01/22/2008 06:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Critical Like King: Obama Distinguishes Between Creative Tension and Going Negative

The long-simmering question of whether Barack Obama could fight the
Clintons on their own terms without sacrificing the ideals of his
choir boy politics was answered last night. He can, and is, doing just
that. Appropriately enough, Obama is threading the needle by taking a
page from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man whose presence hovered,
heavy with importance, over last night's debate in South Carolina.

In his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King admitted that his
campaign of nonviolent resistance did not preclude the introduction of
"constructive, nonviolent tension" into the political culture. Indeed,
Dr. King made the case that, coupled with one's principles, such
tension was necessary in order to bring about any needed change (that
ever-present buzzword of the current Democratic campaign).

Constructive, nonviolent tension is as good a way as any to describe
Obama's parrying of the blizzard of charges (some more substantive
than others) hurled his way last night. As many have observed, the
biggest cut he opened over Sen. Clinton's eye came with his crack that
while he was community organizing, she was on the board at Wal-Mart.
But this jaw-dropping line also raised a substantive point: Are
Democrats to consider Senator Clinton's six years of board membership
there as part of her "35 years of experience" working for change?

During his Good Morning America interview on the same day, Obama
signaled his intention to use unofficial co-candidate Bill Clinton's
tortured history with the truth against him. "Statements that are not
factually accurate," may indeed ring a bell with some voters. Yet
Obama's remarks were not a below-the-belt rehash of Lewinsky-era
arcana. Obama immediately used the moment to pivot toward his
diagnosis of what is wrong with politics in America: It's the
cynicism, stupid.

(For what it's worth, Clinton aide Howard Wolfson is correct that
citing Bill Clinton's lies is a right-wing talking point. Though
Wolfson -- and much of the left -- seems to neglect the fact that
simply because something is a
right-wing talking point doesn't make it automatically untrue.)

In truth, the either-or assumption that Obama would have to choose
between criticizing his critics or keeping his above-the-fray dignity
was always a false dichotomy. The reason is simple. All critical
comments are not created equal. Some critiques have substance, while
others are just pollution, deployed in order to muddy the waters.
Senator Clinton will use either kind of critique. It's part of her "I
can take it and dish it out" spirit, and she showed it last night (her
healthcare debating tactics were substantive, her "slumlord" smear
was not, especially for a member of a political dynasty that has
itself taken money from so many questionable characters). Obama, if he
is to keep intact the mantle of change he says he wants to bring to
politics, must pick his spots more judiciously, as Dr. King himself
had to in his "Letter," in which he also found himself responding to

When asked last night whether he thought a hypothetical, still-living
Dr. King would endorse his candidacy, Obama wisely took a pass (just
as he wriggled his way out of a similarly stupid question about
whether or not Bill Clinton was, indeed, the first black president).
But it was part modesty. The analogies between King and Obama go beyond
blackness and a flair for words. The content of their respective
messages -- Dr. King's nonviolent action and Sen. Obama's calls for a
less cynically brutal political culture -- share common thematic
cause. What wasn't clear before last night was whether Obama shared
King's discipline of addressing his critics on purely substantive grounds.
Now you can add that quality to the list, too.