Surrogate Silliness

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

ENOUGH ALREADY! The country's at war, the economy is struggling, oil prices are surging. The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have dramatically different approaches to all this and more. And we've just concluded Day Three of the latest surrogate pseudo-drama: "Gen. Wesley K. Clark: Stupid Comment or Deliberate Slight?"

Casting guilt by surrogate association is a bipartisan affliction, so ours is a nonpartisan lament: Cut it out! The Clark blooper is no more revealing than was the Charles R. Black Jr. pseudo-outrage or the James A. Johnson ersatz scandal. What Gen. Clark had to say -- that Sen. John McCain's military experience was not "a qualification to be president" -- was stupid, substantively and politically. If Sen. Barack Obama's campaign somehow whispered in Gen. Clark's ear to adopt this approach, the campaign has obviously been taken over by people other than the smooth crew that helped Mr. Obama win the Democratic nomination.

You don't have to be David Axelrod to know that Gen. Clark's remark was not helpful. Mr. Obama isn't going to win a contest over whose wartime service is more relevant or valuable; he's certainly not going to benefit by looking as if he's promoting that line of attack. By the same token, there's also no reason to believe that Gen. Clark's blunder has anything to do with Mr. Obama's fitness for the presidency. Had Mr. Obama not immediately repudiated the comments, that would be noteworthy. Under the circumstances, we find it hard to understand why this was even a one-day story.

We felt the same way about l'affaire Black. Mr. Black's links to Mr. McCain are closer than Mr. Obama's to Gen. Clark. Big deal. Mr. Black made a political observation about the implications of a terrorist incident for the presidential race. He repeated the conventional, albeit debatable, wisdom -- that a terrorist attack might help the Republican -- but made the mistake of doing so out loud and to a reporter. Big deal. No rational person could possibly think this means that Mr. Black wishes for a preelection attack, no less Mr. McCain. Again, the comments dominated the news for days.

Ditto Mr. Johnson. Like many people, he made a lot of money at Fannie Mae at a time when its accounting was messed up. As a wealthy person, he got a mortgage that may or may not have been more favorable than the mortgages available to other wealthy people. Mr. Obama handled the controversy clumsily. But, once more, this episode tells us nothing important about Mr. Obama. Mr. Johnson as Washington insider? Please. Mr. Obama sought the help of a Democrat who had experience vetting potential vice presidential running mates. If Mr. Obama needed surgery, what would it say if he picked a doctor who hadn't previously performed the operation he needed?

This might sound awfully quaint. It may be pitifully naive. But would it be too much to ask for just a little more focus on what the candidates themselves have to say--and less on the surrogate bloopers du jour?


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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