THE BLOG
01/23/2008 06:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Truth Behind Clinton's Distorted Ad Attacking Obama

Hillary Clinton launched yesterday a new attack ad claiming Sen. Barack Obama supports the worst proposals of the GOP because he referred to Republicans as having run as the "party of ideas." To Clinton's critics, this seems to be another tactic borrowing heavily from the Karl Rove-style gameplan, including alleged election-day dirty tricks and previous distortions of his record that emerged during this week's debates and the attacks by former President Bill Clinton.

Paul Waldman in The American Prospect sums up the Clinton approach: "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."

Update: The Clinton campaign has pulled the radio ad after leading Democrats reacted with outrage -- but the Clintons got their distorted message out there. Obama has also removed his own radio ad that charged Hillary Clinton will "say anything to get elected, but change nothing."

The new Clinton ad said, in part:

VOICE-OVER: "Listen to Barack Obama last week talking about Republicans.

BARACK OBAMA: "The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years."

VO: "Really? Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street. Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?"

But Hillary herself, just like Obama, has praised Reagan's political skills -- the point of Obama's original comments in the interview (as highlighted below). While running in a Democratic primary campaign, Obama should have more forcefully denounced the ideas he was describing, yet he also clearly said, "The Republican approach, I think, has played itself out." But Hillary gave comparable praise to Reagan's leadership skills when she told Tom Brokaw in his new book Boom!:

When he had those big tax cuts and they went too far, he oversaw the largest tax increase. He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements. He played the balance and the music beautifully.

As factcheck.org, the non-partisan research site of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, reported regarding the spurious claims about Obama used by Hillary in this week's debate and amplified in the phony new ad:

Clinton falsely accused Obama of saying he "really liked the ideas of the Republicans" including private Social Security accounts and deficit spending. Not true. The entire 49-minute interview to which she refers contains no endorsement of private Social Security accounts or deficit spending, and Obama specifically scorned GOP calls for tax cuts

.

Factcheck.org went on to report:

Clinton attacked Obama for supposedly supporting Republican ideas, which she said included federal deficits and "privatizing" Social Security:

Clinton: [He] has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote. ... They were ideas like privatizing Social Security, like moving back from a balanced budget and a surplus to deficit and debt.

Obama pushed back, saying he had never endorsed such notions:

Clinton: [You] talked about the Republicans having ideas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Obama: I didn't say they were good ones.

Clinton: Well, you can read the context of it.

Obama: Well, I didn't say they were good ones. ...

Clinton: It certainly came across in the way that it was presented...

We can't speak to how things "came across" to Clinton, but we've listened to the entire interview and to our ears, it's just flatly false that Obama said he "really liked the ideas of the Republicans." Clinton is referring to what Obama told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal. A video is available on the Internet.
Here's what Obama actually said in the portion to which Clinton referred:

Obama (Jan. 14, 2008): The Republican approach has played itself out. I think it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom. Now, you've heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they're being debated among the presidential candidates, it's all tax cuts. Well, we know, we've done that; we've tried it. That's not really going to solve our energy problems, for example.

There's a difference between praising someone for having ideas and praising the idea itself. Obama is doing the former - and just as clearly not doing the latter. He says the GOP approach has "played itself out," for example.

It's also false to imply -- as Clinton did -- that Obama endorsed Republican proposals to set up private Social Security accounts or that he praised deficit spending. We listened to the entire 49-minute interview, and Obama said no such thing.

Obama's Reagan Remarks to Reno Gazette-Journal, Jan. 14, 2008

Obama: I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times. I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I mean, I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, you know government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating, and I think people just tapped into - he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism, and, and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing.

I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it just has to do with the times. I think we're in one of those times right now, where people feels like things as they are going right now aren't working, that we're bogged down in the same arguments that we've been having, and they're not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out.I think it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.Now, you've heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they're being debated among the presidential candidates, it's all tax cuts. Well, we know, we've done that; we've tried it. That's not really going to solve our energy problems, for example.

I Love the '80s: Part Deux

Obama also has been taking heat for praising Ronald Reagan in that same interview. See the text box to the left for his exact words. Clinton tried to avoid mentioning that, for good reason, but Obama turned it against her anyway:

Obama: The irony of this is that you provided much more fulsome praise of Ronald Reagan in a book by Tom Brokaw that's being published right now, as did - as did Bill Clinton in the past. So these are the kinds of political games that we are accustomed to.

