Molehill Politics

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The New York Review of Books

Molehill Politics

by
Elizabeth Drew

The Democrats didn't expect so much pain. The assumption was that out of a patch of good candidates one would emerge to take on an inevitably weak Republican-the field was seen as lacking and George Bush as a drag on the party-and defeat him in what everyone knew was a Democratic year. But this has been the year of the unexpected. Now, anguished Democratic Party leaders fear that the increasingly bloody struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will continue until the end of the primaries or, worse, play out further at their convention in late August-which could only benefit the Republicans' putative, and unexpected, nominee, John McCain.

The Democrats' contest has changed from simply a fierce fight for "pledged delegates," who are elected in the primaries and caucuses, which Obama is winning, into a battle to convince the as-yet-uncommitted superdelegates which candidate would be stronger in the general election-regardless of who has won the most pledged delegates. This is an issue injected into the contest by the Clinton campaign. Mathematically, there now appears to be no way for Clinton to catch up to Obama in pledged delegates; the final decision will be made by the superdelegates, who are under extreme pressure from both sides.

In this fight, the Clinton camp is the more aggressive of the two, and it's adept at what might be called molehill politics: making a very big deal in the press about something that's a very small deal-such as a single word in a mailing or a slip-up by an aide. Clinton's strategists pounce on whatever opportunity presents itself to attack Obama, and try to knock him off his own message, and his stride. Clinton's approach resembles her tactics in the White House, in which her inclination was to attack (which caused a number of problems, and was one of the reasons her health care bill was defeated). The Obama camp has sometimes been slow, and even reluctant, to respond, because if he attacks her personally (which the Clinton campaign would like him to do), he's not Barack Obama anymore. Moreover, Obama takes care not to come across as the "angry black"-a stereotype he does not fit, but that could be imposed upon him by others.

While it's true that the two remaining Democratic candidates have few substantive differences, they have very different approaches to campaigning, which give us clues about the differences in how they would govern-and that, after all, is what this whole thing is, or should be, about. It's useful to try to imagine these people in the White House, and, from their campaigning, to try to figure what they will be like there: how they will use power; how well they would sustain their appeal over a considerable period of time.

It's been long said among politicians that "the Clintons will do anything to win." Unfortunately, they are increasingly proving the point. As the primaries in Texas and Ohio approached, the Clinton campaign, which has a tendency to announce its next steps, said that it would use a "kitchen sink" strategy against Obama-and so it did: with the famous and apparently effective "red phone" ad questioning his fitness to be commander in chief; and in frequent and heavy-handed conference calls to reporters (an innovation), in which Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson makes charges against Obama, raises questions about him, or moves "goal posts" designating what Obama has to do to win. (Obama "has to win Pennsylvania," which few think is likely.) This propaganda makes its way onto cable and other news outlets. But where does, or should, a "kitchen sink" strategy belong in a presidency?

Hillary Clinton is employing conventional politics, while Obama is trying to create a new kind of politics. Similarly, as they respond to the country's desire for change, they have very different concepts of what "change" means: briefly, for Obama it means changing the very zeitgeist of Washington, creating a new way to get things done by building coalitions that transcend longstanding political divisions. For Clinton it means passing bills-though sometimes she has suggested that it means electing a woman president. ("I embody change," she said in a debate in New Hampshire.)

That Obama's style didn't work so well in Ohio and Texas, on March 4, is not surprising, although he is likely to end up with more delegates in Texas, thanks to the caucuses that followed the traditional primary voting. (The Clinton campaign is now challenging the outcome of the caucus voting.) Ohio in particular was not a welcome place for him. It's a meat-and-potatoes state (I grew up there) whose voters demand practical solutions and are not given to the romance or the leap of imagination that Obama's campaign involves.

The demographics there were not in his favor: it's older and whiter than most other states, and has a higher population of women (to whom Clinton played heavily) than any other state the two candidates had contested. A declining rust-belt state, it also has a larger number of discontented blue-collar workers than any other state in which the two candidates had campaigned before. And unlike, say, Iowa, it has a higher percentage of blacks and a history of racial conflict. Obama had had a streak of eleven straight victories, but there was always a question of how he would fare when he hit the industrial states.

