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Obama Takes Cues From Bill Clinton In Handling McCain's Age


First Posted: 07-29-08 01:01 AM   |   Updated: 08- 5-08 05:12 AM

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They have been the preferred adjectives for the Obama campaign when going after its opponent. Following a John McCain misstatement, policy shift, or harsh attack, the Senator is usually labeled "confused," "angry," or a hybrid of the two. Aides to the Illinois Democrat insist there is no deeper meaning to their word choices. But it is hard not to notice the underlying suggestion of such remarks: John McCain is old.

It is a standard fare in politics to raise hay over the competency or experience of an opponent. But the methods by which the Obama folks have raised the age issue -- whether deliberately or not -- have reminded many political veterans of the playbook used by Bill Clinton in his 1996 reelection campaign. Like McCain, Bob Dole was a war veteran in his early 70s whose medical ailments caused real-time health concerns. And like Obama, the Clinton camp, according to those who were there, subtly turned age concerns into, at the very least, a political nuisance that impacted the campaign.

"I think there are some parallels," said Scott Reed, Dole's '96 campaign manager. "What is interesting is that McCain pretty much got through his primary battle without his opponents making age a big issue. And it hasn't shadowed him like with Dole. During our primary battle our opponents made it a big issue and Clinton was able to pick it up."

McCain, in response, has used humor to dismiss the issue. Back in 2004, he joked about leaving a hearing chaired by Sen. James Inhofe not out of protest but rather because his age forced him to "make frequent trips to the men's room." More recently, he pretended to fall asleep during an interview with Conan O'Brien.

But there are real political concerns about the Senator's age -- he will turn 72 the day after Obama gives his Democratic convention speech -- and they are not just trepidations over McCain's medical developments. (On Monday, the press latched unto news that a mole was removed from McCain's left temple.) Several prominent outlets have reported that there has been a surprisingly low ceiling to the Arizona Republican's youth appeal. And every rhetorical gaffe, however innocuous, is treated by some as reflective of a diminished mental capacity.

"What is at issue is not so much McCain's age," explained Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a progressive think tank, "but his repeated misstatements about important issues, facts and even his own voting record. These series of mistakes about serious matters facing the country means either he doesn't do his homework, or he has lost a step."

The Obama campaign has not been one to stand in the way. In recent weeks, for instance, strategist Robert Gibbs accused McCain of getting "confused again" about his own foreign policy positions, a charge provoked when the Arizona Republican continued to mix up, among other things, the geography of the Middle East and history of the surge.

A dozen years ago, Dole had similar stumbles. The former Senate Majority Leader, rather embarrassingly, fell off a stage during a campaign event. He claimed to not hear a question about abortion during a debate in South Carolina. And he referred to the "Brooklyn Dodgers" when discussing a no-hitter thrown by Los Angeles' Hideo Nomo. Bill Clinton -- like Obama -- played to the theme, often praising Dole and his generation (key word) for their years of service (key phrase) and responding to charges of ageism by saying: "I can only tell you that I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president. It's the age of his ideas that I question."

"I think Dole set up our use of the age issue against him by his acceptance speech at his '96 convention, which dealt with the values of the past and restoring America to what it once was," recalled Dick Morris, Clinton's campaign strategist that year. "This opened up our chance to run as being the 'bridge to the 21st century.' I was amazed as I watched his speech. It seemed never to have crossed Dole's mind that he should not dwell in the past in his speech. I doubt McCain will fall into that trap."

(The New York Times last year credited Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod with coining Clinton's 'bridge to the 21st century' line.)

Morris is not alone in seeing distinctions between '96 and '08. Reed, his contemporaneous counterpart, not only thinks McCain has effectively removed age as a campaign issue, but sees blowback potential should Obama raise it.

"It is risky for Obama," said the Republican strategist. "It is just a different set of rules this cycle. Obama needs to be spending time convincing people he is capable of being commander in chief, he doesn't need to be picking on McCain... So I don't know where it all goes, but I have been incredibly impressed that McCain has put the noose on the age issue."

And certainly, history suggests that age wasn't the thorn that did in Dole's candidacy twelve years ago. Sally Bedell Smith, a Clinton biographer, noted that that '96 election was marked by Bill Clinton's ability to "wrap Dole up with [Newt] Gingrich and portray them both as extremists who would cut benefits to the elderly [and] shut down the government."

"Really," she added, "after the Republicans lost the PR battle with the government shutdown late in 1995, Dole was pretty much a losing candidate."

But to dismiss age as a major component of the Dole campaign and McCain's current run at the White House would be to disregard the sentiments of the Kansas Republican himself. Back in 1996, the Senator told PBS' NewsHour that he had been "worried" that his "age difference" with Clinton would cause voters to think "about his illness and all those things." More than a decade later, when asked about McCain, those concerns were still very much on Dole's mind.

"I feel like I can't even talk to McCain because it'll be an issue," he told The Washington Examiner. "You know how the press would be. They'll say this is a guy who lost because of his age and now he's out there trying to tell McCain what to do."

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