The Myth of the Positive 2008 Obama Campaign

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 22 2012 4:11 PM

The Myth of the Positive 2008 Obama Campaign

Inspired by Bookergate and its aftermaths, Molly Ball writes at length about the new tone of the Obama campaign. It "has taken," she claims, "a brutal, no-holds-barred approach that's sharply at odds with the conciliatory image that was the central predicate of Obama's entire pre-presidential political career."

In June 2007, for example, when Obama's primary campaign distributed a memo titled "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)" detailing Clinton's connections to India, Obama publicly upbraided his staff, calling it "a dumb mistake" and "unnecessarily caustic." As the New York Times put it at the time, "The memo...raised questions about Obama's claims that he is above attack politics, which are epitomized by secretly distributing opposition research about a rival."
These days, the Obama campaign distributes harshly critical research memos as a matter of course.
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Hang on -- that's the example? I don't think the Obama campaign ditched the "punjab" memo because it was "caustic." It ditched it because it was pretty damn racist. The campaign had no problem whatsoever pushing trite negative stories about Hillary. It's largely forgotten now, but the tool Team Obama used to dig out from under the Jeremiah Wright story was a Hillary exaggeration about the trip to post-war Bosnia she took when she was First Lady. The campaign spent a week on that. The Obama campaign shamed Billy Sheehan off Team Hillary after he asked why the media wasn't investigating the president's younger, more vulnerable, coke-snorting days.

The myth that Obama ran a Different Kind of Campaign is based on a few bold bets -- like rejecting an early summer gas tax holiday -- that paid off. But we're also talking about a campaign that completely fabricated an anti-NAFTA position, and a campaign that tipped off Ben Smith to the haircut that destroyed John Edwards.* We're talking about a campaign that outspent John McCain by as much as a 3-1 ratio in the final stretch, and devoted most of that money to negative ads. The "hope and change" campaign was the happy cover on a dogged, overwhelming attack campaign. It used to benefit Democrats to obscure this; now, it benefits Republicans.

*In every way. It was the ugly haircut story that inspired Rachel "Bunny" Mellon to start cutting checks to help out her friend with big expenses.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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