A Short History of Recent U.S. Presidential Politics - Part 10: The Politics of Disunity and Dishonesty
I've been trying to be patient about this, but I'm close to the point where my tolerance is about to run out. Sen. Obama's campaign and his surrogates in the Washington Establishment who are so Deeply Troubled About Party UnityTM have evidently failed to notice that it would have been very easy for Sen. Clinton to actually destroy Sen. Obama's campaign by claiming he has a serious problem with telling the truth. He is lucky that, unlike his campaign, the Clinton campaign is not taking the easy route by proactively accusing him every day of being a liar or of running a dirty campaign - because the reality is that the Clinton campaign cares more than he does about Democratic party unity. After all, there is voluminous evidence that he (or his campaign) has repeatedly misstated or misrepresented the facts and made accusations or charges against Sen. Clinton (including egregious and deplorable charges of racism) that are completely and categorically untrue.
I've been watching this dynamic for some time and let's just say it is oddly similar to what happened in the 2000 election between Obama-endorser Bill Bradley and former Vice President Al Gore (without the racial element), when Bradley - who also ran as one of those "post-partisan" non-ideologues dedicated to uniting the country and upholding truth
iness - repeatedly and falsely painted Gore as a compulsive liar, even though it was clear that Bradley was the one who was regularly making stuff up, especially about Gore. The media helpfully played along with Bradley, as has been the case in this campaign, in favor of Sen. Obama. Not surprisingly, some Bradley supporters - who believed his fictions - made predictable and bitter noises about how Gore was terrible and no different than Bush and how they could never support him in the general election. Bradley himself eventually endorsed Gore months after having dropped out of the race, but during the campaign he made sure he bloviated about his post-partisan Unity00 SainthoodTM (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
[Bill Bradley] styles himself an outsider, talks about trust and tells about the Independents and Republicans who approach him in airports and hotel lobbies, saying, "I'd vote for you, but I'll never vote for him." His message: I can beat Bush; Gore, with all his baggage, never will. Bradley doesn't say whether those Independents and Republicans have heard about his unapologetically liberal platform. Maybe he thinks his halo will keep them by his side.
Gore of course trounced Bradley and then went on to beat Bush, but that's another story. As you might expect from a campaign that has been copying the Bradley campaign quite effectively so far, here's Saint ObamaTM yesterday:
I think there is no doubt that [Hillary Clinton] has higher negatives than any of the remaining Democratic candidates, that's just a fact. And there are some who will not vote for her. I have no doubt that once the nomination contest is over, I will get the people who voted for her. Now the question is, could she get the people who voted for me?
In contrast, Sen. Clinton made it very clear that she would unite her supporters behind the eventual nominee. Makes you wonder which of these two candidates is the one really running on a platform of unity.
In any case, the purpose of the introduction above is to lay the groundwork for a discussion on the latest campaign skirmish - pertaining to Sen. Obama's shameless mendacity on the topic of single-payer healthcare, which is the focus of the rest of this post.
Certainly, none of the candidates have a perfect record of stating things accurately - and I tend to give them all some benefit of the doubt now and then because things can get heated on the campaign trail. However, by virtue of being a favorite media target, just like Gore was, Sen. Clinton ends up having to be a lot more careful about being more accurate than Sen. Obama - and it shows time and again. What I have a problem with, though, is someone who is shameless to the point that his campaign continues to accuse his opponent of distortions or lying, even after it has been clearly shown that he is the one who didn't tell the truth. Guess what, this was another classic Bradley strategy against Gore. As an example, recall Bradley's health care plan:
By the time of the New Hampshire primary, the press corps’ remarkable borking of Gore had reached a state of full fury. In the aftermath of Gore’s defeat of Bradley, Josh Marshall offered a lengthy assessment of the Granite State fight. His piece appeared in the February 28 American Prospect:
MARSHALL (2/28/00): Since late last fall, Gore has repeatedly charged that Bradley would abolish Medicaid without providing sufficient funds for current Medicaid recipients to purchase coverage under Bradley’s plan. Gore’s charge is so effective because it’s true. Rather than offering specific refutation of Gore’s charge, Bradley’s top staffers take umbrage at the thought that Bill Bradley would ever leave Medicaid patients in the lurch. Bradley and his advisers seem to be asking for a pass on the details, a special pleading for their man’s big ideas.
