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Obama the Uniter?

It’s getting mighty ugly mighty fast in the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday Howard Wolfson, in response to the Obama campaign pushing for the release of Clinton’s tax returns, said, “I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for President.” For those who inhabit HillaryLand, to be compared to Ken Starr is slightly worse than to be compared to Charles Manson or Lucifer.

Returning serve, yesterday we learned that Samantha Power, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, apologized for describing Hillary Clinton as a “monster” during an interview with a Scottish newspaper. She added this: “You just look at her and think: ergh . . . The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.”

Welcome to a race against the Clintons, where the politics of hope quickly gives way to top aides calling her a “monster” and of being deceitful.

One might have some sympathy for Obama. After all, he is by all accounts a decent man who is running against a ruthless political operation. Obama’s problem, though, is that he has portrayed himself as a figure who will unify America, who will “turn the page” on the ugliness of the last decade, and who will not use negative attacks against his opponents. That is an admirable sentiment, and it has an appeal. But what do you do if your opponent has promised, publicly, to “throw the kitchen sink” at you? How long can you ignore the attacks? At what point do you shift from simply taking punches to throwing them? And when do you make the character of an opponent like Hillary Clinton an issue?

The young Illinois senator is learning what every major political figure eventually does: politics is a contact sport, not a garden party, and it has been since the founding of this Republic. Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history. According to one expert, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

These words shouldn’t be held up as a model for political discourse. Politics, after all, should be at its core a debate about issues and political ideology and the future of the country. Politicians should be judged by the manner in which they, and their aides, conduct themselves. There are tough things that are appropriate to say–and lines you should not cross over.

At the same time, it’s not surprising that in a fiercely contested race which might well decide who will become leader of the most important nation on earth, passions get stoked, harsh words get thrown about, and nasty things are said. High-mindedness can easily give way to a hyper-aggressive effort to set the record straight. And simply to assume, as Obama apparently did, that he would swoop in and magically do away with the “old politics” and the old divisions was both arrogant and naïve.

It turns out being a unifying figure in American politics isn’t as easy as Obama thought. Right now he can’t even unify his own party. And just think: the pounding has only begun. It’s five weeks until the Pennsylvania primary and five months until the Democratic convention. At this pace, Obama and Clinton may match Jefferson and Adams in their level of civility and good manners.

Somewhere, John McCain must be smiling.


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