Obama, the Clintons, and "Lies"
by Trickster, Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 01:21:32 PM EST
Hilzoy, the excellent front-page writer at Obsidian Wings, recently wrote a piece called "Lies and Democracy." "Lies and Democracy" purports to be a piece about how folks are forced to become experts in order to deal with lying politicians, but the bulk of it is focused on the "lies" of Hillary and Bill Clinton.
I don't think the Clintons are "liars." I do think they are "spinners." I also think that every other successful politician is a "spinner," and that most politicians do not stick to the truth so well as do the Clintons. To take a stab at showing that, I want to take Hilzoy's piece, which is the very best and most detailed piece I have run across in either the blogosphere or the MSM, discuss the "lies" that Hilzoy writes about, and show that in each instance the same kind of statements, and worse, come from Obama and his camp.
I choose Obama for mostly obvious reasons. First, if as I posit, all successful politicians take similar liberties with the truth, then it is meaningless in and of itself to show that any particular politician spins/lies, and the only thing that matters is whether politician X spins/lies more/worse than his/her opponent. In other words, the spin of either Clinton and Obama is most usefully looked at as a comparison to the other, as opposed to as an absolute.
Second, Obama invites this comparison with his "new politics" rhetoric, and he has in fact made the very point this week that his "new politics" is above all this diviseness and misleading politics that the Clintons espouse.
Third, it simply has to be another major candidate, or else there's just not enough media scrutiny to google up. Even here, I don't think the google playing field is quite fair, because it is to some extent a reflection of how deeply in Obama's bag the MSM has been throughout most of this campaign. (That, by the way, is not a point I'm trying to prove here. I hope you'll take it as a given, because it has been pretty obvious, but if you disagree with me then please just disagree and move on; my thesis doesn't depend on this point.)
Finally, I choose Hilzoy's piece because it is the most detailed and analytical description of Clinton "lies" that I have found in either the MSM or the blogosphere. In 99% of what I have read, there seems to be a base underlying assumption that the Clintons are inveterate sleezeball liars who can and frequently do say anything that will serve as a useful club against their opponents, and that there is no need to sully the truth of this assumption by actually stating any fact going to show it, when instead all can compete for the prize of using the most extreme rhetoric to describe it. Hilzoy, on the other hand, makes specific charges, backed by analysis and citations, and her piece is worthy of analysis and contrast.
In this analysis, I'm going to start with five assertions:
(1) All politicians spin.
(2) In the real world, if you try to spin your spouse, and s/he figures it out, you can't bag out of trouble by claiming what you said was a spin, not a lie. The rules are different in politics. To accuse your opponent of "lying" is a grave charge in politics, and in fact it is a charge that is almost never made in Democratic primary politics (despite the fact that all successful Democratic politicians spin). In politics, spin is not a lie. That's just the way the game is played.
(3) In judging a politician's degree of guilt in regard to a particular spin/lie, context is important. It is fairest to hold the politician to a stricter standard for prepared speeches, written materials, and paid campaign advertisements than for responses to questions and off-the-cuff remarks. Politicians are human, and humans tend to make lots of mistakes in off-the-cuff remarks.
(4) Similarly, it is fairest to hold the politician to a stricter standard for things s/he said personally than for things that underlings said, and stricter for things that high campaign officials said than that junior campaign officials/unpaid helpers said. A caveat: if your campaign said/did something that gets a lot of publicity, candidate silence can at least to some extent be fairly inferred as tacit approval.
(5) The Clintons never get cut any slack. None.
I can't really prove any of these assertions, although this piece itself is to some extent an effort to support (1). I think history provides very strong support for (2), but showing that history is not the point of this piece. Disagree if you will, because I haven't done the work of proving (2), but if you disagree I think you're wrong. (3) and (4) are unproveable, but I think they are generally held views. If you disagree about them, feel free to chime in. (5) is where this is all at.
Now the actual analysis:
(1) The Reagan Quote
This is an easy one, because Senator Obama himself has made more deceptive descriptions of the quote in question than did either Clinton. (Please see Hilzoy's speech for Obama's original language and for the exact Bill and Hillary Clinton quotes.)