Gore’s critique did seem to have merit. How accurate did his claims seem to be? On November 5, 1999, Newsday’s Ken Fireman reported a remarkable interview with “Bradley’s own chief health-care adviser, Margy Heldring.” The nugget: “Heldring acknowledged in an interview with Newsday that the campaign’s cost estimate of $55 billion to $65 billion a year is based on an assumption about the price of insurance that probably would prove too low when the plan was actually implemented,” Fireman reported. Heldring had discussed the subsidies Bradley would use in place of Medicaid. “[S]he acknowledges that the subsidies will fall short next year and even shorter in 2001, the earliest the plan could take effect if Bradley is elected and persuades Congress to approve it.” According to Fireman, Heldring said “that the gap between the subsidy and the actual cost of coverage would eventually require either a higher subsidy—and thus a higher overall cost for the program—or an acceptance of the fact that significantly fewer uninsured people would obtain coverage. She said the campaign has not done quantitative estimates for either of those options.”
In short, early on in the health care debate, Bradley’s leading health adviser agreed with the substance of Gore’s primary charge. And Heldring wasn’t the only Bradley adviser who acknowledged that Gore’s complaints might be valid. On November 11, the New York Times’ Bob Herbert quoted David Cutler, “professor of economics at Harvard and a health care adviser to the Bradley campaign.” According to Herbert, Cutler said that “he expected the caps to be raised, that the…vouchers to be given to poor people would be increased to better reflect the market.” This, of course, implied the accuracy of Gore’s critique—that Bradley’s plan would cost more than he said. And on November 19, Jill Zuckman of the Boston Globe quoted John McDonough, “a former state representative from Boston who teaches health care policy at Brandeis University and is supporting Bradley for president.” Said McDonough: “It appears that some significant portions of the Bradley plan have not been completely thought through.”
In short, it seemed fairly clear, from early on, that Gore’s critique had merit. But by now, the Washington press corps was pathologically invested in making Al Gore a Big Liar. And so, over the course of the next three months, major pundits kept insisting that Gore was lying about Bradley’s plan. Predictably, Heldring’s remarkable Newsday interview found its way down the memory hole; a NEXIS search reveals no instance in which her interview was cited by a reporter or pundit. The result? In the closing weeks of the Granite State race, major pundits asserted, again and again, that Gore was lying about Bradley’s plan. David Broder was especially demagogic in two nasty columns which slandered Gore’s character. Richard Cohen and Walter Shapiro—aggressively playing it dumb in their own health care “arguments”—didn’t trail too far behind.
Clearly, Judis thought Gore was right on the merits; indeed, he baldly disparaged Bradley’s performance. According to Judis, Bradley “didn’t listen” when warned about his plan’s defects, and his subsequent replies to Gore “verged on incomprehensible.” (For the record, Bradley’s replies also verged on outright dissembling.) But incredibly, even as he painted a picture of Bradley’s misfeasance, it was Gore whose character Judis disparaged. Was Gore praised for noting the problems in Bradley’s plan? No, Judis went on to criticize Gore’s “brutal assault” on Bradley, saying—in a world-class left-handed compliment—that “his ruthless new strategy has worked” with the voters. The press corps’ war on Gore had reached a very strange state indeed. Even here, when Gore was judged to be right on the merits, he was described as “brutal” and “ruthless” for stating them. Meanwhile, Judis didn’t say a word about Bradley’s conduct, although Bradley had called Gore a liar for months, making claims about his plan which Judis now said were inaccurate.
Of course, it was a transgression against all press corps etiquette to suggest that Bradley might be misbehaving. A comical moment occurred on December 19, 1999, when Gore and Bradley locked horns on Meet the Press. By this time, Bradley was openly calling Gore a liar. Tim Russert seemed eager to air the charge. He opened with a softball for Bill:
RUSSERT: Senator Bradley, let me start with you. Health care. You have been on the receiving end of Vice President Gore’s attacks over the last few weeks, questioning your plan, how to pay for it. Your campaign in New Hampshire responded with a flyer—I’ll put it on the screen—which talked about the disease of Gore-itis. “The symptoms: uncontrollable lying. The medication: truth serum. The patient: Vice President Al Gore.” Specifically, what has Al Gore said about your health-care plan that is a distortion or a lie?
There was no loaded language in that balanced question about the vice president’s ceaseless “attacks.” And surely, the gods on Olympus rocked with laughter at Bradley’s surprising reply:
BRADLEY: I do think that there have been some misrepresentations, one of which relates to the total cost of the program. The program will cost between $55 billion and $65 billion a year. I think that is the most significant change in—distortion.
