Why the flap over Obama's drug use hurts Clinton and helps him.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 15 2007 10:23 AM

The Flap Over Obama's Drug Use

Why it hurts Clinton and helps him.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

I am not deeply outraged that Hillary Clinton's now resigned New Hampshire co-chairman, Bill Shaheen, talked about Barack Obama's past drug use. I am in the minority in this view. In a Fox News focus group, Democratic voters were asked if bringing up the drug charge amounted to dirty politics and they all threw up their hands so fast it looked like they were under arrest.

I think it's fair to talk about how Republicans might use publically available details about the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she turns out to be. That's true for Obama just as it's true for Clinton. And her opponents—including Obama allies and aides—have often talked about how Republicans will delight in bringing up the scandals from her husband's tenure. Shaheen made his remarks in the open and on the record, but Obama staffers, under the cloak of anonymity, tried to get the Atlantic's Mark Ambinder to look into Bill Clinton's post-White House sex life.

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Fairness aside, Shaheen made a huge blunder. Let's count the ways: His remark fired up Obama's supporters and volunteers during the final stretch. It made Clinton look mean on the eve of the caucuses in Iowa, where they penalize mean politicians, and at a time when she was trying to soften her image in her ads. It also made her look hypocritical, since she's campaigned against the politics of personal destruction. There will be even less sympathy for Clinton aides who argue that it was actually Obama who was the first one to escalate the personal combat, by telling the New York Times five weeks ago that Clinton was being dishonest with voters. The flap has overshadowed and muddied Clinton's main argument that Obama will be vulnerable in the general election to GOP attacks because his record as a state legislator hasn't been thoroughly scrutinized. It also wasted two days of news coverage that Clinton could use to get out her message.

But wait, won't voters blanch when they think of Obama using drugs? For some older voters, it might be an issue, and for rural Iowans, it might make Obama seem more distant from their way of life, but I think most Democratic voters won't care. Plus, the underlying story about Obama's drug use is one in which he looks candid and thoughtful—both in his book and when he talked about his childhood indiscretions a few weeks ago. That's more contrast with Clinton's trouble with voters on questions of honesty. Rudy Giuliani, no patsy when it comes to breaking the law, praised Obama for speaking so forthrightly. This serves to undermine, for now, Shaheen's case that the GOP will some day savage Obama for his past.

Perhaps the biggest benefit Obama gets from this episode is that he emerges the winner in another big public fight. Combat skills matter because Clinton has been arguing that only she can handle the GOP onslaught in the general election. "Whoever we nominate is going to be subjected to the full force of the Republican attack machine," she said Friday. Democrats want to win, and voters I've talked to over the past months have asked whether Obama could handle the kind of attacks they saw against John Kerry. In Iowa, Obama precinct captains report that they get this question when they walk the streets and knock on doors. How considerate of Shaheen to give Obama the opportunity to land a solid counterpunch.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.