Obama's victories in Maryland and Virginia on February 12, and then Wisconsin a week later, showed him gaining voters among Clinton's constituency of women, white men, and blue-collar workers, which suggested a major reshaping of the race; but that trend stopped in Ohio and in Texas-where Bill Clinton warned the voters that they had to keep his wife in the race. Obama did poorly with Hispanics, gaining only 30 percent of their vote in Texas to Clinton's 63 percent. If Obama could not win the votes of blue-collar workers and Hispanics in the general election-and this is not to say that he couldn't-that could seriously damage his chances.

That the presumed neophyte Obama has stood toe-to-toe with the Clintons (for all of Hillary Clinton's complaints about being "ganged up on," Obama has had to face both Clintons every day), has beaten them more often than not, and still might prevail is in itself remarkable. But in one important way his campaigning has fallen short. A great many people who follow politics closely simply don't "get" Obama, and can become quite angry about him. (This election is dividing friends and families like no other I've seen.) They see him as offering empty rhetoric, as simply building a movement, even a cult; the huge crowds he has drawn, his rock-star appeal, have only reinforced these suspicions. Actually, Obama is a serious student of policy-even, in the words of one adviser, a "geek"-and highly informed as a result. In Wisconsin, in some frustration-as Clinton was calling him "a talker, not a doer"-Obama said:

Everybody has got a ten-point plan on everything. You go to Senator Clinton's Web site, my Web site, they look identical.... The problem is not the lack of proposals. The question is, who can bring Democrats, independents, and Republicans into a working majority to bring about change. That's what we're doing in this campaign. This is what a working majority looks like. That's how we're going to move the country forward. That's what I offer that she can't do.

Obama has a big idea: he believes that in order to change Washington and to get some of those ten-point programs through, and to reduce the power of the lobbies and "special interests," he must first build a large coalition-Democrats, independents, Republicans, whoever-to support him in his effort to change things. He has figured out that he cannot make the kinds of changes he's talking about if he has to fight for 51-49 majorities in Congress. Therefore, he's trying to build a broader coalition, and enlist the people who have come out to see him and are getting involved in politics for the first time because of him. If he can hold that force together, members of Congress, including the "old bulls," according to a campaign aide, "will look back home and see that there is a mandate for change." Thus, Obama talks about working "from the bottom up" to bring about change. When he says he will take on the special interests and the lobbies, to him it's not as far-fetched as most jaded Washingtonians think: he intends to do that with the army he's building.

To understand Obama, one has to recognize the importance to him of his days as a community organizer in Chicago: he worked with churches, and "in the streets," to organize people to take on the powers-that-be in order to improve their living conditions and get jobs. An Obama adviser told me, "His being a community organizer is the fundamental insight and philosophy of his campaign." Thus, Obama has a fresh, even revolutionary idea about how to govern. The inspiring speeches have a far-sighted and pragmatic goal.

Being an organizer at heart-though he also practiced law in Chicago and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for ten years-in the first quarter of his campaign Obama focused on setting up campaign organizations in many states and raising money, mainly through small contributions via the Internet. The Clinton campaign, by contrast, raised money from the top, so that many contributors "maxed out" early.

Obama's ability to inspire people, to draw tremendous crowds, has carried him a long way, but even though he began to season his speeches with talk about programs, he failed, in Ohio in particular, to clearly connect what he was saying to individual people's lives. He didn't bring the rhetoric down to earth, translate it into something real that voters could understand. And I think this is one reason he lost. Clinton, by contrast, got across that she was "a fighter" (her new self-description) who would produce "results for America" (her new theme) and would improve the lives of many Ohioans; she talked in specifics about what she would do, and made it all seem real. Since then, Obama has been dealing much more in specifics.

Obama's wonkish side led him early on to steep himself in position papers on numerous issues, from defense policy to health care to climate change, and from April to December of 2007 he gave speeches describing in detail how he would approach various issues. It was at this time that the press was describing him as "flat." And then he lit up the political world by giving an extraordinary speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 10, 2007. The last to speak, he roused the audience, and made some subtle digs at Clinton:

This party-the party of Jefferson and Jackson; of Roosevelt and Kennedy-has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose-a higher purpose. And I run for the Presidency of the United States of America because that's the party America needs us to be right now.

