Posted by: iam0nly1 | April 7, 2008

Obama’s Negative Campaigning

Never go negative until you have to: this is common political knowledge and strategy. Political wisdom posits, if you are ahead there is no need to attack, whereas, if you are behind, you must attack. The 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary race has not strayed from this common strategy, with one exception (which will be addressed later).

Contrary to pundit belief, Senator Clinton did not “go negative” first, why would she? She was light-years ahead, and floating on a wave of inevitability (whether that was a wise move is debatable). Senator Obama, however, was the newcomer, and was behind in the polls – political wisdom dictated he go negative, which is exactly what he did.

First, let us be clear on the working definition of “negative.” Policy distinctions and contrasts are not negative – they are required, and are what campaigns are based on. One cannot possibly discuss his or her own distinct positives without making distinctions with other candidates, for to highlight one’s positives is to also bring light to the fact that one’s opponent does not posses aforementioned positives. It is when this is reversed that it is viewed, by some, as “negative.” For example, Senator Obama claims he does not take money from lobbyists, or oil companies. If Senator Obama asserts, “I do not take money from oil lobbyists” the assertion contains within it the implication that his opponent does, but it is not considered negative. Conversely, Senator Obama can assert, “My opponent takes money from oil companies and lobbyists” (which we know to be untrue) and the assertion contains within it both the accusation that his opponent does, and the implication that he does not. However, these kinds of distinctions or contrasts are fair game, and have been a part of the political landscape for decades and will continue to be so in the future.

An ad, position, or attack only becomes “negative” when it becomes personal: when a candidate’s character, integrity, and motivations are questioned. This is the definition of “negative” that will be addressed herein. However, if we operate with either definition of “negative” the same is true of this primary race: Senator Obama went negative first.

Senator Obama announced his bid for the Democratic nomination on February 10, 2007, on February 12, 2007, he took his first swipe at the frontrunner, Senator Clinton, implying she was overly ambitious, and in the race only for personal gain:

Mr Obama also took Mrs Clinton’s early campaign slogan of “I’m in it to win it” to suggest she was interested only in getting elected.

“I am in it to win it,” he said, responding to calls from a Davenport crowd. “Hold on. But I want you to understand that I’m also I’m in it to transform the country.”

At a breakfast in Iowa Falls, he appeared to take another shot at Mrs Clinton, who is often accused of excessive ambition. I’m not one of those people who decided at the age of seven that I wanted to be president.”

Senator Obama began with patently personal attacks against Senator Clinton.

In April, TIME reports that Senator Clinton is not yet ready to go “negative” even to make policy and campaign distinctions:

Hillary Clinton is also banking on the grueling schedule of debates, which is “where she will shine,” says a strategist. “This will be her strongest point. She knows this stuff inside out.” But her team says she is not yet ready to begin challenging Obama directly on his lack of specificity.

In June, Senator Obama upped his attacks with opposition research that spawned the Punjab memo:

In the shadowy world of opposition research and not-for-attribution dossiers, things can get confusing.

On Thursday, Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign circulated a memo criticizing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton “(D-Punjab)” for having financial ties to India and encouraging the outsourcing of jobs. It included a joke the senator from New York told at a fundraiser with Indian Americans last year: “I can certainly run for the Senate seat in Punjab and win easily.”

After all, he has worked to convey that his campaign would be elevated above such rough and tough tactics as circulating opposition research.

The Obama campaign defended the memo as legitimate research. “The intent of the document was to discuss the issue of outsourcing, but we regret the tone that parts of the document took,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager.

Clinton’s campaign declined to make an official comment.

For those who are new to presidential politics, opposition research is certainly “playing dirty” and was, used, most notably, to derail Gore. But if one is claiming to play nice, the last thing he or she should employ is opposition research.

The Obama campaign did admit that the tone of parts of the memo were “regrettable,” but that acknowledgment did not result in a change of tone.

In fact, by August, the rhetoric against Senator Clinton had become even more personal:

[Sen. Obama] has tried to turn Mrs. Clinton’s critiques on him back against her by reminding voters of his opposition to authorizing the Iraq war in 2002, when he was a state senator in Illinois and suggesting that he represents a break from the business-as-usual ways of Washington represented by both President Bush and Mrs. Clinton.

The message, aides say, is crafted either to lure voters to Mr. Obama’s side or to keep them undecided a bit longer. By contrast, Mrs. Clinton seldom — if ever — makes reference to her rival as she campaigns.

It remains an open question whether the sharper tone — a departure from his more professorial air early in his candidacy — carries any risks for a candidate who pledged to campaign on a message of hope and a new kind of politics. Mr. Obama has told associates he finds the burst of aggressiveness to be liberating.

