The Battle against Obama Clintons Play Bad Cop, Worse Cop

No more Ms. Nice Gal. After Obama's surprising success on the campaign trail, the Clinton team is pulling out all the stops. Hillary's most important advocate, her husband Bill, has jumped into the fray. But some critics say his behavior is unfitting for an ex-president.
Von Gregor Peter Schmitz und Gabor Steingart
Hillary Clinton has taken off the gloves and switched to attack mode in her campaign against Democratic opponent Barack Obama, which has turned into a duel.

Hillary Clinton has taken off the gloves and switched to attack mode in her campaign against Democratic opponent Barack Obama, which has turned into a duel.


You don't even have to hear what they're saying. Simply watching the two top Democratic presidential contenders standing on the same stage, with the audio turned off, reveals that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton come from different worlds.

Obama was as elegant as ever in last Monday's major television debate in South Carolina. His gestures, as he painted pictures in the air, were both powerful and subtle. If one were to compare Obama's campaign style -- with its elegance and aesthetic beauty -- with a competitive sport it would have to be beach volleyball.

Clinton stood next to him, waiting to jump into action. Her body tense, her feet firmly planted on the ground, she kept her eyes trained unwaveringly on her opponent. Her campaign style, more recently, is like American football, which thrives on action, attack and relentless head-butting contact. Football is a rough sport in which players try to gain as much ground as possible from their opponents.

Obama talked about hope and promised change, tossing his comments high into the air like beautiful passes. He also said that he felt poorly treated by Hillary's husband Bill in this campaign.

Clinton's eyelids flickered. It was her cue to launch into attack mode.

Initiate Attack Sequence

Of course the future of the nation is at stake during an election campaign, Clinton began. But it's also important, she continued, to take a look at your opponent's career and ask questions like: What has he said? And what has he done?

For Clinton, the answers to these questions raise doubts about her opponent. Obama gave a great speech opposing the Iraq War, an impressive speech, in fact, but he wasn't even a senator at the time, she argued. And then what happened, Clinton asked rhetorically? Only a year later, when most Americans were strongly in favor of the war and stood behind their president, the speech suddenly disappeared from Obama's Web site. A year after that, when Obama was already a senator in Washington, he raised his hand when it came to vote for funding the war "again and again and again," Clinton said. This, she concluded, is what we have to do in this campaign: check for consistency between a candidate's words and deeds.

Her comments were met with applause and whistles from the audience. "Hold on," the moderator said. "We're just warming up," Clinton, clearly relishing the attack, replied.

A New Set of (Dirty) Rules

Obama tried to put himself back into play, complaining about Bill Clinton's role in his wife's campaign. "He's not here, I am," she said, using the opportunity to launch into another attack. She said that Obama had recently praised former President Ronald Reagan's Republican administration for its ideas. She, on the other hand, had always fought against these ideas, "at a time, by the way, when you were working for a slumlord in Chicago." The man she was talking about goes on trial in February on charges of fraud. He was one of Obama's supporters, Clinton added triumphantly.

For a moment, the tall, elegant Obama was struck speechless by her below-the-belt tactics, as if he had just realized that he and Clinton were not playing by the same game rules. The audience booed, and millions of TV viewers experienced what campaign strategists dispassionately call character assassination. It's the kind of maneuver Clinton, still the frontrunner, has recently added to her campaign arsenal.

Taking the Gloves Off

It was weeks ago, on the night of Jan. 3, just after Clinton had unexpectedly lost the first contest in the primary season, the Iowa caucuses, when she and her team decided that it was time for her to take the gloves off and switch to attack mode.

For a few hours in Iowa, it seemed as if Obama had turned the conventional wisdom of political campaigns on its head. A black candidate had won in Iowa, a rural, predominantly white state. Younger voters, one of his strongest constituencies, were ecstatic. The media quickly came up with a name for the phenomenon: Obamania.

Clinton, her husband and a small group of her closest advisors left the scene of her defeat on a chartered flight. The mood in the small aircraft was grim and a decision was quickly reached, a Clinton advisor later reported. "Hillary has to go negative," they decided. Instead of just tooting her own horn, it was time for Clinton to start focusing on her rival's weaknesses, especially his lack of experience.

New Stategies -- Image Molding

The offensive Clinton and her small team of advisors decided on is something the country has rarely seen in this early phase of a presidential election campaign. They devised a new line of attack, in which she would paint Obama as a man of words and herself as a woman of action, Obama as a good speaker, but Clinton as the more effective president. On that flight home from Iowa, the Clinton team decided that battle was the new operative word in the election campaign.

Everyone on the Clinton team knew that it was a risky strategy to transform what had been more of an advertising campaign for their candidate into an all-out duel. The strategic shift away from Clinton's former approach, in which she vied for voter approval while dismissing her adversary by not taking him seriously, toward open battle tactics was an all-or-nothing gamble. It would either end in her victory march at the Democratic Convention in Denver, or it would spell an inglorious end to the Clinton era.