Comical, isn’t it? Six weeks earlier, Heldring acknowledged that Bradley’s plan was going to cost more than advertised. But now, Bradley told Russert that this very claim was Gore’s “most significant distortion!” Russert’s reaction? He didn’t mention Heldring or Cutler, or other experts who agreed with Gore’s claim. Nor did he ever ask Gore to respond. By now, the corps’ great theme was AL GORE, LIAR, with Bradley cast as the straight-talking challenger. No one—no one—was going to say that Bradley might be blowing big smoke.
Democrats, so it went as the dysfunctional Washington press corps made a joke of your White House election.
Of course, today, there are some journalists who decided to tell the truth about Sen. Obama's dissembling on the topic of single-payer healthcare. This is perhaps what Sen. Clinton pointed out politely during the last debate - namely, that Sen. Obama has a consistent problem taking responsibility for his mis-statements (his campaign certainly is not based on any model of accountability). Marc Ambinder has some relevant videos, which is where we begin this discussion:
The Obama campaign calls the video "dishonest." They say Obama has always said that he'd design a single payer system from scratch, if he could, but we're well beyond scratch at this point in our history.
The video evidence seems to show Obama squarely favoring a single-payer system now -- as in 2003.
I asked the Clinton campaign to provide more of the raw footage... so listen to it and judge for yourself.
Unlike Marc Ambinder's somewhat "fair and balanced" summary, we should offer praise to Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal blog Washington Wire who laid out the facts clearly and didn't fall into the same "fair and balanced" trap. Let me quote at length from her blog post (emphasis mine):
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are going at it over health care again, this time over whether Obama once advocated a single-payer health care plan, a system favored by the left wing of the Democratic Party.
He says he didn’t. She says he did.
But she has the proof. His comments are on video, from a speech he gave in 2003 to the AFL-CIO. It’s all on YouTube, natch.
At a Democratic debate Tuesday night, Clinton accused Obama of supporting single payer and then backing away. Obama flatly denied it: “I never said that we should try to go ahead and get single payer. What I said was that if I were starting from scratch, if we didn’t have a system in which employers had typically provided health care, I would probably go with a single-payer system. What’s evolved, Hillary, is your presentation of my positions, which is what’s happened frequently during the course of this campaign.”
But Clinton has the goods to back up her claim. In his 2003 speech, Obama said, “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer health care program. I see no reason why the United States of America the wealthiest country in the history of the world … cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody … . A single-payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see. And as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, we have to take back the House.”
Challenged with the apparent contradiction, Obama spokesman Bill Burton produced three recent examples where Obama did in fact say that he would support single payer but only if we were starting from scratch. And he put out this nasty statement: “The Clinton campaign has shown itself willing to say anything, distort anything and twist anything in order to win an election.”
When asked to respond to the fact that the video shows that in 2003 Obama held a different view, Burton challenged Washington Wire to get a copy of the full Obama speech and suggested that would show his comments were taken out of context. Clinton spokesman Phil Singer provided the full video and it proved Clinton’s point.
Obama tried to use the incident as an example of Clinton manipulating the facts, but it seems clear his campaign is the one doing the twisting. Clinton wants the incident to highlight how Obama no longer supports universal coverage, which she and others believe is not possible without a mandate. On that matter, the debate goes on.
Update: Burton later said that Obama has always been consistent in arguing that single payer health care is a good idea but “is not achievable.”
Shameless is the word. As Frank James of the Baltimore Sun observed on his blog:
It's another case of, what do you want to believe, Obama's statements now or your lying eyes and ears?
[MARSH] An interview with Obama on "Today" that talks about this video ad from Clinton. Notice that during the interview Obama pretends not to be able to hear the clip, then trudges through to give his point, even though the viewers clearly saw his flip flopping. Classic Obama.
[BENNETT] Barack Obama's Groucho Marx Moment
There are times in campaigns when candidates say or do things that destroy the major premises of their campaigns in an instant. Barack Obama did that this morning in his interview with Meredith Vieira on the Today Show.
When confronted with a clip (starting at about 5 minutes into the interview) of him saying in Monday night's debate that he never supported a single-payer health care system and then a clip of him saying he was a proponent of a single-payer system, Obama uncomfortably dodged his very obvious contradiction by telling Vieira that he could not hear the clips.
By relying on the Groucho Marx defense ("Who are you going to believe, me or your lyin' eyes?"), Obama reduced himself to a typical politician in front of millions of voters.
