Parsing Obama’s ‘Punjab’ Flub

“You know, it’s a new wrinkle. I never thought I’d make a killing on some guy’s ‘integrity.’”

Thus spake Sidney Falco, the slimy antihero of the classic mid-century study in seedy noir ambition, Sweet Smell of Success. But it’s also an apt motto for the Democratic primary field, which can’t seem to go about the basic business of negative campaigning without generating unruly heaps of sanctimony on all sides.

Take the miniature uproar over a piece of background opposition research from the Barack Obama campaign addressing Senator Hillary Clinton’s position on outsourcing. The Obama release—originally leaked to journalists on a not-for-attribution basis—found its way into the in-boxes of the Hillary campaign team, which promptly forwarded it on to New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney, minus the clumsy off-the-record disclaimer. The dispatch bore the headline “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)’s personal, financial and political ties to India.”

In no time, two intersecting story lines took hold: Mr. Obama, the squeaky-clean prophet of a new politics, was caught out in a rather sleazy brand of very old-style negative campaigning. And to make matters worse, the press release seemed to be playing a crass New Economy race card—or at least trafficking in xenophobic caricatures of an Indian takeover of U.S. politics. By the beginning of this week, these interlocked charges of hypocrisy and ethnic demagoguery caromed so widely through the media and the blogosphere that the Illinois Senator had to pull back from the offending campaign document, calling it “stupid and caustic” and a breach of his “long-standing support and friendships within the Indian-American community.”

Yet both charges seem bogus. Anyone reading on in the actual text of the Obama release would discover that New York’s junior Senator had jokingly referred to herself as a prospective Senator from Punjab at an Indian-American fund-raising event. It’s true that the headline in question wasn’t a model of clarity—but it’s also hard to see how the same word choice in the hands of one candidate is a show of playful ethnic solidarity, while becoming a telltale sign of bigotry the moment another one takes it up in the spirit of criticism.

And as for Mr. Obama contradicting his promise to deliver a “new politics,” there’s nothing in that term—sweeping and ill-defined as it is—that rules out going aggressively at an opponent’s policies. A pleasant-sounding campaign theme places no candidate under an obligation of perpetual saintliness—let along an obligation to lie still and lose. And it appears yet again the case that press commentators hold would-be Democratic leaders to a far higher, and indeed artificial, standard of conduct compared to sloganeers on the G.O.P. side of the aisle. Anyone recall George W. Bush’s 2000 vow to “change the tone” in Washington? That vow now lies mangled and forgotten in history’s dustbin, right alongside that entertaining 2000 promise of a “more humble” foreign policy in a Bush administration.

Yet since this hubub concerns a Democratic presidential aspirant, there must be extended fretting about high standards going unmet. But what was it, in the end, that this horridly gauche campaign document was actually saying? That both Hillary Clinton and her husband have extensive blind-trust investments in Indian companies that outsource jobs from the U.S. to India, and that both have pulled down hefty speaking fees from such firms, and from their U.S. counterparts who want to keep their work forces young and underpaid with steady infusions of engineers and software specialists from the South Asian subcontinent. While all this information came bearing the superficial appearance—and snidely insinuating tone—of a heavy-breathing personal attack, it was actually addressing a matter of serious policy concern, especially to American workers in the software industry. And the Clintons’ financial ties to Indian subcontractors of cheap tech labor are especially germane, it seems, as the Senate weighs a plan to double existing quotas for H-1B visas in the new immigration package—the extended-stay documents that permit U.S. tech giants to import I.T. talent from overseas while kissing off many older, higher-wage U.S. workers.

Parsing Obama’s ‘Punjab’ Flub