USA Inc.

The man who convinced the senator to agree to the shift -- against her will -- is her campaign consultant Mark Penn, 54, a man some would characterize as a magician. As the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a global leader in the PR industry, Penn's day job consists of analyzing numbers, trends and market niches, which he sniffs out down to the tiniest detail.

In his book "Microtrends," Penn describes "the small forces behind tomorrow's big changes." It breaks down American society -- and the rest of the world -- into a host of tiny fringe groups and potential customers, running the gamut from left-handed people to couples who treat their dogs like children, not to mention that subclass of people who can't abide the sun.

According to Penn, there is no longer one America -- not even two or three or eight Americas. He is convinced that there are hundreds of new niches, and that common interest is the only thing that holds them together. According to his theory, a candidate who hopes to capture the presidency is someone who can act like a giant magnet, holding together all of these disparate parts from a position at the center of society.

For Penn, the United States is the biggest corporation in the world. What its citizens want, he said, is a Chief Operating Officer -- a hands-on leader, not an idealist, a person who is capable of running USA Inc.'s day-to-day operations, not a preacher. And what about hope and change? Penn frowns every time he hears the two most important words in Obama's message. According to Penn, Obama has "already admitted himself that he doesn't feel ready."

Attacking in Overdrive

The truth is that Obama has managed to handily disprove the marketing guru's theories in two primaries. Penn made the mistake of not taking Obama seriously at first, and then underestimating him. He ignored or brushed aside warnings from within his own team. A memo that paints Penn in less than flattering light was recently leaked to the press. In the document, one of Penn's strategists warns: "you can't beat Obama unless you really attack him."

The Clinton campaign, taking that advice to heart, has since gone into overdrive. Negative campaigning, or seeking to paint one's opponent in as bad a light as possible, is the most difficult, most dangerous and -- if it works -- the most effective campaign strategy. Its goal is to destroy the opposing candidate.

Mud-Slinging Methods

These mud-slinging contests employ a number of proven methods. First there is the whisper campaign, in which the source of a rumor remains anonymous while accomplices spread rumors, half-truths or flat-out slander about an opponent. During the 2000 Republican primary, these invisible forces insinuated that candidate John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child -- who in truth was his dark-skinned, adopted daughter from Bangladesh. The Arizona senator had posed a threat to the establishment candidate, George W. Bush.

Most voters claim that they are turned off by negative campaign ads in both the broadcast and print media. But most researchers say that they work nonetheless. Indeed, the history of American elections is also a history of bold-faced lies and subtle smear campaigns.

A candidate's sharpest weapon is undoubtedly the attack on the character of a rival, the equivalent of an acid attack on the rival's credibility. In Senator Clinton's campaign team, this dicey work has been left mainly up to her husband Bill, who has taken to the task with the enthusiasm of a born roughneck. Bill Clinton has spent his political career defending himself against critics of his use of his marijuana, questionable real estate deals and his various sexual affairs. In the case of his infamous affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, his behavior even led to impeachment proceedings. Now Clinton finally has the opportunity to dish it out himself and transform himself into an attack dog -- one who has firmly sunk his teeth into the legs of Obama's trousers.

Hatchet Man/Husband

In a carefully calculated outbreak of anger, the former president assailed Obama's image as an opponent of the Iraq war. "Give me a break," he told students at elite Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "This story of Obama being against the war is the biggest fairy tale I've ever heard."

Clinton's comments have forced Obama to constantly reassure voters that he is against the war, even though he has voted in favor of funding for the Iraq campaign several times (Obama consistently argues that his vote has been to support the troops, not the war itself). This has Clinton's advisors rubbing their hands together with glee. A pop star who is forced to constantly justify his actions eventually loses his luster. It's the perfect way to push an adversary into a defensive role.

Bill Clinton seems to relish magnanimously characterizing Obama as an excellent politician, only to slyly point out what a shame it is that he lacks the necessary experience. The former president, feigning innocence, then goes on to compare his wife's rival with himself in 1988, when Clinton, as a young governor from Arkansas, decided that he wasn't ready to run for president yet.

Depends on How You Define 'Dirty'

Bill Clinton spent last week in South Caroline in a bid to convince black voters not to vote for Obama in the state's primary. In his speeches, Clinton criticized the 46-year-old senator from Illinois for being a political neophyte, a Reagan admirer and a supporter of the war -- and for running what he called a dirty campaign.

Clinton was referring to the Nevada primary, in which the casino workers' union endorsed Obama. But coming from the former president, the story suddenly became much more dramatic: Clinton voters, he said, had been pressured by the union to vote for Obama. "I've never experienced anything like this in my 35 years in politics. Is this the new style of politics?"

