Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Character Assassination

Events have conspired to deepen my November 14 argument that a generational fault line is reshaping the Democratic presidential nomination contest (“Don’t Trust Anyone Over 50,” CounterPunch, November 14). To wit:

On November 20, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, the Democratic frontrunner, issued an awkward attack on presidential rival Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, based on his four childhood years as an American abroad in Indonesia. To an audience in Shenandoah, Iowa, via a telephone speaker call, Clinton spoke these words: “Now voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face.”

The whack wasn’t merely against a ten-year-old boy but also versus any other American citizen or immigrant that once lived elsewhere. It also played into the nasty whisper campaign on the right that attempts to paint Obama as the Manchurian Muslim that Fox News has falsely implied was trained since childhood to infiltrate and destroy Western Civilization. But in the context of other recent events, it was part and parcel of the pattern of hostility by Clinton and her lackeys toward youth, in general, and young voters in specific.

On December I, the Clinton campaign read a script to various political reporters about the Obama campaign’s efforts to raise voter turnout among university students in Iowa, making the (legally errant) claim that Hawkeye state students that live and study in Iowa but are from other states should not be able to vote in the January 3 caucuses: “We are not courting out-of-staters. The Iowa caucus ought to be for Iowans,” said a Clinton spokeswoman, adding, “We are not systematically trying to manipulate the Iowa caucuses with out of state people. We don’t have literature recruiting out of state college students.”

On December 2, Clinton gave an audience in Clear Lake Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register, an argument reminiscent of those for a poll-tax as a requirement to vote: “This is a process for Iowans. This needs to be all about Iowa, and people who live here, people who pay taxes here.”

The Clinton camp has reason to be worried about the youth vote. The November 25-28 Des Moines Register poll that showed Obama ahead in Iowa with 28 percent, to 25 percent for Clinton and 23 percent for John Edwards – within the margin of error, but with Obama as the only candidate trending upward – noted Obama’s towering lead among younger voters: “Obama also dominates among younger caucusgoers, with support from 48 percent from those younger than 35. Clinton was the choice of 19 percent in that group and Edwards of 17 percent.”

That this year’s Iowa caucuses will be held during winter break, contrary to conventional wisdom, in fact makes the college student vote more potent on a statewide level by spreading it to all corners. Instead of, as in previous years, those votes being concentrated in Ames and other college towns, the students will be participating in their hometown caucuses throughout the state. In Iowa, the sum total of votes does not determine the statewide result. It is rather the sum of 1,700-plus local caucus results that will be added up to determine the winner. In rural Iowa, where three or four extra votes can dramatically change caucus results where, say, only 15 voters turn out to caucus, the decentralization of the university vote will likely have a greater impact on the statewide results than if it had been ghettoized only in college towns. In the academic centers, where, because of high caucus turnout in 2004 there will be a heavy concentration of delegates to be selected, university professors and staff will likely have a comparitavely greater influence than in other years: those are also very strong demographic groups for Obama (who, for example, widely leads among campaign contributions from employees of academic institutions, and in polls among the college educated). At issue in this dust-up is whether students who originate from Illinois and other states will come back to participate as well.

Efforts to disenfranchise student voters are more commonly the signature tactics of Republicans. Prior to the November 2004 elections, the executive director of the Iowa Republican party send a mailer out to voters, with the images of Senators Clinton and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, proclaiming, “Would you let these two tell you how to vote?” The flyer added: “They’re not from here. They won’t stay here. But they’re voting here. As part of the Democrats plan, they have registered a large number of Grinnell College students from places like New York and Massachusetts to vote in Iowa… Then why would you let 1,000 east-coast college kids elect your State Representative?”

The ACLU, the Democratic Party, MTV’s Rock the Vote and other organizations that encourage young voter participation have historically challenged such voter repression stunts. The sudden adoption of the same anti-democratic tactics speaks volumes about the overriding character of Senator Clinton and her campaign in the home stretch: a paranoid obsession with, and resentment toward, the relative youth of Obama (who is 46 to Clinton’s 60) and his battalions of young supporters.
The Clinton campaign’s generational meltdown became visible to all on December 3, when in a press release that sought to paint Obama as an ambitious pol that had charted his rise to the presidency from the sandbox of his childhood, it wrote:

In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled ‘I Want to Become President.’ “Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama’s kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, ‘I Want To Become President,’ the teacher said.” [AP, 1/25/07 ]

The press release included a similar paragraph about such an essay Obama reportedly penned in third grade, too.
Rival candidate John Edwards, when asked about Clinton’s kindergarten attack, told reporters in Clear Lake, Iowa, ”It’s fine to talk about our records and about issues. But we probably ought to stop at age 14.” Later, in Waterloo, he told voters, “I want to confess to all of you right now. In third grade I wanted to be two things: I wanted to be a cowboy and I wanted to be Superman.”

