Ladies and gentlemen, the first major Clinton vs. Obama fight of the campaign has begun.
And for those of us with no dog in this fight… it’s awesome.
The short version:
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd talked to Hollywood mogul David Geffen, a former Bill Clinton backer who’s now backing Obama. Geffen ripped Hillary. He called her “incredibly polarizing”, referred to the Bush and Clinton “royal families,” speculated that Bill Clinton was still sleeping around and thus represented a scandal waiting to erupt; called the Clinton machine (their network of supporters and operatives) “very unpleasant and unattractive and effective;” called the former President “a reckless guy”, mocked his pardon of Marc Rich, declared the Clintons “unwilling to stand for things that they genuinely believe in” and that they lie “with such ease, it’s troubling.” Finally, he asked if anyone was more ambitious than Hillary.
The Hillary campaign read this in Dowd’s column and shot back, “A day after Barack Obama goes out and eschews the politics of slash-and-burn, his campaign embraces the politics of trash.” The Obama campaign responded, “We aren’t going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who was once one of their biggest supporters. It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom.”
Later in Iowa, Obama himself added, “It’s not clear to me why I would be apologizing for someone else’s remarks… My sense is that Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with our campaign.”
At the candidate forum in Nevada yesterday, Hillary didn’t directly say whether she believed Obama was obligated to disavow Geffen’s comments, but instead, she lamented… come on, you can guess the standard-issue Clinton response to these situations… you got it! The Politics of Personal Destruction™! Yes, Geffen’s criticisms and observations amount to an attempt to personally destroy her.
Jennifer Rubin, an NRO contributor, points out that Geffen is doing my job better than I am, and notes that Geffen chose a venue (Dowd’s column) and lines of criticism (empty ambition, unprincipled, scandals lurking that could ruin her bid) that couldn’t be ignored.
Jonah notes that Bill Richardson jumped in to defend Hillary, and speculates that this is a sign that he is really more interested in being Hillary’s running mate.
I have to dissent from John Podhoretz; I don’t see anything “ugly” in the Obama response. It’s pointing out the obvious that the criticism from Geffen is hardly a member of the vast-right-wing-conspiracy; Geffen’s criticism may carry more weight because he was once buddy-buddy with the Clintons.
John Dickerson also scores this as a win for Hillary, calling the response from Team Obama “sharp” (and not in a good way) and quoting a rival Democratic campaign operative who says that both are “acting like children.”(That quote sounds like it comes from an Edwards operative, doesn’t it?)
Really? What exactly has Obama done in this whole scenario that acts childish? Hell, what has Hillary done that’s childish? And how does Geffen making these remarks – presumably without sanction or approval from Team Obama – mean that Obama’s campaign has embraced “the politics of trash”?
From where I sit – admittedly, pretty far both ideologically and geographically from Beverly Hills, Nevada, Iowa, or even Washington – Geffen pointed out the elephant in the room, the fears and irritations that a lot of Democrats feel about Hillary but don’t like to talk about. Team Hillary reacted with its characteristic whine, completely fudging the difference between a substantive disagreement (her vote on Iraq, the Marc Rich pardon) and speculation about scandals and personal defects (the idea that Bill is sleeping around). I find this line of argument completely unpersuasive, but apparently it works, because the Clintons keep using it. Obama reacted by pointing out the obvious and staying out of the fray. But so far, it’s being scored as a loss and a gaffe for Obama.
UPDATE: So I thought a bit more about Richardson and other Democrats in yesterday’s candidate forum responding as if Obama had done something wrong, and I began to wonder if the Democratic field is tired of hearing about Obama the Messiah, and how lame they are in comparison to the Illinois Senator Who Walks On Water and is eager to see him taken down a peg.
Also, a Smart Republican Guy explained why I’m scoring this fight wrong.
Smart Republican Guy: I thought it was one more step in the inevitable process of taking the shine off the guy [Obama]. He’s in a tough spot. If I were advising him, I’d tell him not to engage the other Dems at all. To set himself by, among other things, being apart. (Smart, for example, to blow off the debate yesterday.) But that’s tricky. Because sometimes you have to engage. And everytime he does, I think it diminishes him. Most voters will see what I saw on the today show this morning — Howard Wolfson attacking Obama. And they’ll believe it because they’re used to it. They’re used to politicians attacking each other. So this is believable. They expect it.Jim: I mean, I guess at issue here is that Joe Voter is so disengaged, pays so little attention to the details of the story, that they’ll walk away from the conversation convinced that Obama did something wrong?
Smart Republican Guy: Essentially, yes.
I don’t want SRG’s interpretation to be right, but I fear he may be.