Lessons From Bill On How to Keep a Campaign From Gaining Ground
By RICK KLEIN with MIKE ELMORE
April 11, 2008
As the saying goes, if you want political reporters to eat their vegetables, it helps if they have nothing else on their plate. The Clintons, meanwhile, are serving whoppers.
Former president Bill Clinton is the latest to hand out a juicy fib — circling back to Bosnia to cram four falsehoods into 23 words: His wife, he said, “one time late at night when she was exhausted, misstated and immediately apologized for it, what happened to her in Bosnia in 1995.”
Where to start? If his telling is accurate, it depends on what the definition of “one time,” “late at night,” and “immediately apologized” is. (And it was 1996, not 1995.)
“Hillary Clinton actually made the comments numerous times, including at an event in Iowa on Dec. 29, and an event on Feb. 29 and one time — bright and early in the morning — on March 17,” ABC’s Sarah Amos and Eloise Harper report.
“Sen. Clinton wasn’t as quick with her apology as President Clinton may remember either. In fact, it took a week for her to eventually correct herself, first talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board on March 24 and again apologizing the next day in Greensboro, N.C.”
Politifact.com gave Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s handling of the matter the dreaded “pants on fire” designation.
ABC’s Jake Tapper counts up a total of eight different misstatements/exaggerations in his telling of the tale on Thursday.
Maybe this whole Bosnia flap has gotten too much attention. Maybe Bill Clinton is right that his wife was wrongly treated like “she’d robbed a bank the way they carried on about this.” Maybe he’s also right that “when they’re 60 they’ll forget something when they’re tired at 11:00 at night, too.” (Who are “they,” and why are they so mean to his wife, anyway?)
But for whatever reason, another “they” — Pennsylvania voters — have followed this storyline. (The word around Camp Clinton is that this story is the biggest factor in her Pennsylvania dip — which is one reason Bill Clinton is trying to explain it away to voters in Indiana.)
It remains Sen. Clinton who’s defending her credibility, honesty, and trustworthiness, keeping the spotlight away from her rival in the closing weeks before April 22.
The problem for Sen. Clinton is that one side of the double-edged sword that is her husband remains sharper than the other. The Clintons can explain away their differences (trade, torture, an Olympic boycott) but this is messy stuff for a campaign that can’t afford too many more distractions.
The Boston Globe’s Foon Rhee calls it “one of the central challenges of Hillary Clinton’s campaign: How to take credit for the accomplishments of her husband’s presidency and profit from his popularity while distancing herself from his past and present positions on which they disagree.”
Former presidential adviser David Gergen sees the campaign “going sideways rather than forward.” “She very badly needs to get back to the campaign message, what she would do in the next four years,” Gergen tells Rhee.
Remember the quaint old days when we feared Sen. Clinton being overshadowed by her husband’s wattage? Overwhelmed is more like it.
What of this portion of the legacy? Welfare reform — still the target of liberal ire 12 years later — is reemerging as an issue, Peter S. Goodman writes in The New York Times. Clinton “rarely mentions the issue as she battles for the nomination, despite the emphasis she has placed on her experience in her husband’s White House,” Goodman writes.
“But now the issue is back, pulled to the fore by an economy turning down more sharply than at any other time since the welfare changes were imposed. With low-income people especially threatened by a weakening labor market, some advocates for poor families are raising concerns about the adequacy of the remaining social safety net. Mrs. Clinton is now calling for the establishment of a cabinet-level position to fight poverty.”
It could still be trade that moves the most moves in lunch-bucket parts of Pennsylvania. “Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is pressing her claim that she opposed her husband’s free trade push when he was president, despite her favorable words about it at the time,” per the AP fact-check. “She spoke up for [NAFTA’s] passage and early results when her husband Bill was president, years before Obama came to Washington.”
This isn’t as serious — but will (unfortunately for the Clintons) generate more buzz. Coming to a right-wing talkfest near you: Clinton’s “presidential retirement benefits cost taxpayers almost as much as those of the other two living ex-presidents combined,” Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel reports. “The price tag for Clinton’s federal retirement allowance from 2001 through the end of this year will run $8 million, compared to $5.5 million for George H. W. Bush’s and $4 million for Jimmy Carter’s during the same period.”
