An Ugly Moment for the Clinton Campaign

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On Friday afternoon, the Clinton campaign took the unusual step of convening a second conference call of the day for reporters. And it was a sorry spectacle.

The call was prompted by the report that Samantha Power, who that morning had resigned as a foreign policy aide to Barack Obama after a news story noted she had called Hillary Clinton a “monster,” had told the BBC, during an interview, that Obama’s withdrawal plan for Iraq was a “best-case scenario.” In that interview, she said, Obama “will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator.”

On the conference call, the Clintonites pounced on these comments. Retired General Wesley Clark said he found Power’s remarks about Obama’s Iraq policy “quite disturbing.” Jamie Rubin, a Clinton foreign policy aide, derided Power as Obama’s foreign policy “Svenagli or guru” and claimed her remarks about Iraq were proof that Obama cannot create an efficient and effective foreign policy team, calling the episode “amateur hour” for the Obama campaign. He claimed Power’s comments showed that Obama’s private position was different than his public posture on Iraq. Howard Wolfson, the campaign’s communications direction, insisted that Power’s statements meant that Obama’s vow to withdraw troops from Iraq was nothing but a political promise. Also on the call for the Clinton campaign was Lee Feinstein, another foreign policy adviser to Clinton, and Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachussetts liberal and leading member of of the Out of Iraq caucus in the House.

This was overkill. During the BBC interview, Power had said that Obama, in removing troops from Iraq, “will rely upon a plan—an operational plan—that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president. So to think—it would be the height of ideology to sort of say, ‘Well, I said it, therefore I’m going to impose it on whatever reality greets me.'” In other words, a campaign proposal is just that: a proposal. And only a fool would think that a military plan would be applied to reality unchanged a year after it was first devised.

But the Clinton campaign saw an opportunity to go for the jugular. And they did—jumping up and down on Power’s not-yet-cold dead (politically, that is) body. On the call, I wanted to ask, “Have you no decency?” I did inquire why the Clinton crowd was attacking Obama for a policy that in this regard mirrors Clinton’s position. (Her plan for withdrawal: get into the White House, spend the next 60 days consulting with national security aides and Pentagon chiefs, then cook up a plan for a withdrawal that would aim to bring back one or two combat brigades a month.) Rubin and the others replied by emphasizing Power’s statement that Obama’s plan—and his call for a withdrawal within 16 months—was a “best-case scenario.” They insisted this meant Obama was not committed to his deadline and was, consequently, misleading voters.

Their response was not persuasive—at least not to NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, who asked them to explain why this attack on Power and Obama was “fair.”

It was an ugly moment. Power, a talented journalist, academic, and thinker who has done tremedous work regarding genocide, had been driven off the campaign, in part because the Clinton camp immediately called for her head after news hit of the “monster” remark. (A classier move for Clinton would have been to send a note to Power saying, “Let’s have lunch. You’ll see I’m no monster.”) Now on what was probably the worst day of Power’s professional life, the Clinton campaign was trying to use a comment of hers to undermine a key selling point of the Obama campaign. At the same time, Rubin kept saying how bad he felt for Power.

The Democratic foreign policy gang is not that big. Everyone knows one another. (Think chess team in high school.) And Rubin and the others were doing all they could to slam Power, an important member of this group, for political gain. I’ve known Rubin and Feinstein for decades and have appreciated their hard work in the field of foreign policy wonkery. (I met Rubin in the early 1980s when he was working on arms control matters for a public interest outfit.) I was sorry to see them take part in this.

After the conference call, the Obama campaign sent out an interesting Washington Post clip from 2004. Headline: “Comments on Iraq War In Error, Says Kerry Aide.” The article begins:

A top national security adviser to John F. Kerry said yesterday that he made a mistake when he said the Democratic nominee probably would have launched a military invasion to oust Saddam Hussein if he had been president during the past four years.

On Aug. 7, Jamie Rubin told The Washington Post that “in all probability” a Kerry administration would have waged war against Iraq by now if the Massachusetts Democrat were president.

The Bush campaign, eager to portray Kerry as holding the same position as the president after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, seized on Rubin’s comments as evidence that the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates share similar views on the war, in retrospect. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said the two candidates agreed about “sending our troops to war.”

“To the extent that my own comments have contributed to misunderstanding on this issue….I never should have said the phrase ‘in all probability’ because that’s not Kerry’s position and he’s never said it,” Rubin said in a statement. “That was my mistake.”

On the conference call, Rubin had done to Power and Obama what the Bush campaign had done to him and Kerry. For many Democrats, that is the big problem of the Clinton campaign.

This was first posted in my blog at


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