Chuck Todd sees Obama’s weekend
hyperventilating serious response about the vague hints of Clintonites pushing “scandalous information” about him in the context of his relatively weaker campaigning in the week after his impressive speech Sunday before last. (For my part, I think his slightly incredulous reaction when he was confronted with a voter who apparently thought that Iraq had a connection to Al Qaeda is perfectly understandable, but the video of the exchange probably doesn’t help him.)
One source of the disagreement is that Shea thinks that the Clinton campaign is actually actively engaged in spreading these stories about “scandalous information,” and further that Obama is showing strength by taking the smear artists head on. It does sound like the sort of thing the Clintons would do, and I don’t rule out that they will slime their opponents in other ways (probably through independent expenditure groups or other indirect attacks that cannot be traced back to them as easily), but in this case it really doesn’t make much sense.
First of all, for a smear to have maximum effect, it has to be timed correctly. If it is false or extremely vague, it can be debunked or ignored soon enough, which is why these tactics come during the primaries, if they come at all, in the weeks and days immediately before the relevant vote. The goal of such tactics is to shift voters, especially undecided voters, to your side or at least shift them away from your opponent and to preoccupy the opposing campaign with refuting the charges in the closing stretch when the campaign’s time is most valuable and should not be wasted on such distractions. (What makes Obama’s reaction so strange and misguided is that he has chosen to waste his campaign’s time and consume much of the recent news coverage of his campaign with this story. Plus, responding to what a columnist said about intra-party gossip is the ultimate insiderish sort of thing to spend your time in Iowa talking about–it weakens Obama’s self-professed identity as someone who has not been in the world of Washington very long.) Besides, if Clinton were going to slime Obama, she wouldn’t be doing it through a whisper campaign that could be easily traced to her. If she is the “Lady Macbeth” that many of us see her as, she will be more cunning than this.
Meanwhile, Obama has taken the odd position that he trusts the account of a columnist, one who is widely reviled on the left, and distrusts Clinton. That hurts his credibility with Democratic voters, and makes those voters think that he will not be up to a general election fight. It also partially undermines his claim to represent moving beyond the politics of the past, since the framing of his response is clearly that of a campaign haunted by what happened to John Kerry in 2004. Responding “swiftly” to so-called “Swift-boating” charges, no matter how vague or baseless, has become the new “defensive crouch.” It is an expression not of confidence, but of the lack of it.
The origin of the “Obama was a Muslim” meme was first attributed to the Clinton campaign, which was also untrue.
Update: Ambinder relates Fund’s reporting on the core of the “scandalous information” in question:
The murmured charge is that as an Illinois state senator, Mr. Obama engaged in a real estate deal that benefited him in exchange for legislative favors. In short, what might pass for standard operating procedure in the Illinois legislature could nonetheless prove embarrassing to someone campaigning as a paragon of political virtue for president. So far, however, no proof of the allegation has been presented.
As Ambinder notes, the Rezko business is common knowledge in the media (Rezko was included in Obama’s Meet The Press interview last week), which makes Obama’s reaction seem even more bizarre than it already did.