(He did serve as long as H.W. and Carter combined . . . )
If not for all of this, it just might be Sen. Barack Obama’s (possible) hypocrisy that would consuming the campaign oxygen. There’s his dance on public financing, and this: “A mere five months ago, in Iowa, Obama didn’t like it when outside ‘special interest’ groups sided with his rivals, pumped their own money into the campaign, and ran independent ads against him,” Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Fast forward to the Pennsylvania primary, present day . . . and the news that SEIU and an affiliated health-care local union are pouring upwards of $1 million into an independent pro-Obama effort that parallels the official Obama operation.
“Nothing illegal about that, then or now. The issue here is the difference between Obama’s stance, then and now,” Polman writes. “He’s a politician who is trying to win, and he will flip where he once flopped if that’s what it takes.”
Particularly because (Sen. Clinton’s complaints to the contrary) the Democratic Party is showing no likelihood of suddenly behaving like Republicans, she needs to pitch something close to a perfect game between here and Pennsylvania (and beyond) to capture the nomination.
Jake Tapper does some math along with ABC’s political unit and comes up with this scenario for when the Democratic voting is done: “Obama in June would still lead Clinton with 120 delegates. Almost two more months, millions of dollars, hundreds of attacks and counter-attacks between the two campaigns later,” Tapper writes. “It all means that come June we could be essentially exactly where we are today, short of some serious movement by superdelegates or Democratic voters one way or another.”
Slate’s Christopher Beam does some math of his own: “Even if Hillary Clinton wins every single one of the remaining contests by 10 points, she still needs to win 70 percent of the remaining uncommitted superdelegates. Given that since Feb. 5, Obama has netted 69 superdelegates and Clinton has lost a net of five, it’s fair to say the pendulum is not swinging her way.”
And if she can’t win Pennsylvania, the rest of the story is written. Salon’s Walter Shapiro travels back to the site of Obama’s bowling fiasco (and reminds us that he was actually bowling a 47 — and working a spare — when he quit in the seventh frame). “There are hints that Obama, who is narrowing the gap against Clinton in recent statewide polls, may be tapping into something even here in Altoona, where the 19th century offered more promise than the current one,” Shapiro writes.
“What everyone remembered (including the clerk from the rental car company who insisted on driving me on Obama’s route through Altoona) is the candidate who came to bowl . . . even if badly.”
Here, though, is a twist: “Sen. Barack Obama has collided with the gritty political traditions of Philadelphia, where ward bosses love their candidates, but also expect them to pay up,” the Los Angeles Times’ Peter Nicholas reports. “The dispute centers on the dispensing of ‘street money,’ a long-standing Philadelphia ritual in which candidates deliver cash to the city’s Democratic operatives in return for getting out the vote.”
(Can you imagine the stories if the payments were made? How does the politics of bribery play out?)
This is not a financial decision — and neither is Obama’s campaign a pure-as-the-driven-snow people-powered movement.
There’s the small givers Obama likes to celebrate, and “those with wealth and power also have played a critical role in creating Obama’s record-breaking fundraising machine, and their generosity has earned them a prominent voice in shaping his campaign,” Matthew Mosk and Alec MacGillis write in The Washington Post, in the definitive account of Obama’s money team.
“Seventy-nine ‘bundlers,’ five of them billionaires, have tapped their personal networks to raise at least $200,000 each. They have helped the campaign recruit more than 27,000 donors to write checks for $2,300, the maximum allowed.”
More Obama money scrutiny: “Campaign finance records state that Obama has received tens of thousand of dollars from people in many of the same groups and industries he regularly rails against,” Brett Lieberman writes in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
What it means: “Barack Obama will likely overwhelm John McCain in campaign spending, if the Illinois senator wins his party’s presidential nomination, in what would be the first time in four decades a Democrat would enjoy such an advantage,” Bloomberg’s Jonathan Salant reports.
“And he could do it whether he accepts federal campaign- finance limits or raises all the money privately.”