Obama has been accused of being all flash, and of not having done much in the Senate. His record in the three and a half years he has been there suggests someone serious about the job: he worked on a nuclear nonproliferation bill that passed and backed a number of policy changes to help veterans, including more medical care for those with post-traumatic stress disorder, assistance for homeless veterans, and the extension of tax credits for military families. He pushed through the Senate a major bill on ethics reform; and introduced legislation in January 2007 to stop, or if that failed, limit funds for the surge. He also worked with the conservative Republican Tom Coburn in a successful effort to get Congress to impose transparency on government expenditures so that anyone can look them up. The criticism that he hasn't done more also overlooks the fact that during his first two years in the Senate, he was ninety-ninth in seniority and in the minority party. Already a celebrity when he reached Washington, he was in fact careful to be humble, and to seek the advice of his elders. (Just as Hillary Clinton did when she got to the Senate.)

As for Obama's often-questioned record as an eight-year Illinois state senator, James Warren, a managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, says,

The caricature of him as a neophyte legislator with a modest record is unfair. He was very hard-working and effective, often against significant political opposition and amid scant media attention. Through forging coalitions, he got bona fide, important legislation through on taping of police interrogations, racial profiling, ethics reform, and the earned income tax credit.

The Clinton campaign's false assumption-based on a 350-page, state-by-state study in the summer of 2007 by key strategist Mark Penn-that Clinton's victory was "inevitable" led to a series of mistakes: (1) presenting herself as the "inevitable" nominee; (2) prematurely running a general election campaign; (3) assuming that the race would be over on February 5-Super Tuesday; and (4) believing that a number of small states that held caucuses could be skipped. And if Penn's strategy didn't work there was no Plan B. It's never a good idea to have a pollster in an important policy position in a campaign, since he or she can design the polling to get the answers he or she wants, as some believed Penn had done in the Clinton White House. (Hillary Clinton brought him in after the electoral disaster of 1994.) The Clinton campaign has been divided and sometimes almost paralyzed by internal feuding among outsized egos. By contrast, this hasn't happened in the Obama campaign: Obama deliberately picked congenial people and instructed his staff that he wanted "no drama."

In early March, Clinton went from, in a debate, "I'm honored...to be here with Barack Obama...absolutely honored" to, a day and a half later, angrily, shouting, "Shame on you, Barack Obama." In that instance, she was engaging in molehill politics: a flyer on trade that the Obama campaign had sent out quoted her as saying that the North American Free Trade Agreement had been a "boon" to the United States' economy. The use of the word "boon," an accidental error, was taken from Newsday, which put in quotes the gist of her remarks.[1] Obama replied calmly. "Senator Clinton has...constantly sent out negative attacks on us, email, robo-calls, flyers, television ads, radio calls, and we haven't whined about it because I understand that is the nature of these campaigns."

Clinton's frequent switching of tactics and personas raises the question of who she is and why she's so changeable: employing a Southern accent in a Selma, Alabama, church; dropping her g's while touring in Appalachia; sounding something like a cowboy in Wyoming ("concerns that keep ya up at night"), and then back to a Southern accent in Mississippi. Clinton's variability does not mean that she lacks her own core belief about the need to help improve people's lives. But it suggests that she is not a natural politician and is willing to try almost anything, while her feuding staff gives her conflicting advice. As a result, her campaign has had no overall message, and her themes have shifted almost by the week. The disorder within her own campaign team raises questions about how she would govern.

Clinton believes that the issue of health care-in which there is one substantive difference between them-works to her advantage. She brings it up often and even harped on it in the last debate, in Cleveland, on February 26, where she came across as the dinner guest who just won't drop a subject. She argues that for health care to be universal, people must be required to participate in the plan. Obama argues that if the cost of the new insurance is low enough, people will participate. But the great debate on this issue is phony, for Clinton has refused to say how she would enforce her plan (and states that have tried enforcement programs have failed); moreover, everyone knows that campaign plans change once they reach the White House, and political compromises are made.