Clinton is the most popular aggressor imaginable. People hang on his every word, in part because his presidency brought relative prosperity to many of the country's less affluent citizens. To enthusiastic applause, Clinton makes his way through crowds of adoring fans, behaving as if he were still in office, and as if the seven lean Bush years had never even existed.

The Clinton team is now using the former president's popularity and credibility among voters to take home the next trophy: a third term in the White House for the Clinton family.

Getting Dirty too Early?

Party veterans are concerned that the campaign could get dirty too early on, potentially damaging the Democratic Party. Hillary's colleague in the Senate, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, even chastised the former president on the phone, saying that Clinton, as an elder statesman, should change his tone and stop attacking Obama, who carries the hopes of millions of Democrats. On Monday, Kennedy was slated to endorse Barack following the Illinois senator's landslide Sunday victory over Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Senator Patrick Leahy, the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said angrily: "These cheap shots are beneath the dignity of a former president."

But Bill Clinton isn't allowing himself to be reined in that easily. Like many other veterans of political campaigns, he is familiar with the research of psychologist Drew Westen, who demonstrated that emotions, not the issues, are what decide elections. Westen is convinced that to succeed, a candidate must be able to stimulate both positive and negative emotions -- in other words, affection and hatred.

Destroying the Niceness Myth

Westen has a low opinion of polite restraint as a campaign tactic. He writes that it is a widespread myth among Democrats that negative campaigning -- attacking a rival's integrity -- is unethical, ineffective and, if practiced by an adversary, better left unanswered.

This sort of reasoning makes someone like Bill Clinton prick up his ears. When he met Westen for the first time at a Democratic Party convention, Clinton was already familiar with -- and an admirer of -- Westen's theories. A few months later, Westen received a call on his mobile phone while he was sitting in a Starbucks in Atlanta.

The friendly female voice on the other end asked Westen if he was available to speak with the former president of the United States. It was Bill Clinton, who immediately picked up their last conversation where it had left off. He wanted to learn about Westen's theories, Clinton said. For the next 30 minutes, Westen, walking back and forth on the street in front of the Starbucks, explained the essence of his message. Westen told Clinton that when a political candidate discusses his opponent, he must be willing to say the things that the public already thinks -- but hasn't yet dared to express.

Fighting Back

Obama is now facing off against two Clintons. He recently complained: "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes." But complaining doesn't produce votes. When it comes down to it, an election campaign is a test of endurance for a young candidate.

Obama has trouble countering this style of campaigning, especially when his mantra is change -- and when he is the candidate arguing for an end to partisan bickering, not its revival.

Hillary Clinton's mantra, on the other hand, is experience. She touts herself as the person who can manage America, Inc. "I'm a problem solver," she tells potential voters.

Clinton's and Obama's different messages call for different campaign styles. For the ambassador of change, it is critical that he remain clean, that he avoid the trivialities of issues politics and steer clear of dirty tricks. A certain level of elegance and sophistication is practically expected of Obama. Beach volleyball is no contact sport, and it's a game where there are no fouls.

The chief operating officer, on the other hand, has to be hands-on. Perseverance and cunning are his specialty, and the ability to play rough is practically a job requirement.

Obama tends to come across as weak when defending himself against the Clintons' attacks. Of course, he denies any connections to shady businessmen in Chicago, saying that as a young attorney he spent all of five hours working as part his law firm's legal team for the slum landlord who now faces trial.

His response to Clinton's slum landlord comment is about as aggressive as Obama has been willing to get, so far at least. "I don't want to spend the next year, or the next four years, refighting the same fights we had in the 1990s," he said in a campaign ad. He was referring to the polarizing Clinton years, which he doesn't want to see repeated.

Flowers versus Howitzers

But these rhetorical digs are like loading a gun with flowers -- a poor match for the Clinton artillery. One of Clinton's more serious charges against Obama is that he used drugs. Interestingly, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was also accused of using drugs, that is, smoking a joint in his student days. In the end, Clinton made himself a laughing stock when he explained that although he did smoke marijuana, he didn't inhale.

To avoid similar embarrassment, Obama freely admitted to drug use in his youth early on in the campaign. In his autobiography, he wrote that as a lonely teenager, he, like so many black adolescents, was on the road to becoming a junkie. He admitted to using hashish and, when he could afford it, even cocaine. He also wrote that the only reason that he didn't try heroin was because he couldn't stand the dealer.

By admitting to his teenage drug use, Obama literally handed the Clinton team the ammunition it is now using against him. Bill Shaheen, the co-chair of Clinton's campaign in New Hampshire, was the first to bring up Obama's earlier misstep. Shaheen feigned concern for the Democrats' prospects by saying: "The Republicans could ask: Did you ever give out drugs to other people? Or did you sell drugs?" Shaheen was promptly fired for his crafty remarks, and Clinton had to apologize to Obama.