Obama is correct: Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have lauded Reagan's political skills. Tom Brokaw's "Boom! Voices of the Sixties" quotes Clinton as saying that Reagan was "a child of the Depression" who understood pressures on the working and middle class:

Hillary Clinton (in Brokaw book): When he had those big tax cuts and they went too far, he oversaw the largest tax increase. He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements. He played the balance and the music beautifully.

And here's Bill Clinton in 1998 at the dedication of the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.:

Bill Clinton (May 5, 1998): The only thing that could make this day more special is if President Reagan could be here himself. But if you look at this atrium, I think we feel the essence of his presence: his unflagging optimism, his proud patriotism, his unabashed faith in the American people. I think every American who walks through this incredible space and lifts his or her eyes to the sky will feel that.

We'll leave it to others to decide who's praising Reagan more. The fact is that Bill and Hillary have done it, not just Obama.

Hillary's shrewdly playing to the Democratic party's base that despises Reagan. But it's also possible that many in the party could become increasingly appalled at the Clintons' questionable hardball tactics and respond to the uplifting vision that Obama is offering, most recently in his stirring speech at Dr. King's original church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It is now the fourth-most viewed videotape clip in the entire world on YouTube, with over 400,000 viewers.

The alleged Rovian strategies of the Clinton campaign launched against the visionary promise of the Obama campaign are the starkest examples of the profoundly different view each candidate holds about the presidency, as brilliantly explored by George Packer in this week's New Yorker:

The alternatives facing Democratic voters have been characterized variously as a choice between experience and change, between an insider and an outsider, and between two firsts--a woman and a black man. But perhaps the most important difference between these two politicians--whose policy views, after all, are almost indistinguishable--lies in their rival conceptions of the Presidency. Obama offers himself as a catalyst by which disenchanted Americans can overcome two decades of vicious partisanship, energize our democracy, and restore faith in government. Clinton presents politics as the art of the possible, with change coming incrementally through good governance, a skill that she has honed in her career as advocate, First Lady, and senator. This is the real meaning of the remark she made during one of the New Hampshire debates: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do--the President before had not even tried--but it took a President to get it done."...Clinton was simply expressing her belief that the Presidency is more about pushing difficult legislation through a fractious Congress than it is about transforming society.

Even this balanced assessment underplays the savvy and political skill Obama brought to his work as a state legislator in Ilinois before he came to Washington, moving effective legislation to protect rights, help the poor and expand health care. Obama's campaign has let the Clinton slur that he's "all talk and no action" stand without an effective rebuttal, and the media has gone along with this caricature as well. But as Charles Peters, the founder of The Washington Monthly, points out in a column, "Judge Him By His Laws," in The Washington Post:

People who complain that Barack Obama lacks experience must be unaware of his legislative achievements. One reason these accomplishments are unfamiliar is that the media have not devoted enough attention to Obama's bills and the effort required to pass them, ignoring impressive, hard evidence of his character and ability.

Peters cites Obama's ability to build bipartisan support for legislation curbing the violent abuse of criminal suspects by requiring their interrogations to be videotaped, and reforming government ethics for the first time in 25 years.

Yet it's Obama's ability to greatly extend health care coverage for the poor in Illinois that best showcases his legislative skills, as chronicled by Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic. Cohn's article is for subscribers only, but the health policy journalist Ezra Klein of The American Prospect quotes from it generously here. As Cohn reports:

Time after time, Obama brought adversaries into the process early, heard out their concerns, then fashioned compromises many of them ultimately supported. In other words, he used the very strategy he's been describing on the campaign trail--the one giving people like me such angst. And yet, if you talk to liberals in Springfield, the ones who've spent decades fighting for universal health care, you don't hear a lot of disappointment with him. As far as they are concerned, Obama's signature inclusiveness was always a means to an end--a way to push the limits of reform rather than accept them. And, they say, it worked.

Obama has taken plenty of heat over health care in this election, mostly over his decision to roll out a policy blueprint for universal health insurance that--although promising--seems less ambitious than those of his chief rivals. But, whatever the merits of his prescription, his commitment to making medical care more affordable isn't in question. Or, at least, it shouldn't be

.

But it's precisely his commitment to providing affordable, universal care that's been part of the Clinton attack plan, although in this case it involves a legitimate dispute over the role of insurance mandates, rather than the egregious distortions of his record used in most of the Clintons' tag-team assaults on Obama.

Still, the eagerness for a new approach to politics by many Americans could still propel Obama to the nomination in the months ahead, even as questions continue about Hillary Clinton's campaign tactics and electability when close to 50 percent of the public vehemently opposes her.