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Fair Is Fair

By Geoff Garin
Friday, April 25, 2008

What's wrong with this picture? Our campaign runs a TV ad Monday saying that the presidency is the toughest job in the world and giving examples of challenges presidents have faced and challenges the next president will face -- including terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mounting economic dislocation, and soaring gas prices. The ad makes no reference -- verbal, visual or otherwise -- to our opponent; it simply asks voters to think about who they believe is best able to stand the heat. And we are accused, by some in the media, of running a fear-mongering, negative ad.

The day before this ad went on the air, David Axelrod, Barack Obama's chief strategist, appeared with me on "Meet the Press." He was asked whether Hillary Clinton would bring "the changes necessary" to Washington, and his answer was "no." This was in keeping with the direct, personal character attacks that the Obama campaign has leveled against Clinton from the beginning of this race -- including mailings in Pennsylvania that describe her as "the master of a broken system."

So let me get this straight.

On the one hand, it's perfectly decent for Obama to argue that only he has the virtue to bring change to Washington and that Clinton lacks the character and the commitment to do so. On the other hand, we are somehow hitting below the belt when we say that Clinton is the candidate best able to withstand the pressures of the presidency and do what's right for the American people, while leaving the decisions about Obama's preparedness to the voters.

Who made up those rules? And who would ever think they are fair?

I am not making any bones about the fact that our campaign has pointed out what we believe are legitimate differences between Clinton and Obama on important issues. We have spoken out when we thought the Obama campaign made false distinctions, such as when it ran advertising in Pennsylvania on standing up to oil companies, particularly when Clinton was the one who did stand up to the oil companies by voting against the Bush-Cheney energy bill. And we believed it was appropriate to debate Obama's comments about working people in small towns, because they expressed a view of small-town Americans with which Hillary Clinton strongly disagrees.

But throughout that debate, Clinton deliberately focused on the content of Obama's comments without making sweeping statements about his character.

It's an important distinction. The Obama campaign has chosen from its inception not to treat Clinton with the same respect. In fact, the Obama campaign has made an unprecedented assault on her character -- not her positions, but her character -- saying one thing about raising the tone of political discourse but acting quite differently in its treatment of Clinton.

Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, held a conference call with reporters and called Hillary "one of the most secretive politicians in America today" -- a striking personal charge in the era of Dick Cheney.

Axelrod described Clinton as having "a special interest obsession."

Obama himself has joined the character assault from time to time, saying, for example, that Clinton "doesn't have the sense that things need to change in Washington" -- a patently false and demeaning observation.

In the Philadelphia debate last week, Obama incorrectly said that his campaign addressed Hillary's misstatements on Bosnia only when asked to by reporters. In fact, Obama's campaign has organized several conference calls on the topic, including one this past weekend in which the featured speaker said that Clinton lacks "the moral authority to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day" (a statement the Obama campaign thankfully repudiated after we called it on it). Even though many reporters participated in those calls, Obama's misstatement in Philadelphia was almost completely ignored.

The bottom line is that one campaign really has engaged in a mean-spirited, unfair character attack on the other candidate -- but it has been Obama's campaign, not ours. You would be hard-pressed to find significant analogues from our candidate, our senior campaign officials or our advertising to the direct personal statements that the Obama campaign has made about Clinton.

The problem is that the Obama campaign holds itself to a different standard than the one to which it holds us -- and sometimes the media do, too.

Hillary Clinton is a strong and determined person, and she will continue to discuss real solutions to America's problems and the need for strong leadership to implement those solutions -- even if she must play by a different set of rules than Barack Obama. But wouldn't it be better if in this campaign what's good for the goose were also good for the gander? After all, in America, fair is supposed to be fair.

The writer is a strategist for Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign.

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