Another twist to add this Friday, in the clip most likely to be circulated by the Clinton campaign: “Republican Sen. John McCain has erased Sen. Barack Obama’s 10-point advantage in a head-to-head matchup, leaving him essentially tied with both Democratic candidates in an Associated Press-Ipsos national poll released Thursday,” AP’s Nedra Pickler writes.
“The survey showed the extended Democratic primary campaign creating divisions among supporters of Obama and rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and suggests a tight race for the presidency in November no matter which Democrat becomes the nominee.”
Key nugget: “About a quarter of Obama supporters say they’ll vote for McCain if Clinton is the Democratic nominee. About a third of Clinton supporters say they would vote for McCain if it’s Obama.”
For Clinton, it’s been the first good taste of superdelegate movement in a while — three in 36 hours: new Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.; former Pittsburgh mayor Sophie Masloff; and Bill Burga, former president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.
As for McCain — are we detecting a move to the center (already)?
There’s this: “Senator John McCain, who drew criticism last month after he warned against broad government intervention to solve the deepening mortgage crisis, pivoted Thursday and called for the federal government to aid some homeowners in danger of losing their homes, by helping them to refinance and get federally guaranteed 30-year mortgages,” Michael Cooper writes in The New York Times.
(Shouldn’t he get the base in line first? “Hey, remember when I praised McCain’s housing stance? Forget it,” blogs Michelle Malkin. “Maverick schmaverick.”
And: “Sen. John McCain broke with President Bush on how to manage the nation’s emergency stockpile of petroleum, saying the administration should stop adding oil to the reserve at a time of high prices,” Stephen Power and Neil King Jr. write in The Wall Street Journal.
Also: “Unless they change something pretty quickly,” McCain told the ladies of “The View” Thursday, per ABC’s Bret Hovell, “I would not go to the opening ceremonies [of the Beijing Olympics].”
That leaves Obama as the odd candidate out: Obama has “expressed similar views, adding his concerns about Chinese influence with Sudan in the midst of the slaughter in Darfur,” Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times.
“But Obama, saying that a boycott of the opening ceremonies should be ‘firmly on the table,’ argued that the decision ‘should be made closer to the Games.’ ”
Or maybe it doesn’t: “Barack Obama said Thursday that it would be an ‘appropriate step’ for the president to skip the opening ceremonies in protest to China’s policies,” the Chicago Tribune’s John McCormick reports.
Said Obama: “The Olympics always has been a place where people register their concerns. . . China clearly has not upheld the kinds of human rights that we would expect from such a major actor on the world stage.”
Some praise for McCain from everybody’s favorite independent mayor: “He is someone who is nothing if not forthright,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., said in introducing McCain in Brooklyn Thursday.
And Bloomberg has a long memory: “I got elected because of you,” he told McCain.
DNC Chairman Howard Dean invited reporters to peek at his playbook on Thursday, including one juicy item that he won’t bring up — promise. “Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Thursday that swing voters participating in focus groups commissioned by the DNC bring up John McCain’s age unprompted,” per ABC’s Teddy Davis and Mike Elmore. “I doubt we will bring it up in the election,” Dean said. “There is somewhat of a higher ethical bar on what we do.” (Come again?)
Sen. Clinton has a pair of events in Philadelphia, where she is expected to unveil “a crime-fighting plan that she boldly says will halve homicide rates in cities over five years,” per the Philadelphia Daily News’ Catherine Lucey.
Get ready for COPS 2.0: “She maintains that she could cut homicide rates in cities by increasing the number of police on the street, reducing gang violence and by cracking down on illegal gun trafficking,” McClatchy’s William Douglas reports.
Clinton plans to say: “At its core, my agenda is about responsibility. . . . It’s about the federal government living up to its responsibility to help restore order in our communities, pave the way for economic development and new jobs, and help our families feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods.”
Obama hits Indiana on Friday. Per his campaign: “Senator Barack Obama will call for swift passage of his legislation to require corporations to hold a nonbinding shareholders vote on compensation packages offered to executives.”
From his prepared remarks: “So what we need to do is restore balance to our economy and put in place rules of the road to make competition fair, and open, and honest. One place we can start is by restoring common sense to executive pay.”