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).

  • Joe Buck

    The opening that the Clintons are seizing on was Barack Obama’s attempt in 2004 to avoid trashing his party’s nominee, John Kerry, despite the attempt of a reporter to play “gotcha”.

    But this war between the Clintons and Obama might lead to an Edwards victory in Nevada, which would be a good thing. Not so much because I think Edwards can win, but because only Edwards has been talking about the plight of the poor in this country. It was Bill Clinton who taught Democrats to stop talking about the poor, instead focusing on “the forgotten middle class”.

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

    Somehow, I don’t think a majority is going to vote for anyone who thinks it’s an “unjust” war as opposed to a “botched” war.

    And to be a “great man” it takes more than one maybe correct decision. If you opposed Hitler in the 1930s for the reasons Winston Churchill did, you can claim to be a great man. If you opposed Hitler in the 1930s because comrade Stalin told you to, you are likely a misguided idealist.

    But as noted by Bill Clinton, you are rolling the dice if you think someone with little experience can change the system. You are also rolling the dice if you think someone with little experience can be elected. Even the progressive ideal man himself, JFK, would have lost if he only had two years of experience. Of course you can always roll the dice and hope the Republicans will nominate a man worse than Nixon in 1960.

    It’s also sad to see even the best blogs slide into name-calling, such as “swiftboating.”

  • lessig

    Hey, Steve, thanks for the “best blogs” tag, but I don’t agree this is name calling. It is identifying a strategy, so as to help the immune system respond. There are lots of fair criticisms of Obama. That he has been an “inconsistent opponent” of the war in Iraq is not one.

    Also, remember my bias: I knew Obama was a “great man” long before many knew his name. Indeed, long before the war in Iraq. (Most of) what he’s done since just confirms that judgment of mine.

  • http://wolog.net/ Ping

    A page at hillaryhub.com offers backing for the points Clinton made in the paragraph you quoted here. I’m not sure what to make of the Obama quote in 2004 (“not much of a difference between my position and George Bush’s position”) but of particular note are the links to the voting records on funding bills for the Iraq war:

    Until he ran for president, Sen. Obama supported every funding bill for Iraq, some $300 billion. [2005 Vote # 117, HR1268, 5/10/05; 2005 Vote # 326, S1042, 11/15/05; 2006 Vote # 112, HR4939, 5/4/06; 2006 Vote # 239; 2006 Vote # 186, S2766, 6/22/06; HR5631, 9/7/06]

    Two of the votes mentioned in that list are not linked: 2006 Vote #112 and 2006 Vote #239.

    She accuses Obama of voting for these bills, which is true, but she also voted for every one of them herself.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding: “Also, remember my bias: I knew Obama was a “great man” long before many knew his name.”

    My impression overall is that you’ve confused Obama being a good man (for a politician) with a “great man” – those are two different things. By which I mean that my reading is in part that you overestimate his talking a good line, even having good positions, as well as knowing and being nice to you personally, with some sort of revolutionary qualities. The political system’s “corruption” cannot be overcome with supposed pureness of heart or charisma – i.e. the “great man” theory, that if we just find the right person, he (or she) will fix it (somehow …).

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a wonderful thing to have liberal Democrats who value intellectuals. I’m just too cynical nowadays to think that goes very far in and of itself. I’m always telling myself that this person’s job is to generate emotion appeal, they’re good at it, and it doesn’t mean they’ll deliver on what they talk about (indeed, we’ll probably be told eventually that they never made any promises and they don’t have to live up to anything at all …).

  • http://lots-o-thoughts.blogspot.com/ Samuel Brainsample

    She has also been “swiftboating” him on ethics reform and the PATRIOT Act.
    http://lots-o-thoughts.blogspot.com/2008/01/hillary-clinton-on-barack-obama-and.html
    http://lots-o-thoughts.blogspot.com/2008/01/barack-obama-and-patriot-act.html

    Of course he’s not a perfect person with a perfect record, but these are two areas where he appears to have a stronger record than Clinton.

  • http://deanlandolt.com Dean Landolt

    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

    Every Republican? That’s a little unfair…

    Just sayin’…

  • trevor

    Steve Baba:

    Like it or not, swiftboating is now part of the political lexicon. It’s lower-case, baby. And it happens to describe the essentials of this Clinton/Rove tactic to a tee.

    Sometimes you gotta call a spade a spade. This is a swiftboating.

  • eorse

    Prof.

    If HRC wins the nomination, is it necessary for Obama to accept the VP spot (if asked)? I mean he can he refuse. I want him nothing to do with HRC and her husband. Why help them win the presidency? If he refuses, does the party his future? Can the party (with people like Lewis and Rangel) force him to be HRC’s VP?

