Politics can be a rough game. Candidates need to hold their competitors accountable and challenge distortions and lies. And God knows, we need a Democratic nominee who’s willing to fight. But Hillary Clinton’s campaign has included far too many cheap shots, sleazy manipulations, and unsavory players.
New questionable actions emerge daily. You’re probably familiar with many. But it’s the broader pattern that disturbs me—how much the Clinton campaign seems to nurture questionable actions from her operatives, supporters, and surrogates. And how the campaign’s actions go beyond drawing legitimate political lines to an all-too-Rovian instinct to do whatever’s deemed necessary to take down those blocking Clinton‘s potential victory. Here’s a representative list of actions that, taken together, offer a troubling portent for her candidacy and presidency.
Start with the hiring of chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn. He’s CEO of a PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, that prepped the Blackwater CEO for his recent congressional testimony, is advising the giant industrial laundry corporation Cintas in fighting unionization, and whose website proudly heralded their union-busting expertise until it became a potential Clinton liability and they removed that section. B-M has historically represented everyone from the Argentine military junta and Philip Morris to Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster.
Then there are Clinton‘s campaign donors. Any major candidate has some dubious supporters, but Clinton‘s gotten money from particularly noxious sources. Start with her donation from Rupert Murdoch, who’s given to no other Democrat. Add in massive amounts of money from Washington lobbyists and from industries like defense, banking, health care, and oil and energy providers (though Obama’s also gotten a lot from some of these industries). Then there’s Norman Hsu, who brought in over $850,000 to Hillary’s campaign after returning to the US following his flight to evade a fraud conviction (Hsu was subsequently rearrested, sentenced to three years, and is facing further federal charges). There’s the Nebraska data processing company InfoUSA, whose CEO, Vin Gupta, used private corporate jets to fly the Clintons on business, personal, and campaign trips, gave Bill Clinton a $3.3 million consulting contract, and is now being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly diverting company money to his own personal uses. Mississippi attorney Dickie Scruggs recently canceled a major December 15 Hillary fundraiser (with Bill Clinton headlining) after being indicted for trying to bribe a judge. Major international sweatshop owners, the Saipan-based Tan family, have given Clinton $26,000, complementing their previous massive support for Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay. That doesn’t even count dubious supporters from the past, like Peter Paul, the convicted con-artist turned event producer who coordinated a massive Hollywood Clinton fundraiser during the 2,000 election. Taken together, it’s a pretty tainted constellation of backers.
Like most candidates, Clinton spends the bulk of her money on ads and mailings, and she’s taken some pretty problematic approaches there too. I wonder how many of the New Hampshire women who voted last minute for Clinton were swayed by a mailing claiming that Obama wasn’t really committed to abortion rights because he’d voted “present” on some abortion-related legislative votes. Except that Obama had done so as part of a strategy devised by Illinois Planned Parenthood to protect vulnerable swing district representatives. New England Planned Parenthood’s Board Chair strongly refuted Clinton‘s letter, pointing out that Obama had a 100% record on all the votes that really mattered. But the mailing may still have damaged his support.
The distortion of Obama’s position on abortion echoes Hillary’s audacious argument that Obama really wasn’t against the Iraq war and betrayed his promises by failing to vote against war appropriation bills after the Democrats couldn’t override Bush’s veto. I wish Obama had bucked the Democratic leadership and taken a stronger stand. But it’s a gross distortion of history to equate his positions with Clinton‘s overt support for the war authorization, refusal to apologize for her vote, and claim that she was really doing it all to promote more diplomatic solutions.
We can find further distortions in a mailing sent out before the Iowa caucuses by the independent expenditure committee of a key Clinton ally, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The AFSCME mailing attacked Obama on his health care plan by using a John Edwards quote that was featured so prominently that recipients could assume that his campaign was the source of the attack piece. This and other actions so disturbed a group of seven AFSCME International Vice Presidents wrote a public letter to their union president, saying that although the union had endorsed Clinton on a split vote, the political committee had no mandate to attack Obama. They demanded the committee stop what they called "fundamentally dishonest" attacks.
