Thursday, January 24, 2008

The dark art of Clintonian innuendo

An anti-Obama radio ad, launched yesterday in South Carolina, is vivid proof - as if we needed it - that the Clintons are master practitioners of fact-free innuendo.

Granted, the Clintons are hardly the first to spread falsehoods in the pursuit of power (read any history about the election of 1800), and the lie they are currently broadcasting about Barack Obama is hardly on a par with the lies that were employed to entrap us in Iraq (935 lies, to be precise). But this new radio ad is worth examining, if only because it demonstrates, in microcosm, the Clintons' willingness to say and do whatever it takes to win, even if a fellow Democrat is soiled, and the party mood is soured, in the doing.

The ad features an Obama sound bite, a partial sentence of something that he said to a Reno newspaper back on Jan. 14: "The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years." After his voice fades, a snide narrator says to the listener, "Really? Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today?....Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?" Then the music swells and the narrator says, "Hillary Clinton thinks this election's about replacing disastrous ideas with new ones." (A link to the radio ad is here.)

The ad's message: Obama, by stating that the GOP had been "the party of ideas," was obviously endorsing those ideas.

Factual reality: Obama did not endorse those ideas.

In political war, context is often the first casualty. Here's the context of what Obama said to the Reno paper (the italics are mine): "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, you know government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating, and I think people just tapped into – he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism, and, and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing.

"I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it just has to do with the times. I think we’re in one of those times right now, where people feels like things as they are going right now aren’t working, that we’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having, and they’re not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom."

Obama was simply stating that Reagan was in sync with the mood of his era - can any rational human, of whatever ideological persuasion, really argue with that? - just as Kennedy, on the Democratic side, was in sync with the mood of an earlier era. An acknowledgement is hardly an endorsement.

And there's no disputing the fact, as Obama noted, that the Republicans were the party of ideas during the past several decades. For better or worse, at least they had ideas; as countless Democrats have told me, in interviews dating back to the early '90s, the GOP knew what it stood for and the Democrats did not. Washington D.C. is home to a slew of conservative think tanks, all of which crank out policy papers advancing those ideas. Liberals have no such equivalent. Indeed, lest we forget, Bill Clinton's administration even embraced some of those GOP ideas; witness Bill's signing of the congressional GOP's welfare reform measure, in 1996.

(Meanwhile, here is Hillary, praising Ronald Reagan's political skills in Boom!, the new bestselling book by Tom Brokaw: "When he had those big tax cuts and they went too far, he oversaw the largest tax increase. He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements. He played the balance and the music beautifully.")

So all the current Clinton umbrage is wholly manufactured. And Obama wasn't endorsing those GOP ideas, anyway. Take a look again at his concluding remarks, in context: "And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.

The Clintons' new radio ad omits the remarks that I have italicized. Of course, if they had provided the full context of what he said, there would have been no radio ad.

But the radio ad is merely the Clintons' latest attempt to perpetuate the illusion that Obama had endorsed GOP ideas. In a debate three nights ago, Hillary brought up the Reno remarks: "(He) has said in the last week that he really liked the Republicans over the last 10 or 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote. This prompted Obama to point out, "I didn't say they were good ideas." To which Hillary said, "Well, you can read the context of it...It certainly came across in the way that it was presented." (Factual reality: In context, Obama's point "came across" as precisely the opposite of what Hillary asserts.)

But, of course, the Clintons started banging away at this long before the debate, in accordance with the hardball credo that a falsehood works best when endlessly repeated. Hence we have Bill Clinton, on the stump last week in Nevada: "Her principle opponent said that, since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas...I'm not making this stuff up, folks."

He was making it up. But if you're wondering why the Clintons would risk sullying themselves by engaging in such a practice, the answer is simple: They do it because it works. People routinely decry negative attacks, but they remember them anyway. And the candidate who denies an unfair charge is stuck playing defense, and defense is for losers.

This is the grist of politics as usual, and it brings to mind the old story about how Lyndon Johnson clawed his way to a Senate seat back in 1948. While systematically tarring his rival, fellow Democrat Coke Stevenson, the young LBJ said it might be a fine idea to spread the rumor that ole Coke was fond of having carnal relations with farm animals. His aides were shocked. Lyndon, they said, you know that's not true. To which LBJ replied, "I know that. I just want to make him to deny it."


UPDATE: The Clinton campaign decided on Thursday afternoon to pull the aforementioned radio ad. No reasons were given. Care to guess why?


And speaking of Brokaw's bestselling Boom!, a sprawling '60s retrospective, I wrote a freelance book review here.