But Clinton campaign strategist Penn even knows how to score points after the game is over. When he appeared on a TV talk show after the Shaheen scandal, Penn insisted: "We don't want to blow the whole issue of cocaine use out of proportion." Someone in the audience promptly yelled: "That's exactly what you're doing."

'Jesse Jackson Plus'

The Clinton team is also taking Hillary's challenger to task on the topic of abortion, long one of the most important issues for women within the party base. The fact that a majority of female voters chose Obama over Clinton in Iowa was a shock that her team hasn't been able to forget.

In a mailing that was sent primarily to women in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign reported that when Obama was a state senator in Illinois, he abstained from voting on abortion bills seven times. "A woman's right to choose," the flyer continues, "demands a leader who will stand up and protect it."

With this sort of campaign advertising, Senator Clinton is directly targeting women, who make up 57 percent of registered Democratic voters. In the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, pro-Clinton organizations spend up to $300,000 a day for mailings like these. The strategy was a success. It was precisely during the period just before the primary that many women switched to the Hillary camp. Her use of the gender card clearly paid off.

The Race Card

But the trickiest and, at the same time, most promising strategy Clinton's advisors have tried out is the use of the race card. It's a two-part strategy. The first part -- the official one -- looks like this. Clinton solemnly declares: "This election should not be about skin color or gender. We owe it to the achievements of Martin Luther King that we are here today. But sometimes our supporters are a little too passionate."

Nothing offensive -- so far. But part two of playing the race card gets more complicated and underhanded. The players know that society and its various ethnic groups react to certain code words. Ethnic groups can be influenced and played off against one another by using carefully worded racist undertones.

To counteract this racial polarization, Obama has taken steps to downplay the perception that he is exclusively on the side of African Americans. But the more clearly Obama identifies himself as a black man, and the more aggressively he claims the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., thereby following in the footsteps of failed black presidential candidates like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, the better it is for Clinton. She has nothing against allowing Obama to shrink into a minority candidate, an outsider who speaks on behalf of too few people to be able to represent the entire country.

Forced to Take a Stand

Her advisors have dubbed this tricky campaign factor "Jesse Jackson plus." Jackson, a Baptist minister and civil rights activist, ran for president twice, in 1984 and in 1988. Although he won 11 state primaries the second time around, Jackson was never the sort of serious national contender Obama has become today.

According to the logic of playing the race card, the more Obama is identified with the black community the whiter Hillary will appear. But how does one introduce this topic into a campaign without it backfiring?

One way is to qualify Martin Luther King's historical role, as Hillary Clinton did when she said: "Martin Luther King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964," she said in a television interview, adding "it took a president to get it done."

The unspoken message was clear. Dreamers don't change the world on their own. Actions count more than words, and experience is more important than inspiration.

Of course, this was a direct shot at Obama, and it forced him to declare his support for the Atlanta civil rights activist. It also forced him to shoot back at Clinton: "She offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King's role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act." He had taken a stand on the race issue, and had even been forced to take sides, which probably ran counter to his original intention.

The Latino 'Firewall'

Clinton, on the other hand, probably wasn't interested in defending white politicians' contributions to the civil rights movement. She was thinking about another minority. Tensions have grown in recent years between African Americans and Latinos, as both ethnic groups compete on the social ladder. Studies have shown that many immigrants from Latin American countries are against having a black president.

The more Obama appears as the candidate of blacks, the stronger Clinton's support among Latino Americans becomes. Sergio Bendixen, one of the pollsters working for the Clinton team, is an expert on the voting habits of various minorities. He believes that the Latino vote is extremely important for Clinton's prospects, calling the Latinos her "firewall."

The purpose of firewalls in computers is to keep out harmful viruses. Applied to the campaign, the Latino American firewall works the other way around: it is supposed to contain the massive blaze Obama could set off.

According to this logic, a win for Obama in states with large black voting populations is a boon for Clinton in heavily Hispanic states. His gain from winning in South Carolina, a state with a large African American population, will likely be more than offset in California, a much larger state dominated by whites and Latinos. California also delivers substantially more delegates than South Carolina.

Obama and his advisors apparently did not expect such a powerful wave of attacks from the Clinton camp. "We sense that voters actually find our message more appealing. But the Clintons just happen to be incredibly cunning campaigners," says a close advisor to the senator.

The Mean Team

Meanwhile, Bill and Hillary Clinton seem perfectly comfortable with their respective roles: one of them barks, while the other one bites.

They have also discovered a new adversary: the Obama-friendly media in the United States.

When a CNN reporter dared to illuminate the Clintons' ingenious negative campaigning strategy, the former president indignantly responded: "The Obama people are feeding you these stories about our attacks because they know that that's what they crave. But the voters aren't interested. You should be ashamed of yourself."

And then he repeated, from the bottom of his heart: "Shame on you."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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