January 22, 2008  ·  Lessig

Watching the debate last night, I wondered what happens when we become as bad as they. (WE=Dems; THEY=Karl Rove GOP). For there was a cheapness and dishonesty in the exchange last night that I haven’t quite recognized before. Why I hadn’t registered this before is an obvious question — for of course, cheapness and dishonesty in presidential politics has been with us for a long time. But I recognized something about it last night I hadn’t recognized before.

Let’s start with the disappointment: Debates are not Obama’s forte. If he were running for Prime Minister, I’d have second thoughts. I can’t understand why he isn’t better prepared for the obvious exchange that was going to happen. It took way too long to get to (w/r/t the Reagan absurdity): “I obviously don’t agree with his ideas and never said I did, and indeed, I worked against them.” It took way too long to get to (w/r/t the “present vote” issue): “In the US Senate, voting present would be bad Senatoring. In the Illinois Senate, it is how the system works. My 180 votes out of 4000 is just the same as ….” And w/r/t health care, he never got to “my plan IS universal because it is made available, in an affordable way, to everyone. I just don’t believe in fining poor people. I believe in helping them.” Again and again, the echo of Obama’s message was “it’s legitimate for us to disagree about …” What good is that line doing — especially given the completely illegitimate charges raised against him by HRC? Someone has go sit him down and force him to spit back 10 second responses to these questions. It isn’t rocket science. It is practice and training.

But disappointment is one thing; (this word sounds too harsh, I know, but) disgust is something else. For there was a basic lack of integrity in the Clinton show last night. As a former friend of Clinton put it to me last night, “I now understand just why people hated the Clintons so.”

For example: The absurdity about the Reagan comments (and slowly the press is coming around to the recognizing the absurdity in the comments, at least if you believe the Obama survey of the sources).

First, when I heard about this, it struck me as a perfect example of the generation gap that is this campaign. The ridiculousness of people who think they need to continue to attack Ronald Reagan is simply a reflection of a different generation. For anyone under 50, it is obvious Reagan is a towering figure. And for people over 50 who would reflect upon the matter for a second, it should be obvious that Reagan transformed how politics and government is considered. Reagan’s was obviously a transformational presidency, in exactly the ways Clinton’s was not. Those of us who worked to elect Clinton hoped he would be the Dem’s Reagan. But it wasn’t a month into his administration when he signaled as clearly as he could that transformation based on principle was not his game (remember selling out the gays in the military issue? Reagan would never have done the equivalent).

So Obama said the obvious (that Reagan’s administration was transformational). And he also said that the GOP pushed a set of ideas in the 1980s that quickly captured many Dems (including, let’s not forget, Clinton (see, e.g., welfare reform)). That too was obvious. But just as it’s obvious to anyone with integrity that when Time names Putin as “Person of the Year” (or Hitler for that matter), Time is not endorsing the positions of Putin or Hitler, so too is it obvious (to anyone with integrity) that Obama was not endorsing Reaganomics. (Krugman, in my view, has that integrity. But he’s just gone off the deep end here. There’s no myth about the success of “voodoo economics” (as Bush the First put it) to be debunked). Indeed, as Obama pointed out in the most flashy line of the debate, he was on the streets of Chicago organizing against Reaganomics. His statement about “ideas” was simply identifying the kind of leadership he wanted his presidency to aspire to. That’s precisely the leadership I want a president to aspire to too.

Yet HRC repeated the slander that Obama was endorsing or recommending those policies. I understand the political gain from creating that impression in people. But someone who does that in that way betrays a basic lack of integrity.

So too with the extraordinarily cheap shot of saying Obama worked for a “slum lord.”

As Hillary Clinton of the Rose Law Firm (remember Whitewater?) certainly knows, even assuming (falsely) that Obama represented this “slum landlord,” that one gives a client a defense does not mean one has endorsed the ethics or values of the client. And more certainly, the fact that as an associate at a law firm, one spent 4 hours working on a memo does not signal that one has endorsed the ethics or values of the client. Pt the partner of the client. As the Washington Post Factchecker reports:
William Miceli, Obama’s supervisor at the law firm, said the firm represented the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corp., a nonprofit group that redeveloped a run-down property on Chicago’s South Side with Rezko. He called Clinton’s assertion that Obama represented Rezko in a slum landlord business “categorically untrue.”

“He was a very junior lawyer at the time, who was given responsibility for basic due diligence, document review,” said Miceli, adding that Obama did what he was told by the firm. According to Miceli, that was the only time Obama worked on a Rezko-related project while at the law firm.

