January 15, 2008 · Lessig
I guess it’s a good thing to see that Democracts can learn something about how to run (and hence, win) campaigns. It’s a bad thing when what they learn is Swiftboating. Maybe it was Kerry’s endorsement that cued the Clinton camp into the idea, but it is the other extraordinary thing about the Meet the Press. Here’s the quote:
And let me address the point that Bill was making. Because, again, I think it’s been unfairly and inaccurately characterized. What he was talking about was very directly about the story of Senator Obama’s campaign, being premised on a speech he gave in 2002. And that was to his credit. He gave a speech opposing the war in Iraq. He gave a very impassioned speech against it and consistently said that he was against the war, he would vote against the funding for the war. By 2003, that speech was off his Web site. By 2004, he was saying that he didn’t really disagree with the way George Bush was conducting the war. And by 2005, ’6 and ’7, he was voting for $300 billion in funding for the war. The story of his campaign is really the story of that speech and his opposition to Iraq. I think it is fair to ask questions about, “Well, what did you do after the speech was over?” And when he became a senator, he didn’t go to the floor of the Senate to condemn the war in Iraq for 18 months. He didn’t introduce legislation against the war in Iraq. He voted against timelines and deadlines initially.
So the “Swiftboat” strategy here is to take a quality that is a strength of your opponent, and turn it into a weakness. Kerry was a Vietnam war hero compared to President Bush, but the strategy of the Republicans was to completely neutralize that comparison, by raising ridiculous questions about his service. They knew that few would stop to notice the obvious fact: whatever questions you had about his service, at least he served.
And so too does the Clinton campaign now think: Swiftboat the anti-war issue, and people will forget that it was Obama alone among the leading candidates in this race who opposed the war from the start.
Here’s the point to keep in view: Whatever your view about whether the war was right or wrong, how you vote after we entered the war is a different question from whether the war should have been waged in the first place. Ask Howard Dean, the last consistent opponent to the war. He didn’t plan to cut funding to the troops, and pull out immediately. That’s because, once the mistake was made, we had to deal with the mistake. So the fact Obama didn’t vote to cut funding, or said he agreed with the way Bush was waging the war, is not “inconsistency.” It is a different answer to a different question.
Don’t belittle the credit one deserves for doing what Obama did in 2002. Whether or not he was contemplating running for President, no doubt he understood that opposing the war hysteria of the time would weaken his chances politically. That’s the same understanding Clinton, Edwards, and every Republican had. But of the leading candidates, only Obama served us, by opposing an unjust war.
And regarding the “facts” in the attack: (1) Obama’s first website in his candidacy for the Senate stated his opposition to the war. (2) The “2002 speech” referred to was a speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago. I don’t know what Clinton could mean by saying it was “off his website.” As you can see here, the “website” of a State Senator doesn’t seem to have a place for speeches. The U.S. Senate campaign site, launched in 2002, does have a copy of the speech in the “news” section. That format continued for a time into 2003, but changed in 2003. But throughout 2003, Obama continued to promote the fact that “was the only Illinois senate candidate to publicly oppose President Bush’s plan to pre-emptively attack Iraq.” (3) Nothing in the original speech or in anything I’ve seen from that time indicates to me Obama promised to vote to cut off spending in Iraq. Instead, his promises then seem just as sensible now. This is from his website, December 2003:
Now that our troops are in Iraq, Obama will work toward ending deception that has shrouded our policies and forging international coalitions to share the burden of rebuilding. Obama will push for a full investigation of the intelligence provided to the Administration regarding the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Iraqi efforts to obtain nuclear materials. He will also fight the cronyism and secret bidding that has resulted in billions of dollars in contracts going to large corporations close to the Administration. Obama will strive to restore truth and transparency to our policy in Iraq.
So essentially every important charge in the Clinton Swiftboating here is false. Aka, “swiftboating.”
(I find now that Dick Durbin made the same charge against the Clintons. Smart guy, that Dubin).