The Campaign Season of Taking Offense
By Peter Baker
Barack Obama's campaign is outraged that Hillary Rodham Clinton's husband supposedly questioned the Illinois senator's patriotism. Clinton's campaign is insulted that an Obama surrogate would compare the supposed attack to McCarthyism. The Obama campaign is shocked that a top Clinton supporter would compare an Obama supporter to Judas Iscariot. The Clinton campaign is beside itself that an Obama state worker would mention Monica Lewinsky's infamous blue dress.
And all of that just in the past 48 hours or so. Call it the Year of Taking Offense. Somehow an election campaign that in theory is centered on the Big Issues of our day, such as war and recession, instead has turned into a sticks-and-stones contest. Instead of pressing each other on how they would fix health care or fight terrorism, the candidates are busy crying gotcha every time someone on the other side says something offensive or even something that could be perceived as offensive. And the shock, shock over the things being said on the campaign trail isn't even over what the candidates themselves are saying, but what their supporters are saying.
This is nothing new in politics, of course, but it does seem to be reaching a fever pitch this year. Hillary Clinton pushed out a New Hampshire campaign official for mentioning Obama's youthful drug use, offered regrets for some of her husband's statements that were taken as racially insensitive and distanced herself from an introducer at an event who implicitly raised Obama's drug use. Obama offered regrets that his staff attacked the Clintons over their use of the Lincoln Bedroom for fundraiser sleepovers and renounced a memo put out by a state campaign worker portraying the Clintons as racist. John McCain, now without a foe for the Republican nomination, repudiated a talk show host who spoke at his rally and mocked Obama's middle name, Hussein, and the Arizona senator denounced a Republican congressman for saying an Obama victory in the fall would be a victory for Islamist radicals.
The Apology Tour has only turned more intense in recent weeks. There was Samantha Power, the Obama foreign policy adviser, who had to quit after calling Clinton a "monster." There was Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice presidential nominee serving as a fundraiser for the New York senator, who had to quit for saying Obama was ahead only because he was a black man. And then of course there was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor and the man who married the Obamas and baptized their children. Obama spent the better part of a week trying to find a way to disclaim Wright's harsh statements about the United States without completely disowning a man he described as a virtual member of his family.
So what's going on? Is everyone just more thin-skinned these days? Some of the statements are patently offensive and would draw fire in any political year. Wright's sermons included especially provocative language and his close relationship over the years with the candidate raised real questions about Obama's views on the serious issues his minister addressed -- questions the senator tried to address with his speech on race in Philadelphia last week. But some of these other kerfuffles hardly seem worth the emotional energy they have generated and the feigned outrage comes across as contrived strictly for political gain -- look what they're doing to me! The eager embrace of victimhood may seem like a questionable campaign tactic, but everyone wants to keep the other camp on the defensive, portraying opponents as supposed purveyors of politics as usual. The Obama campaign did not get exercised about Ferraro's comments until after it was pressed to denounce Power, then it reached back to find an interview the former vice presidential candidate had given days earlier to try to change the subject.
The back-and-forth reached a particularly surreal moment during a debate last month when Clinton pressed Obama to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who had endorsed Obama.
"I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments," Obama said.
Not good enough for Clinton. "There's a difference between denouncing and rejecting," she said.
"I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting," Obama replied, "but if the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."
Most of this is just chaff, accentuated by cable television, radio talk shows and the Internet, which chew on them endlessly. Should a candidate be responsible for everything his or her surrogates say? Should every unwise, overheated comment become a scandal? This situation has been exacerbated in part because the dominant contest of the moment -- the extra-innings showdown between Obama and Clinton for the Democratic nomination -- is so devoid of serious policy differences. With few exceptions, the two Democrats broadly share the same goals and positions on the major issues of the day and the choice between them has largely come down to their experience, capacity, judgment and character. So small moments become magnified.
The brewing controversy over Clinton's exaggerated version of her trip to Bosnia as first lady may prove to be more significant. Rather than a surrogate, it is the candidate's own words that have come under question -- and rather than simply being offensive, they raise questions about her veracity or at the least her memory. And as our Fact Checker, Michael Dobbs, first demonstrated and CBS News later confirmed through powerful archival video, her account of a war-zone trip under enemy fire does not match reality.
She now says she misspoke but that will probably not silence her critics. There will be calls for apologies. And so the only sniper fire she may see will be the political kind.
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