But of course the irrelevance of this to Obama or his values is not obvious to people outside of legal practice. That means it was an effective charge politically. Clinton knew the truth. It was a plainly unethical charge for her to make. (Recall Advice and Consent: “Sir, have you no shame?”)

But what about Obama’s Walmart comment? (In responding to the charge that Obama endorsed Reagan’s economic program, Obama said he was organizing in Chicago to fight those programs during a time when HRC was sitting on the board of Walmart).

Obama’s reply must have been fun. It certainly got attention. It was in my view unnecessary. But even if unnecessary, it was certainly not unethical. His point was about his commitment to values that Clinton said he didn’t have. Showing his “experience” in contrast to hers was fair, and it was true. It created an impression that accorded with the facts, unlike the Reagan comment, or the “slum lord” slander. Thus ethical, in my view, but unwise.

We’ve heard this about the Clintons from the start: they would do anything. But watching her utter words she knows are false, or words which even if technically true, create a plainly false impression, was, again, disgusting. Just how small is this person now apparently leading the Democrats? Just how small have we become?

Now of course I am totally open to the charge of naivete. But I don’t think it just naivete. When you think about all the virtues that Obama plainly has over HRC — indeed, in some ways, the Reaganesque ability to inspire, set a vision, speak across divides, etc. — this cheapness feels different. The loss seems greater. Bush was small and deeply unethical when he allowed Karl Rove to destroy McCain in 2000 in South Carolina with totally false rumors. Many Republicans rightly thought the better man had been defeated by that dishonesty. We are soon to be in the same place with our nominee unless some measure of integrity surfaces in this campaign.

  • Jason W

    I read this blog and Andrew Sullivan’s and I feel very much aligned with you two “thinking left-of-centrists”. I think we have a brief period of time to decide what we will do should HRC win the nomination. Can we, after the horror of the Bush years, really just go back to despondency and isolation during Clinton redux? What will we do? Can it be something big enough that we could communicate it in such a way as to bend the race towards Obama? If not, what will we do when our gut level fears are realized? We can’t just do nothing, again.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    “We’ve heard this about the Clintons from the start: they would do anything.”

    One would hope :-). The Republicans certainly will.

    Politics is very dirty business, involving a huge amount of lying. That’s one reason liberal intellectual aren’t good at it.

    But Obama’s no angel.

    Obama’s Creative Clippings Part Deux

    “The Obama campaign’s new ad uses an old trick and takes quotes from newspapers out of context. “

    But I suppose I shouldn’t lecture anyone on shouting to the wind about the way the world should be.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    “I can’t understand why he isn’t better prepared for the obvious exchange that was going to happen. “

    Perhaps lack of experience? Regression to the mean from high expectations?

    Didn’t Obama have easy wins – read little election experience – in his first state senate election when others were disqualified and later in the U.S. democratic senate primary when his opponent blew himself up with a sex scandal?

    Of course the Clintons are world-class politicians (and were way before Rove), but unless Obama is playing some strategy that I don’t see, it really does look like a rookie mistake: “Someone has go sit him down and force him to spit back 10 second responses to these questions. It isn’t rocket science. It is practice and training.”

  • http://www.gavinbaker.com/ Gavin Baker

    I’ve similarly been despondent at the way the Democratic candidates seem determined to tear their opponents down rather than building themselves up. This is always troubling (and we’re well past a fair and honest “drawing distinctions), but even more so when the fighting is intra-party, since a divisive primary makes it harder to unite around the eventual nominee. In my view, Clinton and Edwards are more guilty of this than Obama, though I may be biased. Honestly, Edwards lost my vote this way (not, being a Floridian, that my vote counts for anything). I had leaned Obama for a while, but Edwards wasn’t out of consideration, and in some ways I even preferred him. But while Edwards used to talk about his values and his ideas, lately all he can do is smear the frontrunners. I don’t go in for that sort of bloodsport.

  • Frank G

    Whoever the Dems pick to run this time around will have to face Karl-Rove-style attacks, so there is a silver lining to making sure both Obama and H. Clinton are tested in this way, and a polarizing concern if either fails to defend correctly.

  • stencilv

    I find myself unimpressed with the “factcheck.org” observation quoted above. Somehow it seems that
    “overplaying” one’s own record — that is essentially the charge made against Obama by factcheck — has a different
    character than misrepresenting your opponent’s record. Or making deliberately disingenuous representations (“slum lord”) of an opponent.

    Maybe that distinction is artificial. But it seems to be related to Lessig’s point, with which I find myself in agreement…

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    Perhaps Clinton misspoke and should have said Obama worked for, took contributions from, and bought land for his house from the “slumlord.”


    but come on people. Poke any local politician, like the Clintons in the 80s, and they associate with, take contributions from and sometimes profit too much from people in real estate. Just by chance, many of these real estate developments fail to either bad luck, incompetence or less often fraud.

    Disclaimer: I have no idea if the Chicago Sun Times is reliable and have not read or found the second of two articles.

  • http://polibyte.com Brian

    I read through half of this post before it dawned on me that HRC referred to Hillary, not the Human Rights Campaign.

  • Nigel A

    Great analysis. I absolutely agree the debate was diminishing to all.

    However, this post
    from a PR professional, suggests that Obama laid a trap for Clinton in an attempt to shift the narrative of the primary from “experience” to its corollary, “trust.”

    If he’s right (and Obama certainly has been using the word a lot after the debate), it may change the tenor of the battle. Clinton may have tons of experience, but do we trust her? Under that strategy, calling out Bill Clinton was an obvious attempt to remind voters of his perjury.

    The way I see it, this is a sharp tactic. It allows Obama to raise questions about Hillary Clinton without hitting below the belt, and it shows his own record in a positive light.

    He still needs to sharpen his debate skills. And find some counter for Rezko.

  • http://johnsmentaldetritus.blogspot.com/ John J.

    Fortunately, after last night’s debate, the Obama campaign is starting to mobilize a get out the facts campaign – specifically dealing with the idiotic emails going around. He has full in depth info on the larger attacks being played against him at http://factcheck.barackobama.com/

  • http://drewb.com Drew B

    [Jason W.] “We’ve heard this about the Clintons from the start: they would do anything.”

    [Seth Finkelstein] “One would hope :-). The Republicans certainly will.”

    Well they won’t have to work hard to point out that she’s a ruthless liar.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Note the first sentence (“anything”) is in fact from Lessig.

    But part of my tongue-in-cheek reply is about not looking for the Great Moral Hope who will fix it, which I think is some of what’s motivating Obama-fans.

  • BNB

    One could definitely say the Clinton’s are unfair. One could also say that the title of this blog post, implying that only the “Karl Rove GOP” distort or lie about people’s record is also unfair and misleading. It is only human nature to want to assume your party and/or your candidate is “more pure” or “less dishonest” than the others, which is why you see people justify things “their” candidate does or says that would outrage them from an opponent. Both major parties and their candidates unfairly disparage the other side. I would agree Obama to this point has stayed much more truthful than Hillary, but based on the Wal-Mart comment, I don’t know for how much longer, if Hillary starts to take a lead. People always say they hate negative campaigns, but history shows they are pretty effective.

    This isn’t anything new. There is an article in today’s Wall Street Journal about how the Clinton’s did the same thing to Bob Dole in 1996 (pre-Karl Rove).

    The ends justify the means to the Clintons. Bill Clinton has spent his post-Presidency years repairing his image, and this campaign just reminds people that he and his supporters were sleazy, dirty campaigners before, and that he was in many ways a sleazy, unethical President.

    In the end I think it will hurt Hillary’s campaign because of the reminders of the darker side of the Clinton years, and make people question whether they want to go through that again (not to mention having Bush > Clinton > Bush > Clinton as Presidents from 1988-2012)

    The Wall Street Journal article discusses the interesting part that the candidate appears to stay above the fray by having surrogates do the dirty work, which she can then distance herself from, after the attack has reached it’s desired effect. Dick Morris said the same thing in a recent column, that in 1992 Hillary was willing to take the heat so that it would stay of Bill when he was running.

    This behavior isn’t anything new from the Democratic party; especially the Clintons. It also isn’t new for the GOP. For the first time in a long time, no sitting President or VP is running for the Presidency, and this campaign will reach new low depths of ugly campaigning. Regardless of whether Obama or Hillary, or Rudy, Mitt, or McCain, win the nominations, this general election will be a bloodbath in my opinion.

  • James R

    Perhaps this campaign should effect the way we compare Harvard Law School & Yale School of Law.

    Harvard’s former editor of law review (Obama) has managed to maintain legal ethics in his public speech, while conducting a competitive Presidential campaign.

    We now have two attorneys trained by Yale’s School of Law (both named Clinton, one a valedictorian), who have worked substantial harm to the ethical principles underlying their training and education, apparently simply as a matter of course.

    Statistically insignificant sample size notwithstanding, graduates of the two schools are ostensibly being prepared for exposure of this magnitude. Having attained such exposure, a critical eye must turn to the sources of some of their respective capacities (i.e. legal education and training) that brought these individuals to our nations forefront.

    The reputation of the two schools is not a function of the behavior of three graduates in particular, but we can distinguish a valuable metric, all the same. Do powerful people graduate from each institution? Clearly, yes. Do powerful people consistently faithful to their ethics (while ‘under fire’) graduate from each institution?

  • Michael

    I have to disagree with your responses that you wish Obama would have said.

    w/r/t health care, Obama actually floated the idea of penalizing “poor people”, as you say it, who don’t buy into his plan: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/free-to-choose-at-a-price/. I saw the show and he did say that, but he refused to call it a mandate. I fail to see why garnishing wages (or whatever he would do) is superior to putting in a mandate into an actual universal health care bill. Also, it seems that you’ve redefined “universal” health care to mean “universally affordable” health care. So who decides what is/isn’t affordable for “poor people?” Stanford Law professors? A mandate is superior.

    w/r/t the Reagan comment, it seemed like he was pandering to a right-leaning newspaper to get their endorsement and the context was praiseworthy of the Reagan administration without adequately correcting that Reagan was bad for America. A little Rove-ian, wouldn’t you say? I feel that Reagan largely governed by myth (e.g. creating the concept of “welfare queens” when in fact they were single mothers trying to make ends meet), which is why I find his comparisons of himself to Reagan troubling, particularly because his “hope” message is extremely vague and mythical. I find his speeches to be tantamount to an inspiring homily/sermon with a message to pray more…oh and don’t forget to drop a donation in the collection basket. I’m sorry, I want more from my president.

    w/r/t the “present” votes, I think it’s relevant because he uses the phrases “straight talk” to describe himself and “Washington-speak” to describe Hillary, most recently when describing her stance on the bankruptcy bill. I don’t understand how voting “present” on bills that you do/don’t support is straight talk. Maybe it’s “Illinois-speak” but it’s certainly not more clear.

    I disagree with your whole depiction of the debate and how Obama’s comments were ethical whereas Hillary’s were unethical. I think it was clear that Obama was itching for a fight which is why he slammed her economic stimulus plan as not having a tax rebate until he put one in knowing full well that hers actually had a tax rebate and she came out with one before he did. Hers was contingent but because things grew worse, she felt the rebates should be distributed immediately. Given the most recent events with a record rate cut, I think that’s a very valid argument. Why isn’t his distortion of her stimulus plan unethical? He went negative first and that you cannot dispute – in the campaign and in the debate.

    Further, the Wal-mart comment being somehow ethical while her Rezko comment is unethical slander strikes me as inconsistent. He went further than rebutting the assertion about Reagan and he didn’t have to go there. I guess in Obama’s view, anyone who goes the corporate law route has checked their morals at the door of their office. That’s insulting! Also, there’s more to the Rezko story and you must know this. His 5 hours of associate work answer was basically a non-answer. What about Rezko helping him buy his house in Chicago? That’s sort of a cozy attorney-client relationship. I wish the clients I did 5 hours of associate work for helped me buy a house – I certainly need it.

    Hillary is a fighter and a strong woman and that’s why so many people admire her and want her to be the next president. If people don’t like her because while she was first lady she didn’t stay at home and scarf down pain pills and become a vacant-eyed doll like Laura Bush, well that’s fine by me and I don’t care if we don’t have their vote. I’m hoping you’re not one of those people, so I’d ask that you not slander her by making up some comparison of her to Karl Rove (which I think you know is untrue) because she is getting in the way of this supposed hero who claims he’s going to save America from itself – oh, and btw, he is the only one who can do it and the only time he can do it is now.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Hmm … I don’t know if Lessig is still reading this thread (if he ever was …) … and not that it matters too much … but someone might want to consider if attracting the HATE-CLINTON types is kind of signal of being on the wrong track somewhere. Just a thought.

  • bnb

    The more HATE-CLINTON people the better in my opinion, to help drown out her talking points as posted by Michael. (Still misleading on the Present votes btw Michael). You wish you had a client or business partner to help buy you a house? How about a whole parcel of land? We’ll call it Whitewater. You can get the downpayment by investing in cattle futures.

    In my opinion, her supporters post replies all over blogs to any negative criticism of Hillary to try and mask that she is far from a strong woman and a fighter. She is a panderer and an opportunist. Chris Mathews was correct when he said she wouldn’t be Senator if Bill hadn’t cheated on her. It’s just sad that he was forced to apologize because that isn’t the politically correct thing to say.

    As an aside, are any of the candidates ever asked to comment on the DMCA, internet censorship, ever-changing copyright law, etc? One issue I see not being addressed is the fact that there aren’t many politicians who have knowledge of internet/internet speech/internet privacy/copyright issues. As we continue to move more and more into the internet world, many politicians don’t understand the ramifications of their votes and I fear just do what corporate lobbyists tell them to. When you have Senators voting on internet regulations and laws who say things like “My aide sent me an internet” or “the internet is a series of tubes,” that alarms me.

  • Michael

    You know what’s misleading BNB? Telling the American people you sponsored a bill when in fact you didn’t: http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/legisnet91/summary/910HB0854.html

    I guess all the facts in the world wouldn’t matter since you showed your true colors by writing you agree with Chris Matthews – I guess Obama’s got the sexist vote all tied up. Awesome!

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    And since when do we take a lawyer’s statement that the charges against his client are “categorically untrue” as evidence.

    Did a lawyer ever have a client who he called a “slumlord.”? They are all low-income houseing providers.

    Perhaps Obama learned more tricks from Clinton than Rove. Just say the New York Times said it was untrue when the New York Times was quoting a lawyer for balance.

  • http://al-wlid.com mac

    Maybe that distinction is artificial. But it seems to be related to Lessig’s point, with which I find myself in agreement…

  • Brian

    As an admitted Obama supporter, after having read too much on the blogs over the past couple of months, I commend Michael for laying out his argument in a straight-forward, coherent manner, devoid of the usual vitriol. This is the kind of debate that serves the Party well. Refreshingly in contrast to so much else out there.

    I’m still super-puzzled, however, by Clinton, her team and supporters continuing to pound on the IL “present” votes. Assuming that the Clintons and their team either understand IL politics, or are not too lazy to pick up the phone and ask, my current conclusion is that their bet is that the general public is either unsophisticated or lazy (themselves), and will never themselves understand the nuances of “present” votes. Under this assumption, then, it then becomes a perfect attack vehicle to use in the service of attempting to undermine one of Obama’s claimed strengths.

    An insightful piece by a Planned Parenthood worker who claims to have coordinated the strategy of present votes with Obama in the service of helping advance women’s rights can be found here:


    Would appreciate anyone’s thoughtful counter-argument – which I would assume would take the line that “even given the particularities of IL politics, you can’t vote present and be considered anything other than a fence-straddler, because…”

    • http://www.ok-iraq.com/vb/tags/%CA%DD%D3%ED%D1%20%C7%E1%C7%CD%E1%C7%E3/ تفسير الاحلام

      [Jason W.] “We’ve heard this about the Clintons from the start: they would do anything.”

      [Seth Finkelstein] “One would hope . The Republicans certainly will.”

      Well they won’t have to work hard to point out that she’s a ruthless liar.

  • Taylor

    As a tride and true independent voter who is sick of the two party system – I tend to keep an eye on posts like this (on both sides of the fence) to get a sense for where ideologies are.

    I can appreciate the idea of Obama, and even consider him the best the Democrats could hope for at the moment. However, I could personally never vote for him and Michael’s original post above finally puts words to why:

    “I find his comparisons of himself to Reagan troubling, particularly because his “hope” message is extremely vague and mythical. I find his speeches to be tantamount to an inspiring homily/sermon with a message to pray more…oh and don’t forget to drop a donation in the collection basket. I’m sorry, I want more from my president.”

    I have been waiting, hoping for Obama to put forth more substantive ideas and policies…..yet all I continue seeing from him are speeches and messages that don’t really “mean” anything. This only makes him emblematic of what you all want him to be, thus making it easier to like/champion him.

    At the core of it all is the deep desire from many Americans to have a President that, let’s face it, gives them warm fuzzies and instills hope and confidence. Obama certainly does this, but it is as Michael put it “tantamount to an inspiring homily with a message to pray more.” He needs to put forth articulate, packaged agenda and policy or I’m voting McCain.

  • http://www.socialsecuritybullshit.com Steve Baba

    The reason the “present” votes were pounded is because they make Obama look either neutral/indifferent to the cause or playing politics. There is nothing wrong with a politician playing politics, unless one is running as different and a change. The fact the Planned Parenthood was playing politics (and likely the pro-life groups) does not change the fact the Obama played politics.

  • Brian Hurt

    Where have you been the last four years? Do you remember this bit of slime from the ’04 campaign?

    The problem is that the Democrats, especially certain advisors to the campaigns, are only willing to do Karl Roves on each other- when it comes to facing the Republicans, they are all sweetness and light. Which makes me wonder if certain prominent Democratic advisors aren’t, in fact, Republican sabateurs.

  • http://www.blackagendareport.com Bruce Dixon

    Obama’s comments on Reagan used Republican frameworks — people being tired of the “excesses” of the sixties and seventies. That’s what made them so odious to many of us, and at the same time to comforting to many on the right. Were consumer rights, voting rights and the like “excesses”? C’mon.