Commentary Magazine

Wrightgate v. Snipergate

Almost two weeks ago, Barack Obama gave his landmark speech refusing to cut ties with radical pastor Jeremiah Wright. Only days after Obama publicly accepted Wright as a flawed brother-in-arms, Hillary Clinton was caught giving an outlandishly exaggerated account of a 1996 trip she made to war-torn Bosnia. Now Obama’s lead over Hillary among Democrats is at its high for the year—so far. A new Gallup poll shows Obama leading Hillary 52 to 42 percent. What is it about the Democratic electorate and the two candidates that accounts for Barack Obama’s seeming triumph? In other words, why do Democratic voters consider Wrightgate less problematic than Snipergate?

At least part of the answer has to do with political ingenuity and damage control. Immediately following the release of Rev. Wright’s anti-American rants, Barack Obama made a few television appearances in which he claimed limited knowledge of Wright’s more radical sermons. These appearances were the worst of Obama’s campaign. He doesn’t bend the truth convincingly. He looked awkward and unsure as he offered very hazy qualifiers about his own attendance at Trinity United Church. Realizing that this didn’t work, he took some time, regrouped and came forth with the most extraordinary and unprecedented speech in recent electoral history. It was a gamble, true, but “deny, deny” was a sure loser for him. Among Democratic voters the gamble worked. By painting Wright’s divisive and paranoid sermon as symptomatic of a larger strain on American citizenship, Obama brought himself and his delusional spiritual mentor down to the level of average Democrats and their slightly wacky relatives. Then, in talking about the work we all need to do to get past race in America, he elevated the common voter to the level of a history-changing politician. The very concept of denial was beside the point.

By contrast, when Hillary was caught dead-to-rights for making up her Tuzla tale, she first stuck to her story and then said, simply, that she misspoke. When the questions kept coming, she blamed the gaffe on sleep deprivation. The contrast between the imaginative effort that went into the Bosnian sniper story and the apathy that followed was downright insulting. Her throwaway excuse about sleeplessness wasn’t just ineffective. It demonstrated a kind of contempt for voters who dared to request accountability.

But the fact is Hillary had no choice. There was no thoughtful way out of the Bosnia fib. While the Wright controversy offered Obama just enough wiggle room to compose a compelling (and manipulative) story about the good and bad in all of us, Hillary faced a stark binary reality. There was her story, and there was the truth. The extent of her fabrication was so indisputable that no Clintonesque redefining of “is” would do. So, the record stood and she went into damage control.

Interestingly, the different binds in which the two candidates found themselves reflect exactly what they considered their respective campaign missions. Hillary thought she had to solidify the commitment of her base. This base, she knew, was already aware of her propensity for tall tales. The accuracy required of truthfulness, she figured, was a waste of energy better spent on other things—like reminding people she’d spent eight years “in” the White House. Obama, on the other hand, set out to find new voters. The ingenuity on display throughout his campaign sprung from this need to keep making headway. Meanwhile, the Clinton camp hit cruise control and found itself in the slow lane.

If the notion of change was ever taken seriously amongst Democrats during this primary (and that’s a big if), then Obama’s candidacy should get more credit for being novel than for being a mere novelty. Without a legislative record of change, he took a daring approach to campaigning—of necessity. Hillary’s “old-style” of  politics didn’t merely prove to be a liability in that it tarnished her perception amongst voters; her sense of entitlement, reliance on recognition, and dependence on built-in support fostered a laziness that will probably have been her undoing.

Hillary has entrenched what’s left of her base, though. Another recent poll shows that 28 percent of her supporters would vote for McCain in a general election if Obama became the Democratic nominee. A figure like that is born of complaining, not campaigning. Hillary managed to convince her supporters that Obama was everything she said. It just never occurred to her to go after those who weren’t listening. So while Obama has more voters, Hillary’s are more aggrieved. That’s a distinctively Clintonian sort of victory.

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