Bob Bauer and the Return of Mustard Gas

The vicious reaction of Barack Obama’s lawyer to the emergence of an anti-Obama 527 group calls to mind yet another

The vicious reaction of Barack Obama’s lawyer to the emergence of an anti-Obama 527 group calls to mind yet another parallel between this year’s Clinton-Obama race and the 1984 contest between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale.

Mondale, the Hillary-like machine/establishment candidate of 1984, was—like every other candidate back in those days—accepting federal matching funds for his campaign, meaning that his primary season spending was capped at $20 million.

Like Hillary’s brain trust, the Mondale campaign never anticipated a prolonged primary season, believing that a frontloaded calendar (which was rammed through the DNC by Mondale allies) would hand the nomination to their man by early March. They spent their money accordingly.

But then Gary Hart, the Obama-ish reformer/insurgent, caught fire, posting a startling New Hampshire landslide and following it up with a string of wins that pushed Mondale to the brink of extinction. Mondale was able to stem the Hart tide on Super Tuesday in early March, but that only ensured that the two candidates would be locked in a war of attrition that would last into June.

That put Mondale in roughly the same cash-hungry state that the Clinton campaign is now in—on a much smaller scale, granted. The Mondale campaign’s solution: a series of political action committees (PACs) around the country that were funded by Mondale’s organized labor allies. The PACs were free of most of the onerous fund-raising restrictions that the Mondale campaign faced and essentially allowed him to spend well above the $20 million cap.

Similarly, the anti-Obama American Leadership Project is basically free to raise money with impunity. As with the pro-Mondale PACs of ’84, there is one catch: It must be fully independent of any of the candidates.

Which brings us to another ’84/’08 parallel: Questions about the independence of the “independent” groups.

Obama’s lawyer, as our Jason Horowitz documented earlier today, is loudly proclaiming that the American Leadership Project’s backers will face “unbearable” and “life-changing” retribution from authorities, asserting that their actions represent “absolutely a cold, calculated move to violate the law for the benefit of the candidate.”

Hart’s lawyers played the same game 24 years ago, blasting the 510 delegates that Mondale won in states where the PACs had spent money as “tainted” and threatening a challenge to their seating at the national convention.

The tactit proved a success for Hart. His legal team had privately concluded that Mondale’s violations were technical and that challenging delegations was a ludicrous idea, but they kept that opinion out of the press, which ate up the story and largely sided with Hart.

Mondale, in turn, found his message drowned out amid media questions about his campaign’s role in the PACs. And Hart, who had lost a series of large industrial state primaries to Mondale, began winning again.

Finally, an exasperated Mondale summoned one of his campaign chiefs and said of the PACs: “This is mustard gas. This thing’s a swamp and we have to get out of it.” Bob Bauer and the Return of Mustard Gas