Pass the Cranberry Sauce: Political Smearing Season Has Begun
Heading into a thankfully shortened Thanksgiving week in presidential politics, the Democratic race is sorting itself out from a controversial debate in Las Vegas and both Democrats and Republicans are dealing with what may, or may not, be the beginnings of some real mudslinging.
Meanwhile, the presidency itself and, increasingly the candidates for the presidency, is and are dealing with a deeply unsettled situation in Pakistan, a lynchpin of the Terror War and the only Islamic nuclear power. Over the weekend, President Pervez Musharraf, who's ruling under martial law and has jailed thousands of his secular critics in the name of fighting Islamic jihadists, rejected US envoy John Negroponte's demand for a restoration of democracy. And even though we've secretly spent at least $100 million since 9/11 to secure Pakistan's nukes, it's not at all clear that we've succeeded at that.
But enough of the real substance of things. Let's get to the dirt, purported and otherwise. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is fending off "push-poll" phone calls to voters in early contest states, criticizing his background as a Mormon and, suspiciously, praising John McCain for serving in the military when Romney got deferments as a missionary for his controversial religion. McCain and the other Republicans are scrambling to denounce the calls, which are being made out of a service in Utah. The center of Mormonism. Which seems a way to make it look as though Romney himself might be behind the smear on himself. Brilliant.
On the Democratic side, Barack Obama decided to make a big deal out of a blind item in an online column by longtime conservative columnist Bob Novak. Which said that Clinton has details of a juicy Obama personal scandal. But is not using it. The Drudge Report picked this item up and spread it around the country. Obama denounced the rumor and demanded that Clinton come out with whatever she supposedly has. The Clinton camp replied that they don't know what Novak is talking about, that he is just trying to stir up trouble among Democrats. http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/nation/ny-usobam1118,0,3945084.story?coll=ny_home_rail_headlines
Now this is all in the area of what I call "twilight." Did someone from the Clinton camp tell Novak this? He says now, well, no. He "heard it from a Democrat" who was told it by someone in the Clinton campaign.
Was Obama smart or stupid to react so dramatically? From one angle, it looks panicky. Why give credence to a blind item by a conservative columnist (Novak) publicized by a conservative web site (Drudge)? But from another angle. Well, if something does come out on Obama, he's established the predicate to immediately denounce it as the work of the Clinton smear machine, which will muddy up whatever story there is about him.
While this goes on, Thursday night's Democratic debate in Las Vegas is being rethought. Especially the role of CNN in the running it.
We've learned since Thursday night that CNN producers selected that warm and fuzzy close for Hillary in the form of the now notorious "Do you prefer diamonds or pearls?" question. We've also learned that all the questions from the audience members were pre-approved and sequenced by CNN, so it wasn't really anything like a town hall. And we've learned that one of the questioners - a purported undecided Nevada voter - was just a few years ago the executive director of the Arkansas Democratic Party.
There are many second thoughts about this debate. But what I found most interesting was how lock-step and credulous my colleagues in the conventional media were in their Friday morning reports on the debate. They pretty much accepted everything at face value.
One excuse is that they weren't allowed into the actual hall where the debate took place. (I filmed the presidential forum there in the spring, but that wasn't possible this time, since CNN controlled everything.) But you didn't have to be in the hall, which was packed with Clinton supporters whose behavior went uncontrolled by moderator Wolf Blitzer. It was perfectly obvious that something was off, as I reported at the time. All you had to do was watch and listen. Because there was also the question of how Blitzer ran the substance of the debate.
The Vegas debate began as the most exciting one yet. For nearly 15 minutes, the top three candidates - Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards - went toe to toe, launching and landing rhetorical punches with abandon. It was the political equivalent of the title fights that Vegas has become known for.
Obama fired a hard shot at Clinton right off the bat, saying the people want real answers to tough questions. Clinton fired right back. "He talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions," said the former first lady-turned-New York senator. "But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out."
Obama, who like many if not most Democrats opposes requiring that people buy health insurance, shot back at the frontrunner, saying that Clinton is missing the point that many people can't afford to buy the coverage.
Edwards joined Obama in tagging Clinton as a flip-flopper and equivocator, on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, Social Security, and war and peace, among other things. "She says she will bring change to Washington while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged, that is corrupt," declared the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Clinton gave it right back in turn. "I don't mind taking hits on my record, on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook."
To which Edwards replied ... Actually, he never replied. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer suddenly pulled the plug on the action. Instead of allowing the left-leaning Edwards to bat down Hillary's somewhat amusing charge that he talks like a Republican, Blitzer ignored him and called on Joe Biden.
And just like that, the electricity was out of the event and we were back to another fairly standard joint appearance forum. Blitzer gave a lot of time to candidates who have no chance of winning. Long stretches passed with Edwards in particular, and to a lesser extent Obama, absent from the action.
With CNN turning the focus away from the competition between Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, Biden actually did the best of anyone on stage. He was funny, articulate, and easily the most knowledgeable on the mutating foreign policy crises facing America, most notably that in Pakistan, the increasingly unstable sole Islamic nuclear power.
Press was not allowed into the actual hall in which the debate took place. CNN controlled the access to the hall, where the audience (mostly invited by the state party and the university) sounded quite pro-Hillary, cheering very loudly and raucously for her and actually booing criticism of her. It was disruptive to the flow of what Edwards and Obama were trying to do. Blitzer doing nothing to point out that in a debate, one compares and contrasts with one's opponents.
After the first 15 minutes, Obama seemed largely to revert to his semi-professorial mode. He bumbled his way through a lengthy answer on, of all things, drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. Which had merely been the start of Hillary's serious troubles in the Philadelphia and a central issue for two weeks. Hillary simply said "No" when asked if she favors the notion. Blitzer did no follow-up on that, which was certainly called for since she finally arrived at that position only the day before the debate.
Blitzer did have a tough question for Obama, however, pointing out that he missed voting - on a resolution that overwhelmingly passed the Senate with 76 votes - on the question of whether or not the Iranian military is a terrorist organization. That's a position Obama and others criticize Hillary for taking, as helping pave the way for an undeclared war with Iran.
As I predicted on New West Notes before the debate, Hillary's opponents should not have expected aggressive questioning of her from Blitzer or the other CNN personnel, and would have to make their own luck. http://pjmedia.com/xpress/billbradley/2007/11/15/nonrandom_notes_morning_update_165.php
One technique, sure to be used by the very good debater Rudy Giuliani - if he and Hillary actually make it past the primaries - is to give your answer to every question while contrasting it with the statements of Senator Clinton.
Given how the debate was run, Clinton was the winner, in political terms, though Biden, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd also did well. CNN's post-debate analysis team - dominated by former top advisors to the Clintons, James Carville and David Gergen - is not alone in assessing this as a positive event for her candidacy.
And she was improved over her performance in Philadelphia. But CNN's behavior reminded all over again why many -- in both parties, now -- call it the Clinton News Network.