What some pundits called “Kinder-Gate” came on the heels of a buckshot-load of Clinton attacks on Obama’s “courage,” his “character,” and the policy differences between the two on health care and social security. “Now the fun part starts,” crowed Clinton on December 3, defending her escalation of attacks on Obama. But the resulting week has been anything but fun for Clinton and her campaign.

On the heels of her vanishing lead in Iowa and shrinking lead in first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire and nationwide, Clinton’s artless attacks generated a near consensus throughout the ideological spectrum that the frontrunner is blowing it. Former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich sharply rebutted what he called the “series of slurs” by his “old friend” Clinton against Obama. The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto wrote that, “a desperate Mrs. Clinton stands on the brink of losing all dignity.”

Time’s Joe Klein called Clinton’s statements “sweaty and desperate.” Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic noted, “Some of her top advisers exuded a sense of entitlement: Clinton deserved to be president; it was her turn. They did not perceive any threat until it was almost too late.”

In full damage-control mode by December 4, Clinton strategist Mark Penn went on MSNBC to claim that the attack on Obama’s kindergarten essay was “a joke.” But Boston Globe political reporter Scott Lehigh wrote that he had, on the day of the press release, asked the Clinton campaign whether the kindergarten attack was tongue-in-cheek, and did not get a response: “Asked for some indication that the reference to elementary-school essays was meant humorously, a Clinton press aide said he’d have to check and get back to me.”

Meanwhile, as Iowa polls generally show an Obama rise, a Clinton slide, and an Edwards hover close behind in third, Clinton campaign internet director Peter Daou circulated two Iowa polls that showed Clinton out front, sighing, “We’ll see how much attention these polls get.” But it turned out that those polls were taken prior to the newer wave of surveys, one from November 7 to 25, the other from November 6 to 18. The bulk of the interviews on each were conducted before the meltdown began. Clinton aide Daou got caught trying to peddle older polls as new ones (an indication of just how important perceptions of inevitability are to the Clinton campaign not only on a propaganda level, but also for its self-image: after months of using Clinton’s lead in the polls to smack all criticism by rivals, the campaign is losing its number-one rationale for existing: it’s much-heralded lead in the polls.)

Clinton’s national lead has also begun to tank. As of December 5, the Rasmussen daily tracking poll had Clinton with 34 percent – her lowest support in the history of the tracking poll that began last July – with Obama at 24 and Edwards at 16 (prior to Thanksgiving, she enjoyed a 24-point lead over Obama; that’s been more than halved in less than two weeks). Typically, the “Iowa bounce” gives the caucus winner a 12 to 20 point surge in New Hampshire, which next year votes on January 8.

It may be that Clinton and her strategists have already written off Iowa and seek to diminish its importance so as to later be able to bounce back from a defeat there while attempting to influence which of her rivals emerges stronger on January 3. Her attacks on Obama are reminiscent of the famous “murder-suicide” crossfire, four years ago, between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, who had been first and second in the polls until the week before the caucuses. Both went negative on the other and Iowa voters chose the more positive candidacies of John Kerry and Edwards over the frontrunners on caucus night. National Review’s Rick Lowry paraphrases Major Garrett on Fox News’ take on the Democratic contest: “Hillary is probably going after Obama so hard in Iowa because she can afford to have Edwards win there in a way she can’t with Obama.”

I tend to agree with those conservative commentators: Clinton’s intent is to drag Obama into the mud pit with her. If she’s likely to crash in Iowa, why not set up the under-funded Edwards to emerge as her chief rival when she can bury Edwards later on from California to New York Island under an avalanche of TV ads? But Obama (who has slightly out-raised Clinton in the money race, and has the warchest to go toe-to-toe with her for months on end), also aware of caucus history, hasn’t bitten on that hook.

It may be that it was Clinton that fell into an Obama-laid trap when she launched the negative attacks. As Andrew Romano of Newsweek wrote, “while Obama’s ‘politics of hope’ once prevented him from criticizing Clinton without appearing hypocritical, it now allows him to dismiss every clever (but ultimately insubstantial) Clinton charge as proof that she’s playing ‘politics as usual’ – thereby boosting Obama’s outsider appeal. What was bad for offense is now good for defense. Listening to Obama characterize Clinton as a typical pol is one thing; he did that for months to little effect. But watching him bait her into behaving like one is another. It’s much more convincing.”