Even Michelle Obama presented a contrast here on Thursday as she introduced her husband in an open-air barn at the Cass County fairgrounds. She told a crowd of more than 200 people that family values and trust were important in the next presidential candidate.

“Our view is that if you can’t run your own house, you certainly can’t run the White House,” Mrs. Obama said.

Later, she added: “This election is about truth and authenticity. There is nothing more important than your word. Truth does matter.”

When he took the microphone, Mr. Obama used similar phrasing, saying, “Part of the change, by the way, is telling the truth to the American people about the very serious and difficult challenges and choices that we face.”

So, as of August, 2007, the Obama campaign had implied Sen. Clinton was overly ambitious, her motives impure, pushed opposition research and a memo that took a regrettable turn, and begun to make references to former President Clinton’s personal missteps (effectively blaming them on Sen. Clinton) and attacked Sen. Clinton’s “truth and authenticity.”

On October 12, Senator Obama hit below the belt, questioning Sen. Clinton’s legitimacy, experience and merits with one sexist blow:

“The default candidate for Democrats in this race was always going to be Hillary Clinton because she’s Hillary Clinton as opposed to Hillary Rodham,” [Obama] said.

This is sexist and extremely personal at its core – claiming she is where she is because of the man she married and that she does not posses merits of her own. In short, his argument is, were she any other woman, he’d be beating her even with his admitted “modest” experience. Further, it is the sexist equivalent of Ferraro’s statement that was deemed racist, offensive and divisive and led Senator Obama to label “absurd”.

Three days later, on October 15, Senator Obama continued his personal attacks against Senator Clinton:

On Saturday in Iowa, Obama took another shot at Clinton, saying, “I’m not going to win just by being the most calculating politician in this race.”

Democratic insiders say Clinton’s Democratic rivals have little choice but to step up their criticism of Clinton and draw distinctions with her, lest she run away with the nomination. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are less than three months away.

Notice the commentary that Democratic challengers “have little choice” but to criticize Clinton. That is indeed the political wisdom, but personal attacks such as these should not be encouraged.

Another report highlights the personal nature of Senator Obama’s October, attacks:

Barack Obama said Monday the nation has had enough of ‘‘triangulation and poll-driven politics,’’ a reference to the presidency of Bill Clinton, the husband of his chief Democratic rival.

His reference to triangulation, however, refers to Bill Clinton’s eight years as president when some advisers urged him to make policy decisions by splitting the difference on opposing views. The practice became known as ‘‘triangulation.’’

Not only do these attacks question Senator Clinton’s integrity and adherence to her convictions, but they also attempt to disparage her by questioning the motives of former President Clinton.

Senator Obama continued his character assassination of Senator Clinton late into October.

The Washington Times, October 28:

At an event in Des Moines, Obama (D-Ill.) characterized Clinton’s approach to addressing the issues as “You should hedge, dodge and spin, but at all costs, don’t answer.”

The statements marked the latest escalation of campaign rhetoric from a candidate who earlier this year declined to criticize his chief opponent for the nomination. Increasingly, he is taking on not just Clinton’s policy views but also her character, and is casting the Democratic front-runner as someone who makes decisions based on polls and calculation, rather than on her convictions.

Senator Obama continued to question Senator Clinton’s convictions on into November:

Barack Obama took sharp aim Saturday at Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying the party nominee should lead “not with calculation but with conviction.”

“Triangulating and poll-testing positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy is going to say about us just won’t do,” Mr. Obama told cheering supporters.

When December came, Senator Obama had added the accusation of secrecy to his personal attacks on Senator Clinton:

“You want to make a good closing argument,” Barack Obama is saying Wednesday, explaining why he is sharpening and retooling his stump speech, bolstering his message of change and methodically working to portray Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretive and anything but a change agent.

Though Edwards — who campaigned in New Hampshire on Wednesday — is as much a threat to Obama as Clinton — also stumping in Iowa — <b>Clinton was in Obama’s scope:

“If they’ve been secretive in the past, they’ll be secretive as president. If they haven’t been all that strong on lobbyists in the past, doesn’t matter what they say in the campaign, they won’t be that strong about it when they are president.”

Obama said his comments were intended to be positive — but the Clinton campaign was not buying it.

December was the first time Senator Clinton responded to Senator Obama’s attacks, taking aim at the first and most consistent personal accusations levied against her.