First, let me say something about an aspect of "spin," which is what the Clintons did to this quote. One of the accepted ways to "spin" something is to draw inferences from what someone said, and then describe that quote by using your own inferences as opposed to the speaker's actual words. It's a spin technique of hoary vintage. The focus is on the words themselves, not what the original speaker intended the words to mean, and it's right-down-the-middle spin if the spinner's interpretation is something that can be fairly inferred from the original words.
And that is so of what the Clintons said about Obama's Reagan quotes, but less so of what Obama himself has said.
(1) Hillary said "he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years." If your opponent describes something in glowing tones, it's fair to infer that he likes it. And since every politician who has ever run for office from caveman times on forward has said that he is the "candidate of ideas" who "challenges conventional wisdom," (Example: Barack Obama: "I've been trying to challenge some conventional wisdom. And the purveyors of conventional wisdom have gotten uncomfortable.") I think it's fair to say that Obama was describing Republican ideas in glowing terms. This is absolutely spin and not a lie.
Notice that Hillary said this in response to a debate question. I actually believe she flubbed her wording a little bit, because this attack could've been worded in a way closer to Obama's actual quote while still getting the gist of her attack, e.g., "Senator Obama actually complimented the Republican's twisted way of thinking over the last 10-15 years when he said that the Republicans have been the `party of ideas' over that period."
(2) Bill Clinton was giving a speech when accused Obama of saying that "the Republicans have had all the good ideas," so he doesn't get the lee-way Hillary got. But this is still fair spin. Obama didn't say that the Republicans were "more of a party of ideas than the Democrats," he said they were "the party of ideas," and it is elementary-school English that his use of the definite pronoun implies that there is not another party of ideas, or in other words, that the Republicans had all the good ideas. If you are going to start picking on politicians for word changes of this stripe, you've engaged a rather large task for yourself.
(3) Here's what Obama said in the debate Monday night:
What I said -- and I will provide you with a quote -- what I said was is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to.
Here, Hilzoy I think fell into the same confusion Obama was in Monday night, when he responded to Senator Clinton's words about "the party of ideas" quote by defending his "Reagan" quote. Here's what Obama said about Reagan:
I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times. I do think that for example the 1980s was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.
I don't see anything in that quote that supports the interpretation that Obama was saying that Reagan "was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests." Not even slightly. Nor do I see anything in that quote that even slightly supports the idea that the Reagan agenda was "an agenda I objected to." If any among these three statements is a "lie," this is the one, although I sure wouldn't espouse a fellow Democrat jumping on this statement to call Obama a "liar," nor have the Clintons done so.
Note that, while Obama did say these words in a debate context, and thus gets considerable format-based leeway, he has unfortunately made similar, and other, misstatements on the same subject in set speeches. For example, last Sunday, in South Carolina:
What I said was that Ronald Reagan, back in 1980, was able to tap into the discontent of the American people and he was able to get Democrats to vote Republican -- they were called Reagan Democrats. Remember that? So what I said was, we as Democrats right now should tap into the discontent of Republicans. I want some Obama Republicans!
Sorry, Senator. That's not what you said. Not even close.
I have to say, I don't quite understand Hilzoy's point here. What is it that Bill Clinton said that is alleged to have been a lie? He doesn't deny that Obama came out against the war in 2002--although he doesn't acknowledge it in the quotes she prints, he has done so elsewhere--and I think everything he is saying is true, isn't it? All I can figure is that Hilzoy seems to think Clinton is obliged to explain the context behind Obama's own words in a way that takes some of the edge off the words. But that ain't politics; in politics, you say it, you own it, context be damned, at least unless the cows in the field know what the context was.
The gist of Clinton's comments, I think, were that Obama and Hillary have the same Iraq record in the Senate. From ABC News, 5/17/07:
In fact, Obama's Senate voting record on Iraq is nearly identical to Clinton's. Over the two years Obama has been in the Senate, the only Iraq-related vote on which they differed was the confirmation earlier this year of General George Casey to be Chief of Staff of the Army, which Obama voted for and Clinton voted against.
(By the way, Obama advisor Susan Rice was on MSNBC this morning, falsely claiming that Obama's and Clinton's Iraq voting records "are quite, quite different."
