Sandwiched in between publicly accusing Barack Obama of playing the reverse "race card" and the next day denying he ever said it, Bill Clinton offered a crass but undoubtedly truthful assessment of presidential campaigning when he referred to it as a "contact sport." Clinton challenged the Senator from the South Side of Chicago to either put on his pads or hit the showers.
By suggesting Obama put on his pads, rather than his gloves, the former president aptly recognized that presidential campaigns are more like football than boxing - more team sport than individual matchup. And if presidential campaigns are indeed, akin to football games - and they are - then a candidate's surrogates are his offensive linemen.
Trench warriors, thankless blockers, mud-strewn brawlers - these underappreciated teammates are the glue of any successful squad, and allow the quarterback, or in this case, the candidate, the time and space he needs to make the play, score the touchdown, go home victorious. The television surrogates for Obama and Clinton are similarly charged with clearing the way for their respective candidates by setting the narrative, taking the fight to the adversary and saying things that campaigns want said - just not by the candidates themselves.
But so far in the Obama v. Clinton contest, the performance of the two squads has been decidedly one-sided. Whereas the Clinton surrogates have been true elbow-throwing game-changers, the Obama surrogates have been marshmallow-like spectators. And I'm not even talking about some of Team Clinton's "borderline" race-baiting and fear-mongering surrogate work like referring to Obama's "shuck-and-jive routine" (Andrew Cuomo), his imaginary schooling in an Indonesian madrassa (Bob Kerrey) or his campaign's likeness to Jesse Jackson's (the surrogate-in-chief himself).
Watching Obama's pleasant, happy-faced surrogates go up against Clinton's kneecappers and hardballers is like watching a scrimmage between the varsity and the JV. While the likes of Wolfson, Garin and Kiki McLean pummel the airwaves with ever-changing, logic-defying and ruthlessly self-serving theories for Clinton's continued candidacy, Obama's painfully polite roster of advocates articulate patience and offer awkward facial expressions and body language ranging from bewilderment (at the audacity of the Clinton surrogates' arguments) to a painfully obvious desire to avoid confrontation.
After watching countless hours of election coverage thus far, I am still wondering: where is the emotion from the Obama surrogate team? Surely it is a bad sign when the sharpest, most damaging Obama talking points are instead delivered on a regular basis by the likes of Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann.
It is understandable that Senator Obama himself wants to tread lightly in order to preserve his ability to unify the party come August, but his linemen (and women) aren't paid to be polite. Their job is to shove the ball down their opponents' throats and to move the proverbial line of scrimmage - or in this case, public opinion - by impassioned, spirited advocacy. But to watch them perform, one senses no anger. There is no outrage. There is no drumbeat. Just politeness, punctuated by awkward smiles of befuddlement and confusion. And all the while, Team Clinton is eating them for lunch and moving the ball down the field.