Obama On Negative Campaigning

At a press conference today, Sen. Barack Obama took several questions about whether his campaign ever crossed the line in digging for opposition research about the Clintons.

Question of Obama, asking whether his campaign operatives are gathering "personal" information about rivals.

"I have been very clear to my staff. Look, every campaign is doing comparitive research on policy," Obama began.

Questioner interrupted with clarification.

"I understand, so I'm just going to answer your question. Every campaign is going to be looking at, you know, did they flip flop on a health care issues or, you know, are they consistent on their trade policy -- that I think is exactly what presidential debates should be about and I have no problem with that at all. I have been very clear to my campaign. I do not want to see research that is involved in trying to tear people down personally. If find out that somebody is doing that, they will be fired. I've been absolutely crystal clear about this and I've been clear about this for a very long time and, you know, you're free to talk to my campaign manager who is around here somewhere for confirmation of that. That's not what I believe in. That's not who I am and frankly just from a practical, political perspective it's contrary to the kind o fmessage of change that I've been talking about in this campaign."

Follow up to clarify where the line is and whether raising questions about Clinton library financing, records there is fair.

"Well, the only issue that's come up with respect to the presidential library is when during the last debate when Russert asked ab out it and I was asked about it and I indicated at that time that releasing records and transparency in terms of tax records, for example, that I don't consider to be trying to undermine somebody. It has to do with us making sure that we are transparent and accountable and open to the public," Obama said.

So why did members of your staff go to the Little Rock Library?

"That I can't answer because I don't know that for certain, but they would not be looking for personal items. They'd be looking, again, keep in mind that -- and this is the argument that I made earlier -- Senator Clinton's argued that her experience as first lady is relevant. That means we and what I said publicly was if you are saying that this is your relevant experience, we should know what decisions you were involved in in the White House. That is part of her public function and part of the argument she's making publicly in terms of why she would be a better president," Obama said.

For December's Atlantic, I chronicled eight months' worth of behind-the-scenes struggles between the Obama and the Clinton campaigns, and several passages strike me as relevant to this discussion.

Read them and decide for yourself whether Obama has more explaining to do.

Another tension in process campaigns is behavioral. Practitioners can become handcuffed by their own idealism. Having pledged to run “a different kind of campaign” that wouldn’t traffic in the mudslinging and personal attacks so common to politics today, Obama boxed himself in. “The campaigns shouldn’t be about making each other look bad,” he declared in his brief appearance at the DNC winter meeting. “They should be about figuring out how we can all do some good for this precious country of ours. That’s our mission. And in this mission, our rivals won’t be one another, and I would assert it won’t even be the other party. It’s going to be cynicism that we’re fighting against.” This kind of sentiment is a large part of Obama’s appeal. But it’s also a good illustration of why process-oriented campaigns often run into trouble. Committing himself to a higher standard of conduct meant that either Obama would refrain from doing much of what campaigns do to jockey for position or he would endure criticism for failing to live up to his own standard. In a campaign staffed by talented, though conventional, operatives, this would prove problematic.

In June, Obama’s staff slipped reporters a memorandum about the Clintons’ financial ties to Indian American entrepreneurs who benefited from job outsourcing—an act well within the norm of political conduct, though the memo did have a rather tasteless title (“Hillary Clinton, D-Punjab”). A Clinton aide caught wind of it and, no doubt inspired by Obama’s call for better conduct, persuaded a reporter for a Capitol Hill newspaper to disclose its source. Obama was forced to apologize.

But he pointedly did not pledge to refrain from disseminating such information about his opponent. Belatedly, his campaign has learned to fight back. In August, Obama’s team scored a significant hit by helping to place a story in several newspapers revealing that Norman Hsu, a major Clinton donor, had skipped town after having pleaded no contest to a charge of grand theft 15 years earlier and still faced an outstanding warrant. Hsu fled once more (he was captured in Colorado in September) and ignited a costly media frenzy for Clinton, who decided to return $850,000 in donations that he had arranged for her. (Hsu had also contributed to Obama.)

But Obama seemed to recoil from many of the tasks that have come to be expected of someone serious about running for president. Cerebral and loquacious, given to lengthy disquisitions, Obama chafed at the sound-bite culture of politics and disliked criticizing opponents by name. One day in New Hampshire, caught up in the moment, he called Hillary “Bush-Cheney lite”—a phrase he never again repeated. Occasionally, Obama behaved as if conventional expectations were beneath him and an insult to voters’ intelligence. “The one thing I am absolutely certain of,” Obama told me, “is that if all I’m offering is the same Democratic narrative that has been offered for the last 20 years, then there’s really no point in my running, because Senator Clinton is going to be very adept at delivering that message. What makes it worthwhile for me to run is the belief that we can actually change the narrative and create a working majority that we haven’t seen in a very long time—and that, frankly, the Clintons never put together.” Though he dislikes cattle-call interest-group forums, he prepared diligently for a June forum on black issues at Howard University in Washington, D.C., understanding that, by dint of his race and life experience, he had a chance to shine. Obama believed he’d excelled during the debate, and was stunned when press coverage focused on a single applause line—from Hillary Clinton. “If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause [of] the death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country,” she had declared. Obama, by contrast, was chided for his long-winded answers. “He was very, very frustrated,” one of his friends recalls.

Two weeks later, at an NAACP forum in Philadelphia, Obama, according to The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, “played to the crowd.” The press rewarded him. A friend e-mailed him a note of congratulations. “Well, but all I did was throw sound bites back at them,” Obama wrote back.

His campaign staffers, too, have become frustrated by the focus of the media’s attention, specifically that the press has not covered Clinton in the way they expected it would. During an interview this summer, Obama’s friend Valerie Jarrett said to me, unbidden, “He is a man who is devoted to his wife. There aren’t going to be any skeletons in his closet in terms of his personal life at all. Period.” And at a campaign event in Iowa, one of Obama’s aides plopped down next to me and spoke even more bluntly. He wanted to know when reporters would begin to look into Bill Clinton’s postpresidential sex life.