    Thanks.

  • eorse

    Prof.

    If HRC wins the nomination, is it necessary for Obama to accept the VP spot (if asked)? I mean he can he refuse. I want him nothing to do with HRC and her husband. Why help them win the presidency? If he refuses, does the party his future? Can the party (with people like Lewis and Rangel) force him to be HRC’s VP?

    Thanks.

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

    While there is much speculation, there is no evidence that Rove planned the original swiftboating and Rove denies it. While obviously people who swiftboated Kerry were largely Republican Bush supporters, I don’t think the GOP, the party itself, was responsible for swiftboating. Swiftboating to me refers to a tactic so sleazy that no one reputable wants to take credit for it, not something the Clintons would do themselves (they might use a proxy). What Bill Clinton does sometimes is tell literal truths, “there IS no sex,” that imply a false image.

  • anon repub

    I agree with your sentiment regarding Obama, but did want to make a comment on “swiftboating” and Kerry.
    I live in Ohio, and saw the actual Swift Boat ads. The one that made the biggest impression on me was the one with two widows who talked about what their husbands felt like when Kerry gave his testimony before
    Congress.
    That ad wasn’t a lie. It was simply the genuine feelings of two soldier’s wives.
    Yes, Kerry served, and Bush did not. But Kerry did things that hurt many American soldiers deeply, and then he decided to run as if he was proud to serve in Vietnam. Do you remember the convention, and his talking about his band of brothers?
    I know many Vietnam vets, including Democrats, who despise Kerry. They did not consider the Swift Boat ads to be false, or to be unfairly manipulative. They felt those ads did not go far enough.

  • Jardinero1

    “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.” What a very Clintonian way of responding. How can you be both against the war and enable the warriors?

    He should have voted nay to the appropriations. He might have given eloquent speeches on the virtues of voting nay. He could have encouraged his colleagues to vote nay and bring Bush and the warmongers to heel. Has Obama become a hapless toady to the neocon cum “Peace with Honor” crowd. I would imagine that if one dug into the bills one would find some earmarks for Illinois in them. How does that speak to the Senator’s character?

    I think it’s fine that Prof. Lessig supports Obama. I don’t understand why he is being painted as the second coming of Christ. Obama seems pretty typical to me. They disparagingly refer to Ron Paul acolytes as Paultards(I admit it, I am one). How long before they come up with something comparable for Obama supporters.

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

    Anon Republic:

    There was intentional confusion to commingle:

    1. The many Americans/vets who disliked/despised/hated Kerry for his on-the-record statements against the Vietnam War while we were still fighting (similar to the dislike for Hanoi Jane) and

    2. The few “Swift Boat Vets” who claim to have “served with Kerry” (usually only on the same base) and who claim to know some hidden “truth” that Kerry was a liar, fraud and coward.

    The first is usually accepted as fair argument even by Kerry Himself (Kerry and Jane would argue that they were trying to prevent more women from becoming widows), while the second is considered by most, including John McCain, as political fraud or false beliefs by Kerry-haters who will believe anything bad about Kerry (Similar to people who hate Bush so much they will argue that Bush planed 9/11.)

    But the way this post and other Internet ravings are going, “swiftboating” is now becoming a standard insult/reply for any negative/comparison campaigning to cast aspersions on the accuser. Claiming swiftboating also is an excuse which says we lost not on the issues but because our opponent was sleaze.

  • Tim Jacobs

    It’s simply amazing that Bill and Hillary Clinton and their surrogates are developing these outlandish complicated “defenses” of their blatantly unfair and untrue mean spirited calculated attacks. They are practicing deception almost daily. Thank you Prof. Lessig for attesting to the great character of Senator Obama:

    I knew Obama was a “great man” long before many knew his name. Indeed, long before the war in Iraq. (Most of) what he’s done since just confirms that judgment of mine.

    As an former hourly employee of the law school where both you and Senator Obama worked, I concur wholeheartedly with the above. Senator Obama impressed me in a simple way. He respected not only his students and his peers, but also the people who came in and worked at the school to make it a safe and pleasant place. In any organization, such principled good behavior has significant value.

  • stencilv

    Steve Baba,

    I could maybe be persuaded by your argument that what Lessig
    describes is not “swiftboating”. You write:

    “Swiftboating to me refers to a tactic so sleazy that no one reputable wants to take credit for it, not something the Clintons would do themselves”

    On the other hand, this seems to be just a semantic distinction, and you don’t bother to refute — or
    even address — Lessig’s main point other than to criticize terminology.

    And you write:

    “But the way this post and other Internet ravings are going, “swiftboating” is now becoming a standard insult/reply for any negative/comparison campaigning to cast aspersions on the accuser.”