[NOTE: these two cites are from "The Fact Hub" on Hillary Clinton's website. I tried to find them elsewhere on the web, but I think that for straight quotations of news sources (as opposed to anything opinionated), "The Fact Hub" is reliable enough.]
So if Bill Clinton took Obama's remarks out of context, has Obama taken remarks by Bill or Hillary Clinton out of context? Well, yes, and I'll give you a written example, from an editorial written by Senator Obama discussing Lieberman Kyle:
Above all, it must be done through tough and direct diplomacy with Iran, which I have supported, and which Sen. Clinton has called "naive and irresponsible."
This rather badly misrepresents Senator Clinton's statements at the CNN YouTube debate where she and Obama clashed on this subject (italicization added):
Clinton, who on the campaign trail has blasted the Bush administration for not engaging Iran and Syria directly, responded to the question by promising "vigorous diplomacy," including using high level envoys. But she said she would not meet with such leaders in her first year before knowing what their intentions would be. "We're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro [of Cuba] and Hugo Chavez [of Venezuela] and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be," Clinton said. "I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes." Both campaigns issued memorandums the next day highlighting talking points on the exchange and criticizing the other. That was followed by dueling interviews with Iowa's Quad-City Times. "I thought that was very irresponsible and frankly naive to say you would commit to meeting with Chavez and Castro or others within the first year," Clinton told the paper.
(3) The Present Votes
Unlike the first two of Hilzoy's points, I think there actually is a there there on this one.
But it is worthy of note, that not all of Illinois' NOW sisterhood feel the same way as those interviewed in the piece. In fact, Illinois NOW has endorsed Clinton, and the organization's website has this to say:
During Senator Obama's 2004 senate campaign, the Illinois NOW PAC did not recommend the endorsement of Obama for U.S. Senate because he refused to stand up for a woman's right to choose and repeatedly voted `present' on important legislation.
As a State Senator, Barack Obama voted `present' on seven abortion bills, including a ban on 'partial birth abortion,' two parental notification laws and three 'born alive' bills. In each case, the right vote was clear, but Senator Obama chose political cover over standing and fighting for his convictions.
"When we needed someone to take a stand, Senator Obama took a pass," said [Illinois NOW Presidnet] Grabenhofer. "He wasn't there for us then and we don't expect him to be now."
It's also worthy of note that the Obama camp's rationale, that his "present" votes were part of a strategy, is not a fact of indubitable accuracy, as Hilzoy herself commendably and honestly notes in her piece:
The Tribune last year found few lawmakers remembered such a strategy and many of those who joined with Obama to vote present were, like him, in politically safe districts.
The strategy, as described by an Obama proponent Hilzoy links to, doesn't really make all that much sense to me:
At the time, Republicans were trying to force Democrats from conservative districts to register politically controversial no votes. Senator Obama initially resisted the strategy, as he wanted to vote against the anti-abortion measures, but decided to work with our strategy to help defeat these anti-choice bills. It is important to note that a present vote on a bad bill is essentially the same as a "no" vote, as the bill needs "yes" votes to pass. However, it is difficult for Republicans to use "present" votes in their campaign literature against Democrats from moderate and conservative districts.
OK, I understand why they would ask folks in swing districts to vote "present" to keep the Republicans from targeting their seats. But Obama wasn't from a swing district. Why would he need to vote present, as opposed to sending a clear signal by voting "no?" And if the answer is supposed to be that it would "provide cover" to lawmakers in swing districts, how so? What on earth difference would it make to their campaigns how he voted? If anything, it seems to me that they would be tarred by association with the black liberal who voted as they did.
You know, I'm not an Illinois lawmaker or women's right activist. But there are clearly differing views on this from those who are. If the Clinton campaign put together a mailer echoing language from the current President of Illinois NOW, which is pretty much what they did, did they have an obligation to canvass the Illinois legislature and women's rights movements to see whether there were opposing views? Scarcely. Time and money is short in campaigns; you go with what you've got and then defend it if it's attacked.
The fact that certain interest and advocacy groups have a different interpretation is a mighty thin basis for an accusation of "lying" when there is a believable basis for the statement(s) that constituted the so-called "lie. So let's characterize this "lie" as buying into the beliefs of one group and publicizing them when there is in fact another group that believes differently. As an example of that coming from the Obama camp, I will merely give you Obama's and his campaign's frequent assertions that the Clintons are big liars, including last week's South Carolina radio ad claiming that Hillary would "say anything" to get elected. That's buying in the 90s right-wing framework of the Clintons, and ignoring an immense amount of evidence to the contrary.
