For the past few years, progressives have been saying that one of the most important things Democrats needed to do was to get tough. Republicans had been kicking sand in their faces too long, and the time had come to hit back just as hard. In my own contribution to this chorus, I started a chapter in my last book by quoting Sean Connery's character from The Untouchables: "They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way."
But now the candidate who should be as familiar as anyone with "the Chicago way" -- given that he's actually from Chicago -- is on the receiving end of some less than polite politics, and more than a few progressives don't like what they're seeing. Barack Obama and his advisors did a lot of careful planning for this campaign, but there's one thing it doesn't seem they prepared for: Their main opponent, Hillary Clinton, is running like a Republican. And it appears to be working.
Three weeks ago, I wrote that Clinton was working to make voters uneasy, utilizing just enough fear to encourage them to stick with the known quantity in the race. But in the time since, her campaign has begun to appear more and more as though it's being run by Karl Rove or Lee Atwater. Pick your tired metaphor -- take-no-prisoners, brass knuckles, no-holds-barred, playing for keeps -- however you describe it, the Clinton campaign is not only not going easy on Obama, they're doing so in awfully familiar ways. So many of the ingredients of a typical GOP campaign are there, in addition to fear. We have the efforts to make it harder for the opponent’s voters to get to the polls (the Nevada lawsuit seeking to shut down at-large caucus sites in Las Vegas, to which the Clinton campaign gave its tacit support). We have, depending on how you interpret the events of the last couple of weeks, the exploitation of racial divisions and suspicions (including multiple Clinton surrogates criticizing Obama for his admitted teenage drug use). And most of all, we have an utterly shameless dishonesty.
On some of these points, Clinton hasn't yet reached GOP levels of underhandedness. But on the simple question of honestly characterizing their opponent, the Clintons are giving any Republican campaign in memory a run for its money.
The latest example is the Clinton camp's extremely effective effort to twist some remarks Obama made about Ronald Reagan and the years since his presidency beyond all recognition, which came up in their debate Monday night. In an interview with the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, Obama had said that Reagan had successfully "changed the trajectory of America, in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," a claim few people of any ideological stripe would dispute. He also said, "I think it's fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time over the last 10 or 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom."
For those of you who don't know, the "party of ideas" is a concept that people have been throwing around for quite some time in Washington, and it is almost always used in a value-neutral way, meaning the party that at a particular time appears to the public like the one offering something new and grand, and that seems to have political momentum behind its ideological thrust. Both parties want to claim the "party of ideas" mantle, but you can acknowledge that at one time or another your opponents have successfully grabbed it without saying their ideas are actually right. But Hillary Clinton responded this way:
I have to say, you know, my leading opponent the other day said that he thought the Republicans had better ideas than Democrats the last ten to fifteen years. That's not the way I remember the last ten to fifteen years. I don't think it's a better idea to privatize Social Security. I don't think it's a better idea to try to eliminate the minimum wage. I don't think it's a better idea to undercut health benefits and to give drug companies the right to make billions of dollars by providing prescription drugs to Medicare recipients. I don't think it's a better idea to shut down the government, to drive us into debt.
And if you listen to the tape, the italics are right there in her voice. Bill then chimed in, taking the distortion to an even higher level: "Her principal opponent," he claimed, "said that since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas."
(Many progressives have taken issue with Obama's comments about Reagan's appeal when he won the presidency, though some seem unable to wrap their heads around the idea that describing a set of beliefs and sentiments such as those prevailing in 1980 does not necessarily mean one endorses those beliefs and sentiments.)
And that was only the latest. During the whole messy back-and-forth over race, a disagreement neither candidate seemed truly comfortable having, Bill Clinton went on The Tom Joyner Morning Show (one of the most widely-syndicated radio programs in the country), and claimed that Obama's advisors had said all sorts of terrible things about his wife. "No one," he said, "should accuse someone like Hillary of being a racist who's responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto." That would indeed be an awful charge to make, had anyone actually made it. But no one had. (Some of Obama's advisors had pointed out that Bhutto's assassination demonstrated Al Qaeda's growing strength in Pakistan, which has been enabled by the fact that we shifted resources from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002 and 2003; yet another reason why the Iraq war was a bad idea.)
Then there's the argument Bill Clinton made on multiple occasions, that Obama couldn't say he had always opposed the Iraq war: "How could you say that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution?" As the article in question read, Obama "declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time. ‘But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports,' Mr. Obama said. ‘What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made.'"
One might argue that although Clinton distorted Obama's comment in attempting to argue falsely that Obama at some point went from being a war opponent to being something else, it's hardly so egregious a sin of campaign legerdemain as to be unforgivable. Perhaps. So let's try this one: Obama has said we should consider the possibility of lifting the cap on Social Security taxes, which in 2008 stands at $102,000 -- any income above that amount is not subject to the tax. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this question, but the whole point of such a move would be to make the tax less regressive than it is now, by making the wealthy pay the same share of their income in the tax as everyone else.
When Hillary Clinton decided to go after Obama for considering lifting the cap, she did it in the kind of deceptive, demagogic way you'd expect from a Republican: by sending out a mailer in Nevada accusing Obama of having "a plan with a trillion dollar tax increase on America's hard-working families." Obama had no "plan" -- he merely said that lifting the cap was something worth considering -- and the people affected would be upper-middle class and wealthy Americans, not the blue-collar folk implied by the term "America's hard-working families." But few things are more classically Republican than screaming that Democrats are going to raise your taxes.
Let's step back from these particular disputes and look at the big picture. We shouldn't forget that this has always been one of the things that partisan Democrats liked about the Clintons. They took hits, and hit right back. No matter how bleak things looked, no matter how much it seemed that Newt Gingrich or Ken Starr was going to defeat them, they never gave up and never stopped fighting. They weren't afraid to get their hands dirty, and they did what it took to win.
The difference is that in the past, Republicans were the target, and now it's not just a fellow Democrat but one about whom nearly all Democrats have good feelings, even those supporting other candidates. The Obama campaign obviously decided that the steady stream of falsehoods from both Bill and Hillary was having an effect, or they wouldn't have tried to staunch the flow by calling attention to it.
The question this raises is how we really feel about ethically questionable campaign tactics. The fact is that we're very quick to forgive a politician we support for hitting below the belt, if the belt in question is around the waist of another politician we dislike. We might ask ourselves, however, whether our readiness to do so is different in kind from the Republican willingness to tolerate torture, so long as it's done to "bad guys" (OK, so many of them won't just "tolerate" it, they'll applaud it enthusiastically). Try to imagine that it's nine months from now, Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee, and flyers begin appearing in mailboxes charging that as an elder of the Mormon church, Romney participated in bizarre, cult-like rituals that may or may not have involved slaughtering puppies. Would you say that the attack was beyond the pale, but crack a secret smile when Romney was forced to deny that he was a puppy-killer?
Allen Raymond, the Republican operative who went to jail for his role in the New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal, writes in his new tell-all, "When it came to playing in the gutter, we were the professionals -- the Dems weren't even junior varsity." But one can't deny that there are quite a few Democrats who know their way around the gutter, too.