    Your “sematic” argument doesn’t imply this latter assertion. Lessig writes — I think
    persuasively — that whatever was done to Obama *was* sleazy (“So essentially every important
    charge in the Clinton Swiftboating here is false”). It was more than negative/comparison campaigning.

    Apologist arguments for this practice seem problematic.

    -stencilv

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

    While politics is rarely pretty, this is softball politics between two people in the same party who may even end up running together. What is going to happen when experienced Republican operatives play hardball.

    It’s not worth it for me to go into point by point and I hate to defend the Clintion’s tactics, but a standard Clinton tactic to be factually correct (Obama did change his website removing his anti-war speech) while implying something that may or may not be true (Obama changed his website because he changed or decided to downplay his anti-war position). For all we know, Obama, like many new senators, might not have even been closely checking his own website leaving the work to some assistant or his website could have been updated for more current news, but Obama can certainly answer such questions.

  • http://www.seemly.com Steve Baba

    It looks like Factcheck.org is also “swiftboating” Obama with today’s (Jan 17) “Obama’s Creative Clippings” where (like most politicians) Obama cut out “less-than-flattering words about Obama’s stance on Iraq”.

    There was also a previous Factcheck.org article on the N.H. Debate (Jan 6) Clinton vs. Obama where Clinton “tars Obama with flip-flopping on the war in Iraq” (similar but not identical to the attack at the top of this page) where Factcheck’s conclusion is: “Score this one for Clinton, though it’s not a home run.”

    It all seems like rather petty political sins or mistakes to me, but it’s not Saint Obama vs. Swiftboat Bill.

  • Paul Charles Leddy

    Don’t waste to much time doing tit for tat w/ the likes of Baba. I’d say this is just someone out to disrupt flow.

  • Brian

    Hi I am late to the party, having recently read and enjoyed “Free Culture.”

    The term swiftboating seems to be a little cliche and overused now. Swiftboating to me seems to be a term to describe taking a truthful criticism of your opponent and exaggerating it for larger effect. The added bonus is it covers up one of your weaknesses. For ex, some of the Swiftboat Veterans criticism of Kerry was valid, but they exaggerated their claims for larger effect. This is hardly a GOP only trait. (See the 1996 “GOP wants to starve children” campaign).

    I think there is plenty of criticism about Obama that the Clinton campaign can bring up, from his numerous votes of “PRESENT” on controversial issues, his questionable land purchase, and others, but I find it humorous they continue to criticize him on the Iraq War, when Hillary has had 10 different positions on the war herself

    Obama is finally starting to hit back and be more aggressive, and I hope he continues to do so. I think he should make a bigger issue of Hillary’s “leadership myth.” She recently stated she has over 30 years of experience and is ready to lead on Day 1. Really, 30 years? If she has 30 years of experience, why are we just hearing about it now? Why weren’t we told of her intimate involvement from 1992-2000, before now? The ironic trait about her “leadership” is that it was so impressive, that while Bill was President, she was only involved in the positive things that happened (economy, etc) and not with any of the controversial or bad decisions (pardons, etc). What a coincidence! What leadership!

    It is interesting watching Bill Clinton and the Clinton campaign become unhinged and unglued about Obama. To me, they essentially assumed this was their nomination, and didn’t expect to fight for it, and are more pissed than anything that Obama had the audacity to attempt to take what they think is rightfully theirs. From calling Obama’s Iraq record a “fairy tale,” to playing the race card, to suing about the caucus process in Nevada after the Culinary Union endorsed Obama (I know it wasn’t them directly, that we know of), to disenfranchising caucus-goers in Nevada by closing the doors before the scheduled time, it has been interesting to watch. The debate last night makes it seem the acrimony between Obama and Hillary is getting ratcheted up. I hope Obama keeps the pressure up because a fight with Obama on ethical lapses, changed votes, etc is a battle the Clintons can’t win. I agree Steve that it is hardly “Saint Obama vs. Swiftboat Bill,” but I would say it is “More Saintly Obama” vs. “Less Saintly Clintons,” personally. But since most people probably don’t look at it that way, I think Clinton would have to be the odds on favorite to win the nomination.

    Sadly I am not too impressed with any of the candidates from either party and find myself hoping Mayor Bloomberg and/or Ralph Nader will get in the race, just to make it interesting.

    Enjoy your blog Mr. Lessig

  • Terry

    “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. “

    Kerry promised Tim Russert twice that he would release his military records and twice broke that promise.
    Kerry STILL has not released all his military records. Why? Because he is OBVIOUSLY hiding something.
    He did not serve with honor. He wasn’t a hero, he was the ugly American.

  • Elias Pi

    The “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ads were partisan, but truthful. This modern usage is a lot of revisionist history.