In debating NAFTA, the other big issue in the Ohio campaign, both candidates pandered to hard-up workers, whom the labor left has convinced that the treaty is the cause of their woes. Both pledged to renegotiate the treaty, which could cause large problems with numerous other countries, and may not even be possible. Clinton tried to disavow the treaty, despite her several past comments praising it-it had been one of her husband's major triumphs-while Obama chided her for being selective about which of her husband's achievements she wants to take credit for. But then the Clinton campaign was blessed by a report on Canadian television that one of Obama's advisers had met with a Canadian official and told him, in effect, not to worry about the heated rhetoric that Obama was using about NAFTA. Exactly what happened in this meeting-many foreign governments get in touch with campaigns to find out what's going on-remains unclear (though if the adviser did say this he was probably speaking the truth). But the Obama campaign mishandled the affair by denying for a few days that there had been a meeting. Meanwhile, Clinton pounded away, to her great benefit.

Hillary Clinton's ten-point victory in Ohio was a testament to her exceptional resilience (she sometimes went on only three hours of sleep, yet most of the time managed to look fresh and enthusiastic) and her determination when her back is to the wall. She seemed a more confident campaigner, and it helped her, as it had in New Hampshire, that before the voting there was much press babble to the effect that if she didn't win in Ohio and Texas she'd have to get out of the race. Such talk serves to bring out her followers, especially women, to rescue her. Also, race had a part in the Ohio results. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that race mattered more in Ohio than in any other primary thus far.

From the beginning, the Clinton campaign has suggested-first in whispers by Clinton aides and then, starting earlier this year, heading into the Iowa caucuses, aloud by Clinton herself, and it continues-that Obama hasn't been "vetted." This smear is intended to suggest that there are "things there" in Obama's past (left unspecified) that could cause him real problems. Yet despite their own efforts-every campaign has "oppo" (for opposition) research-thus far the Clinton campaign has turned up nothing new about Obama. Warren, the Tribune editor, says, "His life has been very rigorously inspected by the Chicago papers, and they've been pretty tough on him. The idea that he needs to be vetted a lot more by a heretofore compliant press is baloney."

In fact the Tribune had already revealed in November 2006 something that the Clinton campaign makes much of: that Obama made arrangements in 2005 with Tony Rezko, a Chicago businessman, which yielded the Obamas extra yard space for a house they were buying-an action that Obama has numerous times described as "a mistake," and "bone-headed." At the time of the Obamas' purchase, Rezko was under grand jury investigation, and Obama has admitted it showed poor judgment on his part to do business with him because Rezko was a contributor and Obama himself was in politics. Obama recently told the Tribune that Rezko had raised more money for his earlier races than he had previously disclosed: about $250,000 in all. Rezko has not contributed to Obama's presidential campaign; but unfortunately for Obama, Rezko's trial began on the day before the Ohio and Texas primaries. Wolfson had a field day with this in his conference calls, and the press showed a renewed interest in Obama's dealings with Rezko.

On 60 Minutes the Sunday before the March 4 primaries, Clinton said that Obama was not a Muslim, "as far as I know." And on the morning after the Ohio and Texas primaries, Clinton said, icily, that now there were "new questions" about Obama, which the superdelegates should know or should have known about. She did not specify which questions she had in mind.

Shortly after that, the issue of race, which had emerged only around the margins of the Democratic contest, exploded. Some reporters felt the Clintons were making sure that Obama, who is of mixed race, was known as the black candidate. Hillary Clinton commented in a debate, "isn't it wonderful" to have a woman and an African-American in the race. (Obama could only smile gamely.) She has made similar remarks elsewhere. And there had been Bill Clinton's comments in South Carolina, such as his saying, after Obama won by a huge margin, that Jesse Jackson had won the state, too. Also noticeable was the series of Clinton allies making what could most kindly be put as racially insensitive remarks-among them Bill Shaheen, husband of the former governor of New Hampshire and co-chair of Clinton's campaign (he stepped down); BET founder Bob Johnson; and Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.

