The Clinton Smear Campaign Against Obama

Published on

The Clinton Smear Campaign Against Obama

Unable to find much that Barack Obama himself has said or believes that is particularly alien to the thinking and values of most Americans, Hillary Clinton and her supporters in the media have chosen instead to engage in a campaign of guilt-by-association.

Not surprisingly, right-wing media pundits and prominent Republicans have thrown their weight behind Clinton's efforts, taken advantage of the New York senator's attacks to smear the likely Democratic presidential nominee. For example, North Carolina Republicans are readying a television ad on the eve of that state's primary which includes a photo of Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright together, a video clip of Wright making incendiary comments, with a voiceover telling voters that Obama is "just too extreme for North Carolina."

Clinton's guilt-by-association campaign has even moved to additional degrees of separation. For example, before tens of millions of viewers of the April 16 debate in Philadelphia, Clinton again brought up Obama's alleged "relationships with Louis Farrakhan," despite Obama's repeated and unequivocal denunciations of anti-Semitic statements and other controversial actions by the Black Muslim leader. The apparent extent of Obama's alleged "relationship" with the Nation of Islam leader which prompted Clinton's charge was that a magazine for which Obama's pastor's daughter serves as publisher granted an award to Farrakhan in honor of a successful program he had set up to rehabilitate ex-convicts.

During that same debate, Clinton went so far as to link Obama with the radical Palestinian Islamist group Hamas because the "pastor's pages" section of the weekly bulletin of the church Obama attended once included -- as part of a series of opinion pieces reprinted from various newspapers around the country -- an op-ed column from the Los Angeles Times written by a Hamas leader. Though Obama had already categorically condemned the decision to reprint that article, Clinton told the tens of millions of viewers that "we have a choice who we associate with and who we apparently give some kind of seal of approval to," such as the pastor who -- in Clinton's typically hyperbolic version of events designed to discredit her rival -- was guilty of "giving the church bulletin over to the leader of Hamas."

Hillary Clinton has even attacked Obama for having served on the board of the Chicago anti-poverty group known as the Woods Fund at the same time as former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. Ayers, who was never convicted of any crime, is now a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and served as a former aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Clinton apparently saw it as irrelevant that, at the time of Ayers' involvement in the Weather Underground, Obama was just eight years old and living nearly ten thousand miles away in Indonesia.

This raises the very disturbing prospect that, as president, Clinton would use similar guilt-by-association smears against anti-war activists, environmentalists, opponents of neo-liberal globalization, and others who -- like Obama -- dare to challenge her pro-war and pro-corporate agenda.

Few of us on the American left haven't had at least some indirect association with people who, in the recent or distant past, have used rhetoric or engaged in activities most of us would find extreme, irresponsible or reprehensible. (I once asked a respected colleague to write a letter-of-recommendation for a post-doctoral fellowship for which I was applying at Stanford University only to be told that it would probably not be to my advantage since he had been expelled from that institution as an undergraduate for firebombing the Hoover Institution.)

Any cursory examination of clergy and other associates of most prominent Republicans would likely reveal ties to any number of bigots, terrorists (particularly Cuban and Nicaraguan), and other extremists. Yet Clinton has chosen to focus her guilt-by-association campaign on her progressive African-American opponent.

Ironically, the Clintons invited Rev. Wright to the White House as a spiritual advisor and it was President Bill Clinton who pardoned Ayers' wife and fellow Weather Underground activist Bernadine Dohrn. Hillary's self-righteous attacks against Obama, then, are not as much about individuals with whom he has been associated as they are an effort to discredit the party's left wing as a whole.

Indeed, Clinton has attacked what she has called the "activist base" of the Democratic Party, particularly MoveOn, which has been credited for bringing many millions of dollars into Democratic campaigns and thereby lessening the party's dependence on the corporate donors long favored by the Clintons. Blaming the group for many of her electoral defeats, she has complained of the way they have mobilized grass roots activists which have "flooded" state caucuses as a result of their ability to "turn out in great numbers." Emphasizing her differences with MoveOn's liberal positions on foreign policy and national security, she has tried to depict the group as far to the left, even resurrecting the long-discredited claim by Karl Rove that MoveOn opposed the war in Afghanistan.

Underscoring indications that Clinton might prefer to have the Democrats lose the presidential election in November if she isn't the nominee, journalist Celeste Fremon has noted how "Clinton's remarks depart radically from the traditional position of presidential candidates, who in the past have celebrated high levels of turnout by party activists and partisans as a harbinger for their own party's success -- regardless of who is the eventual nominee -- in the general election showdown."

Not that Clinton has cared that much about how other Democrats fare, as illustrated on her failure to support Democratic candidates in close races in most recent Congressional elections. Traditionally, Democratic Senate candidates assured easy re-election victories who find themselves in the final weeks of the campaign with more campaign contributions than they need donate their excess funds to the Democratic National Committee in order to help other Democratic House and Senate nominees in tight races. However, even though Clinton defeated her Republican opponent in the 2006 Senate race, as expected, by a more than 2:1 margin, she refused to share virtually any of her $13 million surplus in campaign contributions, money which would have almost certainly resulted in a number of additional Democratic victories in close races in this critically-important election in which control of both houses of Congress was at stake.