(4) The Teachers' Union Lawsuits
Here, Hilzoy works the math! And tells us that President Clinton's claim that strip workers' votes would be represented five-fold is false.
So what should I do? I'll correct Hilzoy's math!
The at-large precincts elected 492 state delegates of the state's 5407 total, approximately 9.1% of the total delegates. 117,599 Democrats voted in the caucus total, but only about 2600 of them voted at the strip sites, about 2.2% of the total voters.
(By the way, where Hilzoy went wrong was in relying on the Los Vegas Sun piece that predicted 10,000 strip participants vice the actual 2600 who wound up voting there.)
So Clinton was wrong: those voters didn't get 5X representation. They only got a little over 4X representation (i.e., 9.1% of the delegates from 2.2% of the voters)! Is this slightly-off prediction a "lie"? I don't think so.
I'll have to admit that I don't know of any slightly-off predictions by Obama. So I'll just let this one ride without a counterpoint.
(5) Social Security
Hilzoy's #5 is about a Clinton mailer claiming that Obama's proposal to abolish or amend the cap on Social Security represents "a trillion dollar tax increase on America's hard working families." Here, I'm not really going to ride to Hillary's rescue. The mailer is rank demagoguery that goes against ingrained Democratic ideals and verges on outright falsehood. But I am playing an advocacy role here, so, having spasmodically interjected that bit of open-handedness, I will make a few points in favor of Clinton and the flyer.
(1) The most important point is that we have no idea from Hilzoy's piece, or from what else I have read about this flier on the internet, who exactly put this piece out. Yes, it's from the Clinton campaign, but that covers a very wide range, and I don't really hold the candidate responsible for what local volunteers do (e.g., I don't hold Senator Obama responsible for the reprehensible "Democrat for a Day" fliers his campaign put out in Nevada and Florida). But this ad has gotten a fair bit of publicity and Clinton has not so far as I know made any effort to disclaim it or walk back from it (as Obama has made no effort I'm aware of to disown the "Democrat for a Day" ads). Think through those implications on your own.
(2) In assuming that Obama would only tax those earning $200,000 or more, Hilzoy ignored the part of this Obama quote that I am italicizing:
There might be some exemptions, but once people are making over $200,000 to $250,000, they can afford to pay a little more in payroll tax.
(3) I agree with Hilzoy that the attack would be more honest if "over the next ten years" were included, but OTOH that's a very common Washingtonian shorthand. "Over the next ten years" is often excluded from tax cost statements, because that is the standard period over which such costs are spoken about among lawmakers.
So have there been any demagogic Obama campaign ads? Ya, I think so. Let's take one that got my dander up, the Spanish-language ad targeted to Spanish-speaking Nevadans, that said "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people. . . . Hillary Clinton is shameless." That ad run by outside group UNITE HERE got immense publicity in the run-up to the Nevada caucuses, but the Obama camp made no effort whatsoever to denounce it or walk back from it.
As the Edwards campaign put it:
He loudly and repeatedly attacked independent ads by unions in Iowa as the product of special interests. But when a different outside group starts running ads on his behalf in Nevada, there's not a peep from him or his campaign. It must be because he's burning up the phone lines calling the head of UNITE HERE personally to demand he pulls the ads down right away.
Conclusion is that this was a lot of work and I just don't have some literarily grand bang-up finish left in me. But I think I've at least made a good start on my point that the slippery, slimy, odious, reptilian Clintons are no worse than any other politicians and that Saint Barack is no better than they, if not my real point that they are actually a bit cleaner than he is.
Thanks to Hilzoy for apparently being the only political writer on the planet who bothered to give me something meaty to tie into on the subject of the Clinton's so-called lies. But boos to all the other political writers, who start with their conclusion and completely leave out the evidence that would prove it.
And to those of you still reading, if I can at least get you to start looking at the evidence instead of just always believing the worst about the Clintons, then I will have succeeded with this piece beyond my wildest imaginings.