rather than “yes” or “no,” on some abortion bills in the Illinois Senate as proof that he is shaky on the issue. The Illinois chapter of the National Organization for Women had criticized the votes, but the Obama campaign pointed to statements by Pam Sutherland, the head of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, saying the “present” votes were part of a strategy to protect legislators in vulnerable districts. Obama has 100 percent ratings from abortion rights groups.

But the mailing in New Hampshire, which stated in bold that Obama was “unwilling to take a stand on choice,” arrived much closer to the vote there than in Iowa. His campaign rushed out an automated phone call two days before primary day, but on the final day of the campaign, volunteers reported with dismay that many voters were asking about Obama’s stance on abortion rights.

This week, the campaign took a more combative approach. Last Saturday, Obama staffers called Sutherland to ask her to publicly explain the “present” votes. “The facts are the facts — he helped us with a winning strategy,” she said in a conference call with reporters the next day.

Clinton also attacked Obama’s position on Social Security in a mailing that went to voters in New Hampshire and Nevada, accusing him of seeking a “trillion dollar tax increase on America’s hardworking families.” It was a reference to his statements that he would consider addressing Social Security’s deficit by raising the $97,500 limit on salaries subject to payroll tax. At times, he has suggested a “doughnut hole” of untaxed salary above the current limit and taxing everything above $200,000.

Obama let the charge go unanswered in New Hampshire. But in Nevada he has offered a defense to his audiences, saying that raising the cap, particularly if limited to those earning more than $200,000, would make the tax more fair to working-class Americans, and noting that Clinton told a voter a few months ago that she was open to the idea. Her principal proposal for addressing Social Security is to restore “fiscal responsibility” and to appoint a study commission.

Obama has made a few attacks of his own, but has avoided the types of smears and misrepresentation of his oppenents’ views which he has been the target of:

But, as the Clinton campaign points out, that does not mean that Obama has avoided attacks altogether — he weaves them into his comments on the stump and in interviews, where his barbs have grown sharper. In Reno on Friday, he ridiculed an answer Clinton gave during the Las Vegas debate about her support for a 2001 Senate bankruptcy bill that was backed by credit-card companies and strongly opposed by consumer groups. Clinton said she was glad the measure never became law. “Think about that,” Obama said. “She voted for it even though she hoped it wouldn’t pass.”

The crowd favorite was Obama’s reenactment of how Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) responded during the debate to a question about their biggest weaknesses. Obama recalled his own answer — that he is disorganized. “And Senator Edwards says, ‘I’m just so passionate about poor people. And helping them.’ And then Hillary says, ‘My biggest weakness is I’m so impatient about bringing about real change to America.’ “

Smiling, Obama added: “This is what I mean. This is political speak. This is what you learn in Washington, from all those years of experience.”

In seeing how the Clinton campaign has turned into a campaign a smears, the real question today is whether someone who runs such a dishonest campaign can be trusted to be any more honest if elected president.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    Christopher says:

    People don’t stop to think about the information they’re getting in an election cycle.

    Especially, when the information is coming from the King and Queen of Sleaze, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

    The Obama campaign has released a recording (mp3) it says came from a Nevadan’s answering machine of an anonymous robocall that criticizes Obama for taking money from special interests while repeating, four times, his rarely used middle name: “Hussein.”

    “I’m calling with some important information about Barack Hussein Obama,” the call begins, before saying that “Barack Hussein Obama says he doesn’t take money from Washington lobbyists or special interest groups but the record is clear that he does.”

    After mentioning his full name once more, the call concludes:

    “You just can’t take a chance on Barack Hussein Obama.”

    Hillary Clinton: she’s filthy enough to make Karl Rove smile.

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