Other surrogates have attacked Obama’s character. Twice they’ve tried to raise Obama’s early drug use as a campaign issue—despite his having addressed it directly and frankly in his book Dreams From My Father. Hillary’s New Hampshire campaign chair, Billy Shaheen, mentioned it first, claiming that he was only worried about how the Republicans might use it. Sheehan resigned from the campaign after a storm of criticism, then Black Entertainment Television CEO Robert Johnson (who’s backed Bush on issues like the estate tax) raised it again, with Clinton standing next to him at a South Carolina rally. After Johnson’s words drew major heat, Clinton belatedly distanced herself from them, but the smear still stands, along with the disingenuous claim that those making it were just neutral participants, only trying to serve the Party’s best interests.
Clinton‘s campaign also attacked the John Edwards campaign for appearing in New Hampshire with the parents of Nataline Sarkisyan, the 17-year-old leukemia patient who died after CIGNA refused her a liver transplant. Clinton press secretary Jay Carson claimed that the US needs to elect "somebody who’s actually going to help people and not use them as talking points." Never mind that the Sarkisyans had initiated the chance to speak out by contacting Edwards about appearing at a Manchester New Hampshire town hall campaign appearance. To the Clinton campaign, their appearance had to be suspect, because they were supporting Edwards and his ideas.
The campaign has also attempted more directly to discourage participation by voters who might support Clinton‘s opponents. A judge just shut down the lawsuit filed by the pro-Clinton leadership of the Nevada teacher’s union, which sought to prevent long-scheduled caucuses from being held at central locations on the main casino strip, where workers largely represented by the Obama-endorsing Culinary Workers Union would find it easier to attend. When asked, Hillary Clinton claimed to have "no opinion on the lawsuit" and Bill Clinton overtly supported it.
New Hampshire saw parallel voter suppression tactics, as the campaign encouraged the New Hampshire Democratic Party to evict Obama get-out-the-vote observers from the polls. In Iowa, the Clinton Campaign tried to discourage out-of-state students from returning to their campuses to participate in the caucuses. In the Michigan primary, Clinton kept her name on the ballot after the state violated Democratic National Committee rules by moving its primary ahead of the Feb 5 “Super Tuesday” vote, while Edwards and Obama took theirs off.
Campaigns can have either closed or open information styles. Clinton‘s comes far too close to the Bush-Cheney model, as when the Clintons successfully killed a major story in the national men’s magazine GQ about Clinton campaign infighting. Author Josh Green had written a long critical previous piece on Clinton for The Atlantic, and campaign press secretary Jay Carson threatened to deny the magazine access to Bill Clinton for a separate cover story on his international foundation work. GQ acquiesced and pulled the critical piece.
The flip side of trying to stop negative coverage is manufacturing praise. Clinton‘s campaign did this when they gave planted questions to Iowa student Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, and according to Chasanoff, to other students as well. After being driven to a public event by Clinton interns, Chasanoff was introduced to a Clinton staffer who showed her a list of suggested questions to ask, one of which she used at Clinton‘s forum. It’s not quite like Bush inviting the softball inquiries of former male-prostitute turned right-wing blogger Jeff Gannon. But it isn’t so different either.
Taken together, these examples echo the Bush’s administration’s tendency to attack anyone who challenges them. They echo Clinton‘s refusal to apologize for her Iraq war vote or for an Iran vote so reckless that Jim Webb called it "Dick Cheney’s fondest pipe dream." They hardly bode well for reversing the massive erosions of transparency of the past seven years.
The list could go on, but it’s the pattern that’s important. It’s true that one person’s cheap shot artist is another’s fierce competitor. Obama himself has called politics "a full-contact sport," and used legal maneuvers to block a long-time state legislator when he first ran for office. And Democrats will need to be fierce in their campaigning if they’re going to defeat the right-wing Swiftboating machine that gave Bush the last two presidencies. So maybe I’d be more charitable if I didn’t disagree so strongly with Clinton‘s Iraq and Iran votes, and utter failure to take leadership in standing up to Bush when he was riding high in the polls. But I think I’d still have a problem. I look at the actions of her campaign, and see an ugly example, a ruthlessness not remotely equaled by either Obama or Edwards. I’ll vote for the last Democrat standing, because the Republicans will continue the current administration’s disastrous priorities. But Hillary’s scorched-earth approach threatens to fracture the party if she does get the nomination, and to leave a trail of bitterness even if she wins. We can do better for the Democratic nominee.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org