What Obama wishes he could say
By JOHN F. HARRIS & JIM VANDEHEI | 5/1/08 11:58 AM EST
Obama and his supporters have so far refrained from
rummaging through the Clintons' dirty laundry.
Thrown off his game by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
uproar, Barack Obamas strongest answer to Hillary
Rodham Clinton is one he wont give: Senator, do you
really want to get in a contest with me over who has
more unsavory personal associations?
For all the coverage about the rising heat between
Clinton and Obama, this years nomination race still
is a mild affair by historical standards restrained
by a powerful sense on both sides that there are lots
of things they could say but shouldnt.
There is one theme, however, that runs through
not-for-attribution conversations with both sides:
Each candidate thinks the other has unmitigated gall.
The Clintons, to hear associates tell it, are more
contemptuous than they ever acknowledge publicly about
what they believe is Obamas breathtaking arrogance
the way he blithely dismisses the ideological
showdowns and policy achievements of the 1990s as old
politics, the way he thinks his thin résumé leaves
him qualified to lead the country. Lately, the
contempt level on the Obama side toward his rivals
likewise has been soaring.
More precisely, things that many people around the
candidate have always believed about the Clintons
about their trail of controversies, about their style
of politics have in recent weeks seemed much more
relevant. Thats made the temptation to say them in a
more public fashion more powerful.
A couple weeks ago, we wrote a column about what
Clinton would say if she said what she really thought.
Fairness dictates that we take a crack at the other
side of the question: What arguments has Obama taken
off the table, even though he thinks they are true?
Like the earlier column, sourcing on this one must
stay pretty opaque. And like the earlier column, this
one is intended as a reflection, not a validation, of
the views expressed in a collection of
not-for-attribution conversations with political
associates about the behind-the-scenes thinking of the
The one line from the what-Clinton-thinks column that
most agitated Obama supporters was our assertion that
Clinton, for better or worse, was a known commodity.
Her baggage has already been rummaged through.
To which Obama supporters say: Oh yeah?
All manner of Clinton controversies, Obama partisans
argue, have not been fully ventilated.
This includes old issues, like Hillary Clintons legal
career, which includes lots of cases that never got
much public attention even during the Whitewater era.
It also includes new ones, like recent stories raising
questions about the web of personal and financial
associations around Bill Clinton. Since leaving the
presidency, he has traveled the globe to exotic places
and with sometimes exotic characters, raising money
for projects such as his foundation and presidential
library and making himself a very wealthy man.
Which gets us back to gall. In the fantasies of some
of his high-level supporters, Obama would peel off the
tape to say something like this:
You want to talk hypocrisy? How about piously
criticizing me for Jeremiah Wright when you have a
trail of associations that includes golden oldies like
Webb Hubbell? (90s flashback: He was one of Hillary
Clintons legal partners and closest friends, whom she
installed in a top Justice Department job before
prosecutors sent him to prison.) It also includes
modern hits like Frank Giustra. (In case you missed
it: There was a January New York Times story, which
did not get the attention the reporting deserved,
highlighting how this Canadian tycoon and major Bill
Clinton benefactor was using his ties to the
ex-president to win business with a ruthless
dictatorship in Khazakstan.)
Obama has never pressed Clinton to talk about Marc
Rich, even though the former fugitive financier who
won a controversial pardon from Bill Clinton gave
money to her first Senate campaign.
He has never mentioned her brothers, even though Hugh
and Tony Rodham once defied Bill Clintons own top
foreign policy advisers by entering into a strange
investment in hazelnuts in the former Soviet republic
of Georgia (they later dropped the deal) and Hugh
Rodham took large cash payments for trying to broker
Obama is likewise galled to be lectured by Clinton for
not being sufficiently committed to universal health
coverage. Why is it, his team asks, that Democrats
have done so little to advance a long-time progressive
goal for the past 15 years? The answer has everything
to do with Hillary Clintons misjudgments when she was
leading the reform effort in 1993 and 1994.
Most irritating of all to Obama partisans is what they
see as her latest pose: that she is selflessly staying
in the race despite the long odds against her because
of devotion to the Democratic Party and the belief
that she is a more appealing general election
It is an article of faith among most people around
Obama that the Clintons were a disaster for the party
throughout the 1990s. When Bill Clinton came to town
in 1993, Democrats were a congressional majority, with
258 seats in the House. When he left in 2001, they
were a minority with 46 fewer seats. There were 30
Democratic governors when he arrived, 21 10 years
As for electability, the Obama side believes for all
his trouble winning lower-income whites in recent
primaries that it is ludicrous to believe she is the
stronger candidate in the fall.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found nearly 60
percent of voters think Clinton is dishonest. Think
about that: Only four in 10 voters do not think she
lies when she needs to. A majority hold an unfavorable
view of her.
Will those numbers improve if she wins the nomination
and Republicans resurrect the scandals, the Bill
Clinton sexual affairs and her Bosnia fib with the
same intensity they brought to the Wright uproar?
Now that the Democratic superdelegates are facing
their moment of decision in this close race, you might
think it would be time for politesse to give way to an
unvarnished discussion about both candidates' real
strengths and liabilities.
The Obama side is frustrated with the news media for
not carrying more of its argument. His operatives
thought a Newsday story looking exhaustively at her
legal career including the revelation that as a
young lawyer she attacked the credibility of a
12-year-old rape victim would provoke a herd of
other coverage. It did not happen.
If he really wanted, Obama could generate all the
coverage he wanted about Clintons past by leveling
accusations in his own words. But that is not going to
Politically, he correctly believes that he would be
called out as a hypocrite if he practiced the
conventional art of attack politics after preaching
And, to view his motives in the best light a benefit
of the doubt extended by his own team he believes
this campaign would also undermine his governing
strategy if elected. He has told associates it would
be impossible to win support for a progressive agenda
unless he assumes the presidency as a uniting figure
who can transcend the personality-obsessed brand of
combat that has dominated Washington for the past
I told this to my team, you know, we are starting to
sound like the other folks, we are starting to run the
same negative stuff, he told a crowd in North
Carolina this week. It shows that none of us are
immune from this kind of politics. But the problem is
that it doesnt help you.