Sunday, November 18, 2007

Is this the ghost of Rovian shenanigans past?


The Republican presidential candidates have been bashing Hillary Clinton like a pinata for some time now. To believe their stump speeches, she's somewhere to the left of Karl Marx when it comes to health care and flip flops on policy like a flounder on a dry boat floor.

This, of course, comes from a crowd whose two front-runners are Rudy Giuliani, whose former chauffeur -- and the police commissioner when Rudy was New York's mayor -- is under indictment, and Mitt Romney, who became a fire-breathing, bedrock conservative only after he ran and won as a centrist, rasoned pro-choice moderate in Massachusetts.

It is not Clinton, however, but her closest Democratic rival, Barack Obama, who has emerged as the target of a far murkier and sleazier campaign to paint him as a closet terrorist and, if that fails, a backroom political hackster only dressed in Boy Scout blue.

First, in Iowa, home of the first caucus, people were getting phone calls suggesting that Obama didn't put hand over heart during a pledge of allegiance (heaven forbid) and was educated in a radical Islamic school in Indonesia. The not-so-subtle suggestion: This man is an unpatriotic muslim sympathizer.

Then, this week comes this from conservative columnist Robert Novak. He writes that Clinton supporters are in the midst of a whispering campaign to tell people like him that they have serious dirt about Obama but -- get this -- dirt they won't release.

"The nature of the alleged scandal was not disclosed," Novak wrote.

The Obama camp reacted swiftly and angrily, challenging Clinton to release whatever it is she's basing this murky rumor on. The Clinton campaign responded with one of its now-traditional "stick with the issues" statements (which, in this case, is particularly amusing given that Obama is trying to react to the lowest form of mudslinging -- utterly unsubstantiated innuendo from unknown sources).

Where this will go between the two Democrats is anyone's guess. But I will wager that Obama is shaking his fist in the wrong direction. It makes no sense for Hillary Clinton's campaign to leak this bit of non-news to Robert Novak, a conservative columnist with close ties to Republican conservatives. Karl Rove, on the other hand, whether "retired" or not, would do so in a heartbeat.

Perhaps you recall. This is the same Robert Novak who blew CIA agent Valerie Plame's cover after her husband, Joseph Wilson, embarrassed the Bush information by writing that the so-called uranium connection between Iraq and the African nation of Niger had no merit. His Highness (Dick Cheney) is said to have been furious. So there's a pretty fair chance that in outing Plame, Novak was acting as the water boy for a White House's slime campaign. (I'd urge upi tp ask Lewis Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, but he's already gotten into enough trouble on the issue.)

What's more, this kind of gutter innuendo looks a lot more like the game plan of Swift-Boating, dirty-tricks Republican campaigns of old than of anything that the relatively tame (and inept) Democrats have ever managed to muster.

What would Hillary Clinton have to gain by setting herself up for attack by Obama? She's got a big lead that probably was enhanced by her performance in the debate last week.

On the other hand, Republicans gain anytime they can egg the leading Democrats to tear each other down. And I suspect the neocons are much more afraid in the long run of Obama than of Clinton, whom they keep hailing as the inevitable Democratic nominee even as they bash her.

Why do they fear Obama? Because, as Atlantic Monthly write in its cover article this month, Obama has a worldwide following. His father was African. He attended school in Indonesia (though not radical muslim schools). He talks of the politics of hope and reconciliation. And his rhetoric and style appeal to a new generation and a new kind of politics that moves beyond the gridlocked red-state, blue-state pugilism embraced by the Baby Boomer leaders of both parties (and hyped regularly by the news media).

In short, if Obama gets to the final round, he'd be a much tougher target for Republicans to pound like a punching bag than Clinton, who just about every conservative loves to hate.

I confess. I have absolutely no evidence -- just a good sense of smell. I do hope some intrepid political reporter leaves the trail of polls and more polls and more polls to track down where this rumor came from. It certainly won't be easy: Karl Rove, you'll recall, is the fellow who couldn't keep track of his email even when he worked for the White House, and the law required it.


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