Question and answer time: the Wes Clark thing.
Some Snide that Got Fed Ex'ed?
By Moe Lane Posted in Anti-war liberals | Barack Obama | Elections | John McCain | Wes Clark — Comments (50) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Q. OK, so what's going on?
A. Senator Obama has lost control over how his campaign will reference Senator McCain's military service.
Q. Lost control, or gave it up?
A. Hah! I have a cynical questioner this time. No, this was taken away from him; he didn't and doesn't want to go there.
A. Because Senator Obama doesn't make a habit of urinating on electric fences.
Q. Err... right. Can we rewind and start from the beginning?
A. Sure. This entire thing started when Wesley Clark - a retired general, brief Presidential candidate in 2004, and netroots darling - made negative comments about the relevance of McCain's military service in reference to this election.
A. Wes Clark said that being shot down and being tortured for half a decade is no primary qualification for being President.
Q. Is it?
A. Not particularly, but then again, nobody said that it was. As ABC notes in the article above, that includes McCain: "Yes, his military service is part of his stock campaign biography, but McCain is not running on that record nearly as much as he’s running on his service in Congress."
Q. But it's still a compelling part of his biography, right?
A. Yes, which is why McCain talks about it: the man is running for President, after all. The difficulty for the Obama campaign is that they cannot afford to look like they're going after McCain's military service at all.
Q. How come?
A. Because there are two great stereotypes in American political discourse. Republicans have to prove that they're not racists; and Democrats have to prove that they're patriotic. This is an incredibly frustrating, usually unfair, and generally unchanging fact of life... and wise political campaigns on either side do not try to fight the tide. Which is why the Obama campaign responded thusly:
Obama’s speech Monday in Independence, Mo., included an implicit repudiation of Clark’s sentiments: “Let me say at this at outset of my remarks. I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.”
“Let me also add that no one should ever devalue [military] service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides,” Obama added, later in the speech. “We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period -- full stop.”
Obama spokesman Bill Burton goes further: “As he's said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain's service, and of course he rejects yesterday's statement by General Clark.”
Q. So. Problem solved, then?
A. Nope. And before you ask "Why?" I'll tell you: it's because Wes Clark doesn't feel like following the script. Up to this point, Obama's had some control over the people speaking in his name: they want things from him, or there's a personal relationship, or perhaps they could just take a hint. But Clark wasn't going to be prominent anyway in any hypothetical Obama administration, and he must know that; the guy's a former Clinton supporter; and he's also an aforementioned darling of the netroots, which means that he couldn't take a hint if you pounded one in with a ball-peen hammer. So he declined to stand down.
Q. Isn't doing that... counter-productive?
A. That's only because you're missing the subtext. The netroots actually want to take this line of attack further; from their point of view, Clark's comments were perfectly reasonable. The fact that they also consider the statement "John McCain is a war criminal" perfectly reasonable, while the public does not, hasn't seemed to fully percolate through their reasoning process yet. So they don't want Clark to get hit for this.
Q. So why does Senator Obama even care?
A. Money, of course. These people make up a nontrivial percentage of his contributors, and he's already ticked them off with both his caving on FISA, and his recent distancing from Moveon over the "General Betrayus" ad, to give just two examples. The owner of Daily Kos has announced that he wasn't going to give Obama a dime until Obama became a better progressive*, and his public decision mirrors that of what may be many private ones. Depending on what June's numbers are, Obama may need those people less unhappy at him. Soon.
Q. So how is Senator Obama handling it?
A. Not so well. After Monday's speech, the Obama campaign tried to walkback:
Per ABC's Sunlen Miller, Sen. Barack Obama said the following at a press availability in Zanesville, Ohio this afternoon: “I think in at least one publication [it] was reported that my comments yesterday about Senator McCain were in a response to General Clark. I think my staff will confirm that that was in a draft of that speech that I had written two months ago.”
That’s an interesting response -- one that might have surprised members of Obama’s own press staff. When reporters (this one included) contacted the Obama campaign Monday morning to ask about his response to Wesley Clark’s comments, they were told to watch the speech.
A. Oops. Not the largest oops in the world, but oops. Mind you, Barack Obama's in a bit of a pickle with this one. He can't control Clark, let alone the people who want Clark's comments mainstreamed so that they can try to get war criminal allegations placed in the fray; but at the same time he may kind of need their money right now. So he's trying to distance while not rejecting, and that's something that requires more skill than I think the Obama campaign possesses. Put another way: if I had to pick which one of Erick's cruel and mean alternatives (note: I did not say "inaccurate") was correct, I'd go with "too weak to control his campaign." But that's not Obama's worst problem in all of this.
*I should note for the record that this is actually the correct strategy for progressives to take. The Democratic establishment routinely takes their money and gives them nothing substantial in return: and while that's great for the country, it's not what you'd call polite.