Many chastised Sen. Clinton for responding to Obama’s attacks on her integrity (claiming she has too much ambition and is running for president for selfish reasons). Sen. Clinton responded, some believe foolishly (perceived negativity doesn’t play well in Iowa), with a kindergarten paper in which he wrote he wanted to be president. It’s classic politics – your opponent attacks you, and you attempt to turn their attack against them. Granted, the kindergarten move was not successful, but it should not have been demonized, especially considering it was a direct response to the very negative character attacks leveled against her from the beginning, and his claim that he was “not one of those people who decided at the age of seven that I wanted to be president.”

Still, Senator Clinton, did not engage in stark policy distinctions until after Iowa – when political wisdom dictated she had to step up her game.

News outlets noted the need for the shift and speculated about “how negative” she would go:

The debate Thursday night inside Hillary Clinton’s shell-shocked campaign was what to do now — specifically: how negative to go on Barack Obama.

Behind the scenes, her strategists have already begun to figure out how much heat to put on the sudden front-runner, whose win was far more decisive than just about anyone had expected.

Until now, Clinton’s campaign has been relatively restrained in what political pros euphemistically call “contrast” — in large part, because Iowans have a history of rejecting negative campaigning. (See: Romney, Mitt.) “We certainly held back,” one Clinton aide said.

But all that may be about to change. “We’ve got to start holding him to the standard people hold her to,” Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn told reporters aboard the campaign’s chartered jet to New Hampshire. “I think there’s a basic choice between experienced leadership for change and inexperienced leadership that talks about change.”

Added another adviser: “You’re going to see some very sharp media now.” That suggests the next round of Clinton ads will go beyond the previous gentle references to Obama’s lack of experience and begin to look at, for instance, inconsistency in his voting record. They are looking at issues like gun control, where he previously took a harder stand that may not play well with gun-loving voters in New Hampshire, and health care, where he previously expressed support for a government-run health care system. Clinton plans to exploit every whiff of inconsistency.

It’s important to note that this “negativity” is based on policy and record distinctions, which are fair game. However, Senator Obama’s personal attacks against Senator Clinton have continued unabated:

Senator Obama’s campaign has blamed Senator Clinton for the death of Benazir Bhutto.

Here:

“REPORTER: But looking ahead, does the assassination put on the front burner foreign policy credentials in the closing days?

AXELROD: Well, it puts on the table foreign policy judgment, and that’s a discussion we welcome. Barack Obama had the judgment to oppose the war in Iraq, and he warned at the time it would divert us from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, and now we see the effect of that. Al Qaeda’s resurgent, they’re a powerful force now in Pakistan, they may have been involved — we’ve been here, so I don’t know whether the news has been updated, but there’s a suspicion they may have been involved in this. I think his judgment was good. Sen. Clinton made a different judgment, so let’s have that discussion.”

Here:

Those who made the judgment that we ought to divert our attention from Afghanistan to invade Iraq and allow Al Qaeda to reconstitute and strengthen are now having to assess the wisdom of that judgment as we may be seeing yet another manifestation of Al Qaeda’s potency,” said Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy adviser who was an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, in an interview with Politico.”

Senator Obama has frequently accused Senator Clinton of “saying anything to get elected.”

At a rallies:

“At a rally the same night, Mr Obama seemed to take a leaf out of his wife’s book after she had introduced him, drawing a sharp contrast with Mrs Clinton, suggesting she was not truthful and was “willing to say anything to get elected”.”

In radio ads:

“The script reads as follows:

Obama: “I’m Barack Obama, running for president and I approve this message.”

Announcer: “It’s what’s wrong with politics today. Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected.”

And in official campaign statements:

“…it seems like Hillary Clinton will do or say anything to win an election.”

Senator Obama has engaged in a patently personal, anti-Hillary campaign. His campaign has preferred character attacks to policy attacks. It is acceptable and politically necessary to make policy distinctions, but painting your opponent as calculating and lacking conviction, willing to say anything to get elected, secretive, dangerously ambitious and self-serving, morally bankrupt, and responsible for their spouses infidelity, is grossly over the line and antithetical to everything Senator Obama claims to stand for.

Senator Obama continues to personally attack Senator Clinton even though he claims to be ahead and that the race is all but over. Political wisdom tells us he continues his attacks because she still has a good chance to win. But if she really is out of the race, Senator Obama truly is bucking the “politics of the past” and is kicking an opponent when they are down and out.

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Responses

  1. […] a different tune the day before the PA primary) are completely inaccurate in their assessment of who went negative first and who’s been the most negative, especially in Pennsylvania. Forget the fact that […]

  2. […] false assertions that he has run a positive campaign and has never attacked Senator Clinton. Well, we know this to be untrue. But what is even worse is that he has taken to being blatantly anti-Hillary at his rallies, even […]


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