The Clinton attacks on a ten-year-old Obama, a third-grade Obama and Obama the kindergartner also carry the sleazy underside of thinly veiled back-up to right-wing smears suggesting that those years he spent abroad in an Islamic land mean he’s not really a Christian (Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ). The Washington Post’s November 28 page-one story on “Obama’s Muslim Ties,” which has now been openly criticized by two of the newspaper’s reporters, one of the daily’s cartoonists and even the editor of the same story (the Post ombudsman is expected to weigh in against the piece on Sunday) did not come out of thin air: the spin, as with all major works by over-extended daily newspaper political reporters, was pushed and spoon-fed by a rival campaign. There’s no way to prove or disprove which made the attack. But in that context came a December 5 revelation that an Iowa county chair for Clinton by the name of Judy Rose had forwarded an email that whacked Obama with the slur: “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level – through the President of the United States, one of their own!!!!” The Clinton campaign called for that county chair’s resignation only after her emails became grist for political blogs on Wednesday.

When asked by reporters earlier this week to respond to the Clinton campaign’s kindergarten attack, Obama’s response suggests that he is aware that it comes with a backhanded attempt to reinforce the Manchurian Muslim argument: “It must be silly season,” Obama said. “I understand she’s been quoting my kindergarten teacher in Indonesia.” He then resumed the theme of that day’s events: protecting consumers from predatory credit card company practices. But it’s significant that Obama, without prodding, brought up Indonesia, the unspoken part of the Clinton attacks on his childhood years. Rather than running from the four years of his autobiography that place him, as a kid, in the country with the world’s largest Islamic population, Obama has frequently pushed that experience – as well as the fact that his late immigrant father and his living grandmother in Kenya are Muslim – as a factor that would help him as president begin to undo the damage of the Bush-Clinton-Bush years between the US and the Islamic world.

Still, the glue that ties all these missteps by Clinton and company together is not the anti-Islamic undertone. The sticking point, and source of tremendous personal resentment against Obama, remains generational. The battering of a 10-year-old Obama and the subsequent slaps on his kindergarten and third-grade essays were so over-the-top as to reveal a very personal hatred on the part of Clinton toward the youthfulness that he represents. If a 46-year-old Obama annoys, the image of a K-6 Obama must really bother the aging boomer senator.

Clinton and her team exude a divine right to the Oval Office, a sense of entitlement, and that damn youngster Obama didn’t “wait his turn.” These latest foibles follow last summer’s string of Clintonian hits against Obama’s supposed “naïve” and “inexperienced” qualities, and her top staffers’ condescending complaint in November about Obama’s young supporters, that, “They look like Facebook.”

But the money point is how the Clinton hostility toward younger generations has now reached the extreme of corrupting her policy positions, with Clinton and her staff openly seeking to suppress and demonize young voter turnout in Iowa. (That’s also strategically stupid: the best way to get young people to do something is to tell them they shouldn’t or can’t do it. And Obama responded by touring five major Iowa universities on December 4 and 5, reminding the standing-room-only crowds that Clinton seeks to discourage them from participating in the caucuses.)

Thus, the Hillary Clinton that cut her political teeth as an advocate for children’s rights, as legal counsel to Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, as the self-proclaimed advocate, as First Lady in the 1990s, for kids, nears the possible twilight of her political career as a sneering adversary of youth and its voting rights.

The Iowa caucuses are four weeks away, but the curtain for major shifts in momentum will close in about two weeks when the mad shopping weekend before Christmas vacation begins. Then the campaign enters a twilight zone in which accurate polling cannot be done (with some demographic groups, particularly younger voters, traveling away from home more than others), when negative attacks and ads will not be possible (without the attacker painting herself as today’s Ebenezer Scrooge and suffering a yuletide backlash), when New Years and bowl games immediately precede the January 3 caucuses, and so the dynamics, beginning around December 19, will not be subject to major shifts.

At this point, if current trends continue, Senator Hillary Clinton (nee, Inevitable) may well be headed for a painful crash in the Iowa caucuses. The famed Clinton “War Room” has become the Panic Room. And if a black man wins the presidential caucuses in lily-white Iowa, the resulting shock won’t only inspire younger voters to flood the subsequent primaries and caucuses in the coming months. African-Americans and other alienated demographic groups will likely join the siege.

AL GIORDANO, the founder of Narco News, has lived in and reported from Latin America for the past decade. His opinions expressed in this column do not reflect those of Narco News nor of The Fund for Authentic Journalism, which supports his work. Al encourages commentary, critique, additional analysis and news tips for his continued coverage of the US presidential campaign to be sent to his email address: narconews@gmail.com.