By Alec MacGillis and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 24, 2008
DILLON, S.C., Jan. 23 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign aired a new radio ad here Wednesday that repeated a discredited charge against Sen. Barack Obama, in what some Democrats said is part of an increasing pattern of hardball politics by her and former president Bill Clinton.
The ad takes one line from an Obama interview -- "The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years" -- and juxtaposes it with GOP policies that Obama has never advocated.
"Really?" a voice-over says. "Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street. Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?"
The Clinton campaign argued that it was simply quoting Obama. But in the original context, Obama was describing the dominance of Republican ideas in the 1980s and 1990s, without saying he supported them, and asserting that those ideas are of no use today.
The ad marked the escalation of a bitter fight between the two Democratic front-runners that has taken on a new dimension because of the involvement of Bill Clinton, the titular leader of the party. While his wife campaigns elsewhere, the former president has been making daily appearances in South Carolina in anticipation of the state's Democratic primary on Saturday, and he has adopted the role of attacking his wife's opponent the way a vice presidential candidate traditionally does in a general election.
Responding to the negative ad, Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, accused the Clintons of using the "politics of deception," and he compared the former president to the late Lee Atwater, a Republican operative from South Carolina who was known for his tough tactics.
In response, Bill Clinton said Harpootlian's comments were a distraction, and he accused the Obama campaign of funneling smears through the media.
"They are feeding you this because they know this is what you want to cover. This is what you live for," he told CNN reporter Jessica Yellin, who asked him for a response to Harpootlian at an appearance in South Carolina. "They just spin you up on this and you happily go along," Clinton said. As aides steered him away, he scolded: "Shame on you."
In Washington, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who endorsed Obama last week, castigated the former president for what he called his "glib cheap shots" at Obama, saying both sides should settle down but placing the blame predominantly on Clinton.
"That's beneath the dignity of a former president," Leahy told reporters, adding: "He is not helping anyone, and certainly not helping the Democratic Party."
That concern was also voiced by some neutral Democrats, who said that the former president's aggressive role, along with the couple's harsh approach recently, threatens to divide the party in the general election.
A few prominent Democrats, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), have spoken to the former president about the force of his Obama critiques. There is some fear within the party that if Obama becomes the nominee, he could emerge personally battered and politically compromised. And there is concern that a Clinton victory could come at a cost -- particularly a loss of black voters, who could blame her for Obama's defeat and stay home in November.
"I'm not underestimating that this could be divisive, but I think both camps know how important this is, that it doesn't go beyond repair," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection next year, who is unaligned.
"Our party has to remain united -- that's the most important thing for November," she said. "The bottom line is, all this could cause a rift, but I hope it doesn't."
Earlier this week, the Obama team began a new effort to deal with what it says has been a string of misleading or untrue attacks from the Clintons over the past three weeks. His campaign has begun pushing back harder, trying to puncture the allegations more quickly -- a risky approach, because it involves questioning the credibility of the Democratic Party's most prominent figures of the past two decades, but one that Obama strategists believe they can no longer avoid.
Among the allegations against Obama are that his opposition to the war in Iraq is overstated, that he is weak on abortion rights, that his links to a nuclear energy company undermine his opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada and that he supports a trillion-dollar tax increase on "hardworking Americans" because he is open to raising the limit on salary taxed for Social Security.
Harpootlian, a prominent voice in South Carolina politics and a onetime Clinton supporter, said the Clintons' recent tactics have been "all about deceit."
"This is harmful to the party, it's harmful to the state. And I understand they want to win, but this is about -- should be about -- a competition of ideas, not who can pull the hammer harder," he said.
For some rank-and-file Democrats, the tack against Obama is prompting a reevaluation of Clinton and her husband. Bill Clinton gained enormous popularity among Democrats in the 1990s partly because of his ability to achieve tactical triumphs over Republicans. Now, watching the use of rough-edged tactics against a fellow Democrat, some of those who supported him then are having second thoughts.
"They're obvious distortions," said Ralph Byrd, a retired electrical engineer in Greenville, S.C., who voted for Clinton in 1992 and 1996. "We've had enough spin in the White House the last eight years, and we don't need any more. It's deliberate distortion that we don't need."
The Clinton campaign has countered that Obama has shaded the record at times. He regularly makes fun of Clinton for saying in a recent debate that she was glad that a 2001 bankruptcy reform bill that she voted for did not pass, though what she was trying to say was that she regretted her vote.
More often, such assertions from Obama come in discussions of his own r¿sum¿ or proposals, not in attacks on his rivals. He says his health-care plan offers "universal" coverage, though many experts agree that it would leave millions out, at least in the initial years, because it does not include a personal insurance mandate. And he has played down his past support for a single-payer health-care system, even though the record reflects statements in favor of such an approach.
So far, it is the Clinton rhetoric that has caused queasiness, although elected officials said they are hopeful that it will eventually cool down. "Some statements that were said could be worded differently," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), who has not endorsed a candidate in the primary, said of the Clintons. But in general, he said, "it's a competitive campaign, good for the Democratic Party and good for our country."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, who represents the big Feb. 5 primary prize of California, called the campaign "very rough, very tough" and added: "It's a fight to the finish."
"People want authenticity -- they're getting authenticity here," said Boxer, who is neutral in the race. "But I don't see it as a long-term problem. People want to see if you're thrown a punch, how you are going to react. Can you stand up? Do you wither under criticism? Now, I do think it's better for us as a party if we all stick to a debate on the issue. But I think the candidates know that."
Kornblut reported from Washington. Staff writers Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray in Washington contributed to this report.