The Denial Twist

A campaign blog.
March 3 2008 10:56 AM

The Denial Twist

Barack Obama has a problem.

After reams of denials , it turns out that his top economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, did in fact meet with officials of the Canadian Consulate in Chicago. The substance of that meeting is still in dispute—according to a memo written by a Canadian official, Goolsbee cautioned them that Obama’s strong opposition to NAFTA "should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans." Goolsbee, who has written for Slate , says he "certainly did not use that phrase in any way."

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The problem is not so much that Obama has said one thing about NAFTA to Ohio and another to Canada. As we argued last week, it was always implicit that he doesn’t hate free trade quite as much as he now claims. (Also, Goolsbee is right that Obama has emphasized reforming labor and environmental standards more than overhauling the entire agreement.) What disturbs most about the whole affair is the pattern of blanket denials issued by the Obama campaign—denials that were at the time implausible and now, in retrospect, borderline indefensible.

When confronted with questions about the specifics of Goolsbee’s communication with Canadian officials, Obama spokesman Bill Burton repeated that "the story is not true"—as if denying everything would excuse him even if some details turned out to be true. Goolsbee himself told the Observer ’s Jason Horowitz that "[i]t is a totally inaccurate story. I did not call these people and I direct you to the press office." Saying that he "did not call these people" could be an example of fine-tipped parsing—"these people" could be referring to the Canadian embassy, not the consulate in Chicago; he could also be saying that he did not "call" them, but he did meet with them. Either way, it is, by any reasonable human being’s definition, extremely misleading, if not a downright lie.

It’s impossible to know how much the campaign knew. Perhaps professor Goolsbee wasn’t totally straightforward with them about who he met with and what he said. And maybe Goolsbee is right that the memo mischaracterizes his remarks. But by initially denying the story flat out, the Obama campaign allowed the press to poke small holes in the blanket which have now been teased into large ones. Obama didn’t need a bad press day 24 hours before polls open. But one thing his campaign can’t deny is that they brought this on themselves.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.