And then, along came Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, saying that Obama was "lucky" to be black, because that's how he'd gotten where he had. With Obama not running as the "black candidate," and not belonging to the civil rights generation, many people, perhaps naively, had thought that the issue of race could be avoided. But now this most painful subject in American life was squarely before the country.

Clinton, who had at first given a tepid response to Ferraro's comment, saying, "Well, I do not agree with that," and tried to equate both campaigns in "veering off" into the personal, had to go further. At a meeting on March 12 with a group of black publishers, someone brought up Bill Clinton's South Carolina remark and asked her how she could regain the trust of the African-American community. Mrs. Clinton replied that she was "sorry if anyone was offended," and then added, "We can be proud of both Jesse Jackson and Senator Obama."

Right on top of the Ferraro episode came-not coincidentally, some observers think-the release on television of some particularly inflammatory statements by Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright-"No, no, no. Not God bless America. God damn America." Such preaching is not uncommon in black churches and Wright's is milder than some others. That Obama attended Wright's church-the biggest and most influential black church in Chicago, a church that had done a lot of civic good-does not at all signify that he shared these particular pastoral views. Obama has had no part in the angry-black world. The controversy over Wright was not a new issue, and Obama had dropped him from giving the convocation speech at his announcement that he was running for president.

But, as always, pictures made the difference, as did the reality of what Wright had been saying. Obama's speech on race, in Philadelphia on March 18, was both a necessity and an opportunity. His description of his background as Kansas white and Kenya black, of being raised by white grandparents, and his frank and searing description of the anger of both blacks and whites over the subject of race enabled him to define himself as not simply the "black" candidate, and to forcefully restate his position as the candidate of unity. His explanation that he found some of Wright's fiery sermons "not only wrong but divisive," while he refused to "disown" him, made both moral and political sense. "This time," he said repeatedly, the country must grapple with the issues that set the two races apart. He took on a big burden.

Many Clinton people feel that it was a disastrous mistake to skip so many caucuses, which allowed Obama to rack up delegates-this was in part a result of Penn's planning; in part it reflected the fact that Obama's campaign is better at organizing than Clinton's; and in part it was because Clinton herself, since her big loss in Iowa, has made it clear she dislikes caucuses, even portraying them as somewhat illegitimate. So, out of necessity, she and her husband campaigned hard for the Wyoming caucus on Saturday, March 8, and Obama beat her 59-40.

Particularly shameless after all their attacks on Obama, including the charge that he was unfit to be commander in chief, were the unsubtle hints by the Clintons, just before the Mississippi primary on March 11, that Hillary Clinton might put Obama-the front-runner-on her ticket. Their remark was demeaning to Obama, but also meant to suggest to Mississippi blacks and others that they could have it both ways. Obama made fun of their ploy, and sought to make it clear that this was a no-go.

In any event, Obama won 90 percent of the black vote in perhaps the most racially divided state in the country. Seeking not to undermine Obama's claim to be a new kind of politician, his campaign has so far been cautious in its response to kitchen-sink politics. His campaign leaders have called for the release of Clinton's tax returns and her White House records, but there is plenty of other material that could be telling, including Bill Clinton's pardons (the National Archives says that he is holding up the release of papers about them) and the contributors to his library and his foundation. There are also questions of Bill Clinton's curious business deals since he left office.[2] (So much for having been "vetted.")

Members of the Obama team have also been raising questions about Hillary Clinton's assertions of her "experience," particularly in foreign policy. They point out that she didn't have security clearance in the White House, and could not attend National Security Council meetings. They have also been taking apart her claims of specific foreign policy successes, for example her assertion that "I helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland," a claim that even Northern Ireland officials debunked recently. Or her claim that "I negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo." Of this Greg Craig, an Obama adviser and former director of the State Department Office of Policy Planning in the Clinton administration, who is now for Obama, has said that the borders were opened the day before Hillary Clinton arrived in Macedonia where she would have conducted such negotiations.

In her efforts to paint Obama as unfit to be the commander in chief, Clinton has recklessly gone so far as to argue that she and McCain are readier than Obama is: "Senator McCain will bring a lifetime of experience...I will bring a lifetime of experience. Senator Obama will bring a speech that he gave in 2002." Thus she dismisses Obama's claim that he had shown better judgment in 2002 by opposing the Iraq war. She has never come up with a plausible explanation of her vote to authorize the war because there isn't one. It won't do to say, as she has, that "if I would have known then what I know now," because there was ample reason to know then. Senator Bob Graham of Florida, the then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, knew enough to strongly urge his colleagues to vote against the resolution; and he was one of twenty-two Democratic senators to do so. It was widely understood that Bush was intent on going to war. Clinton is known to have wavered on how to vote, and, like other Democrats, was advised by Democratic consultants to play it safe-to not cast a vote that might damage her political future. The irony is, of course, that she did just that.

Clinton took other steps, such as joining the Armed Services Committee, to protect herself from the sexist notion that a woman might be soft on national security. Early this year, Maureen Dowd reported that Clinton's aides were telling people that she would be a tougher leader than her husband, and "less skittish about using military power." A number of people, including former Clinton White House aides, worry that if elected Hillary Clinton might turn out to be a "Warrior Queen."

As of this writing, the Democrats are still trying to figure out what to do about the renegade voting in Michigan and Florida. A solution is complicated by Clinton's insistence on breaking Democratic Party rules by seating the delegates in those states, particularly in Florida. When I asked a close Clinton ally and adviser about this matter recently, he replied, "Rules? Rules? The rules are what people say they are. This isn't law. This isn't the Supreme Court."

At this point, Obama has about 150 more pledged delegates than Clinton, and the election expert Tad Devine says that even if Clinton wins Pennsylvania, on April 22-as she is expected to-and whatever happens in Florida and Michigan, when all the voting is done, in June, Obama will probably still have at least one hundred more pledged delegates. (Michigan is closer to settling the matter; several strategists are suggesting that Florida delegates be given a half vote, netting Clinton nineteen delegates rather than none-instead of having a civil war.)

Clinton leads in the superdelegates-having an estimated 248 to Obama's 212 (several of Clinton's signed on when she was "inevitable"); but she still lags behind Obama overall. A consensus is forming among leading Democrats that the nomination should be decided on the basis of who has the most pledged delegates; their main concern is that the outcome appear fair. If Clinton has won the popular vote, which is a possibility but difficult (at this point Obama is ahead by 700,000 votes), or most of the big states (including, presumably, Florida and Michigan), the Clinton campaign will argue, those factors should prevail. The Obama people argue that most of the "big states"-New York, Massachusetts, California-will vote Democratic in the general election anyway, and that Obama has won some important "swing states," such as Iowa, Missouri, and Virginia, as well as more states overall.

Most of the leading Democrats want to avoid a situation in which Clinton somehow wrests the nomination from Obama while he is ahead in delegates. This would leave the hundreds of thousands of people whom he has brought into the political system for the first time disillusioned-and an uproar could ensue. On March 16, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will chair the convention, said firmly, "It's a delegate race." According to Pelosi, "The way the system works is that the delegates choose the nominee." This translates into a preference, shared with many House Democrats, for Obama to head the party ticket. Pelosi was clearly unfazed by the recent storm over race.

The superdelegates, especially the elected politicians, are worrying that the party might be cleaved in two. A large number of them favored Obama early on, and still do. A senior House Democrat told me that support for Obama is based on three things: concern that the animosity of Republicans toward Hillary Clinton would motivate them to go out and vote against the Democrats; that Obama attracts independents, which the national ticket will need; and that Obama gets the votes of blacks in overwhelming numbers, which can help in many districts as well as nationally.

Being politicians, the Capitol Hill Democrats who hadn't already committed themselves waited to see what would happen on Super Tuesday; then they waited to see what would happen in Ohio and Texas on March 4; now they are waiting to see what will happen in Pennsylvania, and also Michigan and Florida. They are hoping that the delegate race will somehow resolve itself so that they won't have to deal with a messy situation.

Elizabeth Drew, who lives in Washington, is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. She is the author of twelve books.

© 2008 The New York Review of Books

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