The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

Much has been written over the past couple of weeks about how Clinton, supported by ABC reporters Charles Gibson and her husband's former press secretary George Stephanopoulos, red-baited Obama in the nationally-televised debate just prior to the Pennsylvania primary, in the words of Steve Weissman, "as if he were a reluctant witness called before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee." Perhaps out of fear that, if they focused on real issues, Obama would easily outshine Clinton, not a single question dealing with a substantive policy issue was even asked during the first 45 minutes of the debate, focusing instead on questioning Obama's patriotism because of his failure to wear an American flag lapel pin and similar efforts to portray him in a negative light.

As journalist Robert Scheer put it, Clinton has been using such tactics from the right as "radical-baiting associates to challenging his resolve in protecting the nation from foreign enemies" and Obama, whom he describes as "eminently sensible and centrist to a fault," is being depicted as "weak and even vaguely unpatriotic because he is thoughtful." Referring to the notorious Republican operatives of previous elections who brought down Democratic nominees John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, Scheer adds "Neither Karl Rove nor Dick Morris could have done a better job."

Other prominent Democratic supporters of the Iraq war and leading figures in the party establishment have joined Clinton in attacking Obama, also focusing more on image and alleged associations than actual positions. Joseph Lieberman, whom the Democrats chose as their vice-presidential nominee in 2000, recently argued in a nationally-televised talk show that it was a "good question" as to whether Obama was Marxist and, while he'd personally hesitate to use that label, he insisted Obama's positions are "far to the left of . . . mainstream America."

In a manner reminiscent of anti-Semites who insisted that Jews were simultaneously bankers controlling the world's wealth and Communists plotting Marxist revolution, Clinton and her supporters are trying to simultaneously portray Obama as both a leftist with radical associates as well as an elitist who doesn't care about ordinary working class Americans. Even the normally pro-Clinton New York Times has referred to her campaign strategy "mean, vacuous, and pandering."

Clinton has far more personal wealth and has far closer ties to power brokers in Washington and on Wall Street than does Obama. (For example, during the 1980s, she was serving as a director of Wal-Mart while Obama was serving as a community organizer in poor neighborhoods in south Chicago.) Despite this, Clinton has repeatedly harped on the theme that Obama is an "elitist" and that it is she who is the friend of the working class. Prominent high-priced Democratic consultants like Howard Wolfson, Lanny Davis, Kiki McLean and James Carville, joined by Fox News commentators and other powerful right-wing interests threatened by the prospects of an Obama presidency, have joined Clinton in portraying Obama as somehow out of touch with ordinary Americans, though they -- unlike Obama -- have spent precious little time among America's working people.

These systematic attacks seem to be working. Just a couple of months ago, polls showed that Obama's negative ratings were at only 8%, one of the lowest ever for a serious presidential contender, a figure that almost guaranteed enough of a landslide victory in November that could produce a near veto-proof Democratic majority in Congress. Thanks to the recent attacks by Clinton and her supporters, however, Barack Obama's negatives have jumped to 42%, resulting in a loss of his once-commanding lead over Senator McCain, which has been reduced to a statistical dead heat.

Standing Up Against Clinton

A sizable number of Democrats decided some time ago that they would not vote for Hillary Clinton -- even if she got the party's nomination -- because of her dangerous views regarding presidential power: specifically, her belief -- illustrated in her October 2002 vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq -- that the president of the United States should be able to invade a country on the far side of the world that is no threat to us at the time and circumstances of his own choosing. Furthermore, Senator Clinton's false claims about Iraq still having chemical weapons, biological weapons, a nuclear weapons program, sophisticated delivery systems and ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network in order to justify her support for the invasion of that oil-rich country have raised serious questions regarding her credibility, particularly since she has steadfastly refused to apologize for her vote or for her untruthful statements regarding the alleged Iraqi threat. It was similar concerns by progressive Democrats that limited support from the party's base to Senator John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, resulting in his defeat.

Indeed, even though Obama is to the left of Clinton on most issues, most polls have shown him doing much better than Clinton against incipient Republican nominee John McCain.

Democrats need to make it clear to the remaining undecided super-delegates that nominating Hillary Clinton would be completely unacceptable and that she would not be supported in the general election. As Tom Hayden put it, "If Clinton doesn't immediately cease her path of destruction, millions of young voters and black voters may not send checks, may not knock on doors, and may not even vote for her if she becomes the nominee. That's not a threat, that's the reality she is creating."

There is little doubt that Clinton and her supporters will severely damage the Democratic Party in the unlikely event she wrests the nomination away from Obama. Even assuming that Obama does end up as the Democratic nominee as expected, however, Clinton and her supporters may have already done so much damage that John McCain, despite eight years of Republican misrule, could still sweep to victory.

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Share This Article

More in: