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Larry Womack

Larry Womack

Posted: September 13, 2010 12:14 AM

The Politics of Personal Animosity

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Behold: the most profoundly pessimistic attack ad of 2010. Meg Whitman has delivered unto us a masterpiece of dirty politics.

What is most striking about this already-infamous ad isn't the boldness of its mendacity--though it certainly has that--but the cynicism of its timing. It's the sort of unabashedly nasty hit that one would expect just days before an election, and even then only from an outside interest group. Yet here it is, delivered to us in early September with Meg Whitman's name right there on the card. By not only producing so brazen a piece of misinformation but also airing it with more than enough time to effectively rebut, Whitman is betting the house on the politics of personal animosity.

If you live in California or happen to be a political junkie, you've no doubt seen it already and can skip the next paragraph. But for those of you who have avoided it (probably due to a weak stomach or some lingering, endangered shred of personal or political optimism) here's a recap:

Bill Clinton, in a 1992 debate, sits face-to-face with Jerry Brown. Brown looks at Clinton like a kid called to the principal's office. Clinton blasts Brown as a tax-raising liar: "CNN, not me, CNN says his assertion about his tax record was, quote, 'just plain wrong.' He raised taxes as Governor of California. He doesn't tell the people the truth." That's two levels of surrogate Whitman is hiding behind, for those of you keeping track. On its own, the ad is devastating.

There's just one little problem: That CNN report turned out to be "just plain wrong," and Whitman's campaign--like all interested parties--has been fully aware of that for some time. From what the San Jose Mercury-News has been able to piece together, the CNN report used the wrong years both in determining the base of comparison and in identifying the budgets Brown had control over. This made it seem Brown was responsible for a sizable tax increase during Reagan's last year in office and failed to give him credit for tax cuts later in his tenure. The LA Times and California Department of Finance also revisited the numbers and found them to be outright wrong, for the same reasons, in the same ways. Brown was telling the truth. He had cut taxes as Governor of California.

Whitman knew full well that the story was a lie, but she wanted to repeat it all the same. The excuse her communications director offered the Mercury-News: "Bill Clinton, not me, said Jerry Brown 'doesn't tell people the truth.'" Sound familiar?

But this ad is so much more perverse than any simple repetition of untruths. It practically baits a popular former president into entering the fray on the side of Whitman's opponent, yet rests comfortably on the belief that personal grievances and misgivings will trump ethics and ideology to prevent any serious intervention by Clinton or one of the nation's most popular fact checkers.

Yes, in case you missed it, there is yet another personality being ironically misused by this ad. Brooks Jackson, the reporter responsible for this particular "oopsie," now heads FactCheck.org. If you didn't already know that, give yourself a moment to let it sink in: The man whose erroneous report is still fueling factually-incorrect campaign advertisements nearly two decades later is also the guy we all run to when we question the veracity of claims in a political advertisement.

For his part, Jackson acknowledged the error on FactCheck.org in a manner only slightly more embarrassing than admirable. Unlike other political ads targeted by FactCheck, the correction has yet to warrant an actual article on the site. Jackson did, however, post a blog entry on the topic on one of the site's secondary pages. It fails to even mention the Clinton ad and generally reads more like a lengthy rationalization than a correction. He even works in the astonishing insinuation that Prop 13 was a reaction to Brown's high taxes. (Prop 13, patently a reaction to soaring property values and their impact on property tax rates, was not included in the figures used to correct Jackson's report.) After muddying the waters for seven paragraphs, he concludes that state taxes "increased during four of Brown's eight years, and during six of those years they were higher than before he took office. But they were lower during his final two years."

The Mercury-News, State Department of Finance and Associated Press see things a little differently. By about $16 billion in tax cuts during Brown's first seven years in office, and $4 billion in savings per year between 1978 and 1982. Not counting the savings from Prop 13. So much for a gentleman admitting he was wrong.

Not that Jackson matters much to Brown's campaign. Both Brown and Whitman know that only one man can make this ad backfire on Whitman: former president Clinton. Whitman is betting (perhaps unwisely, given Clinton's general election campaigning for Barack Obama,) that 18 years after their bitter battle for the Democratic nomination, Clinton still hates Brown so much that he will refuse defend him with any real conviction.

Exactly how acrimonious was the Clinton-Brown contest? The clip in Whitman's ad might be called one of its more friendly exchanges.

In what was widely taken as an allusion to Brown's onslaught of attacks on Clinton's character, Jesse Jackson opened one debate by chastising the candidates for getting too caught up in "attacks and counterattacks." It didn't slow Brown down. Later that evening, he accused Clinton of racial insensitivity for playing golf at a whites-only country club and using black prisoners as campaign props.

At the final debate, when Brown (not without his own, similar conflicts of interest,) accused Clinton of "funneling money to his wife's law firm," Clinton shot back, "You're not worth being on the same platform as my wife."

The highlight (or low point) of that debate was when Clinton said, "I feel sorry for Jerry Brown... He asked me to support him for President once." When a moderator asked if he did, Clinton didn't miss a beat before shooting back, "Of course not." Footage circulated from the night appears to show gathered reporters roaring with laughter. Whitman probably has that ad already in the can.

In an email blast from Brown's campaign the morning the ad came out, Brown was quick to let Clinton off the hook. The former president had "later learned" that the numbers were incorrect, according to the letter to supporters. But it's a lot easier for Jerry Brown to play nice for the sake of his own campaign than it will be for Bill Clinton, who doesn't need any favors, to come riding to Brown's rescue.

Is Clinton still unable to put the past behind him?

Pundits have pointed to his early support for Gavin Newsom over Brown as proof that he still holds a grudge. But was Clinton's support of Newsom the result of his decades-old feud with Brown, or of a more recently developed loyalty? Newsom was a very vocal, enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries.

Ironically, that support might have been born out of the former San Francisco Mayor's own feud with another Democratic president. In 2007, Newsom implied to Reuters that Obama, "As God is my witness, will not be photographed with me, will not be in the same room with me." At issue was Newsom's having granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Obama-Newsom feud was verified in early 2008, when Willie Brown (backed by several Newsom staffers) gave a much more detailed account of the disputed incident to the San Francisco Chronicle. Obama's campaign denied the accusation, telling Politico that the incoming president was so "pissed" over the stories that the new administration "may give San Francisco to Canada."

Newsom might well have supported Hillary Clinton just as enthusiastically regardless of his personal feelings about Obama. Still, it's tempting to imagine that his feud with the current president might have, just as much as Bill Clinton's animosity toward Jerry Brown, circuitously earned him the former president's support. In politics, there is seldom a single reason for anything, and with so many personal feuds and vendettas driving the nation's politics, it's more than a little difficult to keep straight which one is motivating whom and when.

Will Clinton step in? If he wants to keep that "team player" image he so carefully rebuilt during the 2008 general election, he'll have to. But will he do so looking like an angry, misused Brown supporter or a fellow Democrat forced by party allegiance to go through the motions? I don't know.

What I can say with certainty is that Meg Whitman doesn't even take seriously the possibility that Bill Clinton would rather campaign for Jerry Brown than be seen as the man responsible for costing Democrats the California governor's mansion.

Update: Around the time that this posted, stories about Brown's remarks about Clinton at a campaign event Sunday were beginning to spread. So it seems that Whitman was probably right. "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up." - Lily Tomlin.

And another update: Clinton issued a statement to several news outlets today. In it, he endorsed Brown, said that the CNN report had been inaccurate and specifically cited Gavin Newsom's support of Hillary Clinton as a reason for his having received Clinton's early primary endorsement.