03/08/2008 03:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Good Campaigns Go Bad

When Good Campaigns Go Bad
Carlotta Cooper

Stress can do bad things to people, especially, apparently, in the midst of elections. That's what we all discovered as we read Samantha Power's comments about Hillary Clinton in The Scotsman.

After losses in Ohio and Rhode Island, and losing the primary (but probably not the caucus vote) in Texas, Professor Power expressed some, presumably, personal frustration with Senator Clinton:

Earlier, clearly rattled by the Ohio defeat, Ms Power told The Scotsman Mrs Clinton was stopping at nothing to try to seize the lead from her candidate.

"We f***** up in Ohio," she admitted. "In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio's the only place they can win.

"She is a monster, too - that is off the record - she is stooping to anything," Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark.

Ms Power said of the Clinton campaign: "Here, it looks like desperation. I hope it looks like desperation there, too.

"You just look at her and think, 'Ergh'. But if you are poor and she is telling you some story about how Obama is going to take your job away, maybe it will be more effective. The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive."

Professor Power was gone from the Obama campaign within hours of the story breaking.

What does any of this little drama tell us? Quite a lot.

(I won't even discuss the questionable wisdom of attacking Democratic voters in a state as important as Ohio.)

For one thing, the Obama campaign is feeling the heat from the Clinton campaign. They have made a series of missteps in the last several weeks as the stakes have gotten higher. Key advisers seem to be speaking out of turn and harming their candidate. Not just Austan Goolsbee talking to the Canadians about NAFTA, but Samantha Power herself telling the BBC (here quoted in an ABC blog that a President Obama might later have to distance himself from his campaign rhetoric about withdrawal from Iraq:

You can't make a commitment in whatever month we're in now, in March of 2008 about what circumstances are gonna be like in Jan. 2009. We can't even tell what Bush is up to in terms of troop pauses and so forth. He will of course not rely upon some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or as a US senator. He will rely upon a plan, an operational plan that he pulls together, in consultation with people who are on the ground, to whom he doesn't have daily access now as a result of not being the president. So to think, I mean it would be the height of ideology, you know, to sort of say, well I said it therefore I'm going to impose it on whatever reality entreats me

While that may be quite a realistic point of view, it's at odds with what Senator Obama is saying on the campaign trail, which makes him vulnerable to the charge that he's misleading voters. If you're a National Guard family with a husband and father who's been to Iraq 2-3 times already it's not just an ideological point about when the troops come home. Facts would be nice, even if they don't sound as good.

This message from Samantha Power about Senator Obama's view on troop withdrawal carries even more weight since she was his senior foreign policy adviser. She leveled the charge of deceit against Senator Clinton, but she's opened Senator Obama up to the same charge.

Power's interview with The Scotsman also highlights the comparative lack of political and media experience within the Obama campaign. While others have made much of the chaos among Senator Clinton's advisers, those advisers have managed to avoid bush league mistakes like trying to take things off the record once a formal interview is in progress. When speaking to the press you are responsible for every word you utter. Certainly not everything Senator Clinton's advisers have said have served her well, but, so far, they have avoided the kind of personal attack made by Professor Power.

Senator Obama's advisers have also shown a regrettable tendency to think it's all right for the Senator to say one thing to the voters while they make very different statements to the foreign press and representatives of foreign governments. Perhaps Senator Clinton's people do the same thing, but they must be better at it. But it raises the question of Senator Obama's sincerity -- something that has been key to his campaign. Senator Obama is the candidate who has said repeatedly that he's not going to engage in the old style of politics. But his advisers, at least, with or without his knowledge, have been trying to do just that when they send these double-dealing messages to the foreign press and others.

I think the Samantha Power incident also showcases the Obama campaign's predicament when it comes to how to respond to Senator Clinton. Senator Obama has done extremely well in his campaign so far by flying above the fray. He's been noble, expansive, visionary. It remains to be seen whether those traits by themselves would make him a good president. Senator Clinton is not ready to concede that they would. She is quite rightly fighting back in her own style, which is much more down-to-earth.

So, how does Senator Obama remain visionary and still fight back? If he gets himself dirty in this fight it puts him on the ground with Senator Clinton, and she can win that fight. Senator Clinton has been attacked from the Right, raked over the coals, and investigated inside-out for decades. She has been through every kind of fight. In fact her biggest problem in this campaign has probably been trying to find a way to bring Obama back down to earth to face her. As this campaign continues, and as Obama's campaign feels increasing pressure, it will probably benefit Senator Clinton. Comments like those from Samantha Power to The Scotsman are an indication that the Obama campaign is slipping up and feeling the heat from Senator Clinton. Can Senator Obama keep flying high under this kind of pressure?