Friday, March 07, 2008

Ken Starr versus the monster

I miss the Swedes. When I was a foreign correspondent back in the early '90s, I covered a national election in Sweden, and the experience was memorable for several reasons: (1) The whole campaign lasted four weeks, which is considerably less time than the warring Democrats will spend in the state of Pennsylvania, and (2) The dialogue was unremittingly civil. Candidates from the seven or eight political parties - spanning the political spectrum, from communists to right-wing nationalists - calmly recited their issue agendas; none of them dared try to assail a rival in personal terms, or rip somebody a new posterior. Such behavior was culturally unacceptable.

Excuse this pang of nostalgia, which was brought on by the latest outbreak of name-calling in America's longest running steel-cage death match: The attempt by a Hillary Clinton flak to paint Barack Obama as the reincarnation of conservative prosecutor Kenneth Starr; and an intemperate outburst by an Obama foreign policy advisor, who told a Scottish newspaper that Clinton is a "monster."

Which insult is worse? You be the judge. What I find most noteworthy is how the candidates reacted to the behavior of their own surrogates - and what their contrasting reactions tell us about the current dynamic of the race.

But first, here's what happened: After the Obama people renewed their demand that the Clintons release their tax returns from the past eight years, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson took umbrage, charging that Obama was "imitating Ken Starr." Starr, of course, is best known as the special counsel who pursued Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal; his official report detailed the trysts, as well as Bill's creative use of cigars, and paved the way for the GOP impeachment drive. Starr is a dirty name to the Democratic base, so, in that sense, Wolfson was smart in his choice of epithets.

One might argue, however, that the issue of secret tax returns is a tad more substantive than the issue of oral sex, and that Wolfson's attempt to equate the two is nothing more than a transparently clever con. One might also argue that his Starr insult is nothing more than rank hypocrisy - given the fact that, when Hillary ran for the Senate eight years ago, one of her big complaints was that Republican opponent Rick Lazio had failed to release his tax returns. Indeed, one of the demonstrators who showed up at a Lazio event, and yelled at Lazio to release his tax returns, was a Clinton campaign aide named...Howard Wolfson.

Meanwhile, in the Obama camp this week, foreign policy advisor Samantha Power, a Pulizer Prizewinning author and Harvard academic, gave an interview to a Scottish newspaper and said of Hillary: "She is a monster, too - that is off the record - she is stooping to anything." She also said of Hillary: "The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive." It's a tad unusual for a foreign policy advisor to assail a rival candidate in such personal terms.

And note, in particular, Power's attempt to retroactively remove her "monster" insult from the record, which is somewhat surprising, given the fact that Power is a former journalist herself. (Full disclosure: While I was reporting in Croatia back in 1994, I met Power. We traveled together to a refugee camp at the border, where we interviewed victims of the war in Bosnia. It was quickly clear that she was excellent at her job.)

But, most importantly, note the difference in candidate reactions. When Hillary was asked by reporters yesterday about Wolfson's Ken Starr insult, she simply said, "I'm not going to respond to that." Translation: She had no problems with what Wolfson had said. He was in the clear.

By contrast, Obama spokesman Bill Burton rebuked Power yesterday, stating: "Sen. Obama decries such characterizations, which have no place in this campaign." And Power followed with her own statement: "I should not have made these comments, and I deeply regret them. It is wrong for anyone to pursue this campaign in such negative and personal terms." Then, today, Power resigned (a largely symbolic gesture, since, in her own words, she was only an "informal advisor").

Therefore: advantage, Hillary. She has been portraying herself as a "fighter," somebody who knows to do what it takes to win. If her people want to rumble in a back alley on her behalf, that's fine with her. But Obama has been promising a "new politics" of civility, which means that he can't sanction back-alley rumbles without losing some of his luster and compromising his core principle. Indeed, he's on record as vowing to sack any underlings who talk trash about the opposition.

Hence, the Obama conundrum. If Hillary pulls a knife on him, and he refuses to slash back, can he win over the lunch-bucket Pennsylvania voters who yearn for a fighter? On the other hand, if he does meet her in the alley, can he outfight such a seasoned street pugilist? Either way, this looks a bit like what the military specialists refer to as asymmetrical warfare. And I feel farther and farther away from Sweden.