Lest any of the Democratic candidates forget, tangling with Hillary Clinton comes at a painful price.
That, in short, was the message her campaign sent this week to Mrs. Clinton’s rivals after her rapid-response press operation rapidly humiliated Barack Obama, her closest competitor for the Democratic nomination, by turning his own campaign’s attacks against him.
By obtaining and then leaking to The New York Times a not-for-attribution opposition-research memo that the Obama campaign had distributed to reporters, Mrs. Clinton’s press office forced several public apologies from Mr. Obama and his campaign, all without Mrs. Clinton so much as publicly mentioning the memo or breaking stride as she fund-raised in Texas, Oklahoma and New York.
“They were reminders, rather than lessons,” said Jim Jordan, an advisor to Chris Dodd who ran the early stages of John Kerry’s Presidential campaign. “First, the Clinton campaign has an absolutely first-rate and very aggressive press operation.”
The operational portion of Mrs. Clinton’s press office, staffed with the likes of Howard Wolfson, Phil Singer and Blake Zeff—all alumni of Senator Chuck Schumer’s famously aggressive publicity machine—is tasked with defending Mrs. Clinton’s record while she travels around the country raising money, explicating her new position on Iraq and posing for pictures. It is an operation built to take advantage of just such occasions.
“I think her campaign is the best organized, most disciplined and effective Democratic campaign I have ever seen,” said Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst and editor of The Cook Political Report. “If you are running against her, your assumption ought to be that they aren’t going to miss anything. And anything they don’t whack you back on is because they decided for some strategic or tactical reason not to.”
On June 14, they got a softball, and they definitely whacked.
The pitch came in the form of two opposition-research memos consisting of selections of previously published reporting and Mrs. Clinton’s public statements. The Obama campaign had compiled the paragraphs and sent them to reporters to raise questions and prompt negative news about the Clintons’ personal financial-disclosure statements. Looking specifically at Mrs. Clinton’s position on outsourcing, one memo highlighted Mrs. Clinton’s investment in an Indian billing company under the heading “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)’s Personal, Financial and Political Ties to India.”
A source in Mr. Obama’s campaign argued that the Punjab reference alluded to a joke Mrs. Clinton has told—that she could win a Senate seat in the northern Indian state because of her strong ties to the Indian community. But that humor was certainly lost when The Times published portions of the memo on Friday.
By the time the re-packaged story made its way around liberal blog world, it had morphed from a negative analysis about Mrs. Clinton’s finances to a narrative about Mr. Obama’s failure to live up to the greater virtues he had set for himself and his campaign. The Obama campaign scrambled, issuing apologies, making overtures to their publicly enraged South Asian supporters and watching with frustration as Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, no stranger to the dark arts of opposition research, assumed the role of aggrieved party.
Former rivals of Mrs. Clinton, reduced to road kill under the wheels of her fund-raising and press machine, watched the whole situation with a sense of bemusement.
“The Clinton campaign is well-practiced at playing victim—if there is anyone out there who is known for their oppo-research, it is Clinton,” said Rob Ryan, the former spokesman for the Republican former mayor of Yonkers, John Spencer. Last year, Mr. Spencer unsuccessfully challenged Mrs. Clinton in the Senate race, during which time Mrs. Clinton’s chief spokesman and senior strategist, Mr. Wolfson, repeatedly (and successfully) characterized him as a madman.
At times in the past, the Clinton machine has been too ferocious for its own good.
In February, Mr. Wolfson responded sharply and publicly to a Maureen Dowd column in The Times in which David Geffen, a Hollywood mogul who left the Clinton camp for Mr. Obama, criticized Mrs. Clinton as overambitious and dishonest.
But that early attempt to knock Mr. Obama off the principled pedestal of “a new kind of politics,” and down to the wrestling mat with Mrs. Clinton, was widely seen as an over- aggressive reach that breathed extra life into a negative column about Mrs. Clinton.
One of those critics at the time was veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who basically said that they had made a major gaffe. But after seeing how the Clinton campaign handled the Obama memos, Mr. Shrum said they had clearly gotten their act together.
“They are very effective and efficient and disciplined and learned from the Geffen episode,” said Mr. Shrum. “They turned a story about the finances of Hillary into a story about Obama’s negative tactics.”
The sense of defeat at the hands of the Clinton press operation was palpable in the Obama camp. The Obama campaign source insisted on Monday that the memo contained plenty of worthwhile questions about Mrs. Clinton’s position on outsourcing and the lack of transparency in Bill Clinton’s business practices, but then declined an invitation to articulate those questions.
The campaign had taken its lumps and just wanted to move on.
Mr. Jordan said that other factors contributed to what amounted to such a clean and professional hit on Mr. Obama. Chief among them, he said, was that the Obama campaign had “willfully and cheerfully tied its hands when it comes to the normal hand-to-hand combat of Presidential campaigns.” But he also argued that a “New York–centric” press corps has seemed absolutely eager to accommodate Mrs. Clinton’s spin.
“The press corps has happily played along. They are looking for conflict and the Clinton campaign has created it,” said Mr. Jordan. He said that the combination of the aggressiveness of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and the hometown attitude of the press “conceivably could affect the race a lot.”
Adam Nagourney, The Times’ chief political reporter, said that more than anything else, the situation of the leaked memos reflected the case-by-case basis and fluidity with which reporters need to judge what to do with the copious amounts of opposition research that rolls in from most campaigns nearly every morning.
“I did not have to deal with that situation. If I had, I would have felt really creeped-out,” said Mr. Nagourney about how The Times obtained the memos from the Clinton campaign. “In other words, if the Obama campaign had come to me and said, ‘Do you want this information?’, and I had said, ‘No,’ and the Clinton campaign came to me and said, ‘We have this information, do you want it so we can nail Obama for putting it out?’, I don’t know what I would have done.”
The story carrying the Obama memos ran on A1 of Friday’s Times.
Speaking generally about the political climate a hostile press office can create, Matthew Hiltzik, a former spokesman for the New York Democratic Party who worked on Mrs. Clinton’s first Senate campaign, made the comparison to a dominant football team.
“When you are playing a great team,” said Mr. Hiltzik, “there is even greater pressure to seize an opportunity and even greater pressure to not make the game-changing mistake. The margin for error is much smaller. That can play with your head.”
Just ask Mr. Obama, which is exactly what the editorial board of The Des Moines Register did as he campaigned in the crucial primary state of Iowa on June 18.
“I thought it was stupid and caustic,” Mr. Obama responded when asked about his campaign’s memo. “It was a screw-up on the part of our research team.”
—additional reporting by Azi Paybarah