Morning Cheat Sheet
A Mudslinging Reality Check for Clinton
The elections are right around the corner, but only the frontrunners are allowed on television. The other candidates are being arrested and thrown in jail. For all the moaning by Democratic candidates about how mean their rivals are, it takes only a quick look at what's happening in Russia or Pakistan these days to see genuinely hardball politics.
Parliamentary elections being held in Russia this coming Sunday, in fact, stand in sharp relief to what has actually been a remarkably genteel campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination here at home, despite all the caterwauling. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) complained during a debate in Las Vegas this month that her opponents were "throwing mud" at her, while Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) complained yesterday that it was Clinton who was making "personal attacks" against him.
Time for a little reality check here. The "mud" Clinton groused about was, in fact, a series of questions about her policy positions or her experience. Obama's criticism of her vote on an Iran resolution may be overblown or distorted, but is it mud to debate an important foreign policy question? Former North Carolina senator John Edwards's assertion that she is too tied into a calcified, corrupted Washington establishment to bring about meaningful change may be tough or exaggerated but is it illegitimate to ask whether someone who has been at the center of the system for the last 15 years can genuinely reform it?
Similarly, Clinton yesterday attacked Obama for using a Senate leadership political action committee to spread money around to supporters in key early primary states in a manner that "appears to be inconsistent with the prevailing election laws." Obama's campaign responded by branding it "the latest personal attack from Hillary Clinton." What's personal about asking if another candidate broke the law in his management of campaign funds? It may be desperate coming from a frontrunner, or even hypocritical for someone whose family has been in the middle of more than one campaign scandal, but there doesn't seem to be anything all that personal about it.
Mudslinging, of course, has a long and storied history in American politics, from attacks on Thomas Jefferson for fathering children with a slave to the allegations that Andrew Jackson was a bigamist. Martin Van Buren was accused by a congressman of secretly wearing women's clothes. Rutherford B. Hayes was accused of getting drunk and shooting his mother. Grover Cleveland, accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, endured chants of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" at opposition rallies -- to which supporters after his victory appended the rejoinder, "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha." Webster's New World Dictionary defines mudslinging as "the practice of making unscrupulous, malicious attacks against an opponent." It's common enough that author Joseph Cummins published a book last month detailing the history of mudslinging, "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns." (Catch his appearance on CBS talking about the book.)
By that standard, the Democratic campaign, like the Republican nomination battle, if anything has been an awfully polite affair so far. There has been serious discussion of some of the most pressing issues facing the nation, such as Iraq and health care. There have been contrasts in the way different candidates have handled various matters that have arisen. But forget Russia, even by the standards of modern American politics, there has been no real mudslinging, at least at the public level. What little dirty campaigning has taken place -- the anonymous emails asserting that Obama is a secret Muslim or the push polls telling voters that Republican Mitt Romney is a Mormon -- has not been taking place on the public stage but below the radar screen and has yet to be tied to any campaign.
Some of the second-tier Democratic candidates, watching the skirmishing between Clinton, Obama and Edwards, have tried to capitalize by adopting a tut-tut scolding tone. "Let's stop this mudslinging," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson harumphed at the Las Vegas debate. "Let's stop this going after each other on character, on trust. Let us debate the issues that affect the American people." That usually generates hearty applause from Democratic audiences.
Having seen real character attacks, Edwards later pointed out that this campaign hasn't had any yet. "The idea that this is mudslinging -- I mean, we're talking about substantive issues of war that are going to face the next president of the United States," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation" the following Sunday. "And I might add, having been through a general election, I mean, if anybody, including Senator Clinton, thinks this is mudslinging -- this is milquetoast compared to what we're going to see next fall. We need to have a candidate who's actually ready for that battle."
After all, so far, none of the other Democratic candidates has really brought up any of the obvious issues that could confront their colleagues, such as Richardson's management of the nation's nuclear laboratories as energy secretary or Edwards's work for a hedge-fund firm involved in foreclosing on Hurricane Katrina victims or Obama's land deal with a Chicago dealmaker later indicted for influence-peddling or Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's bankruptcy of the city of Cleveland while mayor or Delaware Sen. Joe Biden's plagiarism episode that ruined his 1988 presidential run. Nor for that matter, have the Republican candidates gone after, to name an example, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's three marriages and the children who don't like him very much, although they are beginning to raise ethical questions about former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
In reality, no one knows what real mudslinging looks like better than Clinton, who survived her husband's tabloid presidency with more than a little splatter. The early cry of "throwing mud," in fact, may be innoculation to ward off any discussion of things that would actually veer into territory she would rather leave undiscussed -- her husband's impeachment, disbarment and contempt citation for giving false testimony under oath about his affair with a White House intern, her own grand jury testimony that led prosecutors to draft, but never file, an indictment against her in the Whitewater case, her family's ties to such figures as Webster Hubbell, Jim and Susan McDougal, Dick Morris and others, not to mention the endless questions about the state of her marriage.
It's certainly reasonable for Democrats to worry about whether they are too focused on attacking each other instead of Republicans. That's the danger of a vigorous nomination battle. But there's a difference between negative campaigning and mudslinging. For that, the Democrats may want to put some drycleaners on retainer. And be glad they're not in Russia.
-- Peter Baker
Posted at 11:34 AM ET on Nov 27, 2007
Morning Cheat Sheet
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