Vieira reported that the clips were prepared by the Clinton campaign, which was all the more reason for Obama to have been prepared to respond to the clips.
Voters react to demonstrated behavior. If a politician says he or she represents a new style of politics, but his or her behavior clearly demonstrates the opposite, voters will base their judgments on the behavior and not on what the politician tells them.
That behavior was of course pretty weird to say the least.
I want to make a final point. Chris Bowers wrote a post on the single-payer issue yesterday at Open Left that was in part on-point and in part rather surprising to me. In his post, he focused on the Clinton campaign's ad and said (emphasis in original):
The more I thought about it, however, the more brilliant this attack seemed. In addition to the flip-flop charge, the attack is actually a well-designed attempt to keep swing liberals from flocking toward Obama. The ad makes the charge that Obama may seem like this great left-wing progressive, but when push comes to shove he doesn't actually champion the more progressive position. It is precisely the same attack the Clinton campaign has been using against Obama on Iraq. Sure, he may have opposed to the war from the start, but what has Obama done to actually end the war that is any different from Clinton? The same thing applies to health care. Obama may sound all left-wing, but liberals should take note that he isn't any different than Clinton. In other words, the Clinton campaign is attacking Obama for being a paper tiger progressive.
Even though the attack implies that she is also a paper-tiger progressive, there is an ingenious logic behind it. It manages to incorporate a "flip flop" charge, a blurring strategy, and a claim that Obama is not a progressive leader all at once. When combined with partisan rhetoric about defeating the Republican machine, it is, effectively, Clinton's pitch to swing liberals, even though it does not paint her as much of a liberal herself. It effectively forces Obama into a position of having to take real leadership on a progressive issue, or to not appear any different than Clinton to progressives.
This brings me to the posts Paul and Matt made last night. Clinton is effectively making the same charge we are making: if Obama wants to win swing liberals in the primary, then he needs to prove he is their champion with something more than words. And really, in the end, she is right. The main reason why many progressive bloggers didn't jump on the Obama bandwagon, or at least why we haven't done much for Obama apart from providing moral support that is generally lacking in activism, is that he hasn't used his time in the Senate to prove his progressive leadership on issues like Iraq and FISA. Had he done so, I have no doubt that his blogosphere support would have turned into something more tangible, like defending him against attacks such as these or generating positive free media buzz on his behalf. For my part, I still hope that Obama wins the nomination, but I'm not excited enough about it to do more than just say I am supporting him, and to sign petitions to help him get on the ballot in Pennsylvania.
The part that I found surprising is Chris' notion that this strategy is somehow "brilliant" or "ingenious". It is neither. It is common sense, as I've tried to explain to some progressives - it is in fact the exact line of criticism I've used in the past. The issue is not that he is flip-flopping - people are allowed to change their minds if there are good reasons to do so. The issue is pandering - saying something that voters want to hear in order to get elected and then changing your tune later when you realize that you don't have the ability to do what you said. This is of course what Sen. Obama accuses Sen. Clinton of doing - when in fact, he's mostly guilty of this himself. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? (To top it all off, Sen. Obama and his campaign have been indulging in falsehoods after they were caught).
Let's add some historical perspective. When Bill Clinton ran against George H. W. Bush in 1992, he attacked Bush Sr. for having raised taxes in office even though Bush Sr. had said “Read My Lips: No New Taxes” at the 1988 Republican National Convention – i.e., during his 1988 campaign for President. Was it particularly ingenious or brilliant that Clinton then criticized Bush Sr. on raising taxes, just because Clinton himself, as Governor of Arkansas had a history of raising taxes? Not in the least. Clinton was questioning whether people could trust what Bush Sr. claimed about himself and his positions on the campaign trail. This is one of the least offensive, position-based and legitimate critiques in political campaigns. No mud-slinging – just plain old - “Can you trust what Candidate X says on the campaign trail?”
What Sen. Clinton is doing is nothing different. If I ran on a campaign of being anti-war and then voted in a manner that prolonged the war (whatever the reasons maybe), it would be entirely legitimate for someone who is pro-war or anti-war or anywhere in between to question whether I was really anti-war. My opponent’s position is completely irrelevant to the question of whether my own words could be trusted. If I said I was in favor of single-payer healthcare and then acted in a manner that was quite different, it is entirely legitimate for people who are either pro-single-payer, anti-single-payer or anything else, to question my fealty to what I claim are my principles at any given moment.