Some Democrats are apparently not waiting for Barack Obama to lose the presidential election before starting the inevitable recriminations about whose fault it was. Whether writing strictly on his own hook or as a result of conversations with campaign officials, New York Times political writer Matt Bai has fired the first shot in what may turn out to be a very nasty battle over who deserves the lion’s share of the blame for what may turn out to be a November disaster for the Democrats. That the Times would publish a piece on October 24 that takes as its starting point the very real possibility that the president will lose, and that blame for that loss needs to be allocated, is astonishing enough. But that their nominee for scapegoat is the man who is almost certainly the most popular living Democrat is the sort of thing that is not only shocking, but might be regarded as a foretaste of the coming battle to control the party in 2016.
Bai’s choice for the person who steered the president wrong this year is none other than former President Bill Clinton, who has widely been credited for having helped produce a post-convention boost for the Democrats. Clinton’s speech on behalf of Obama was viewed, with good reason, as being far more effective than anything the president or anyone else said on his behalf this year. But Bai points to Clinton as the primary advocate within high Democratic circles for changing the party’s strategy from one of bashing Mitt Romney as an inauthentic flip-flopper to one that centered on trying to assert that he was a conservative monster. Given that Romney demolished that false image in one smashing debate performance in Denver that seems to have changed the arc of the election, Clinton’s advice seems ripe for second-guessing right now. But we have to ask why Bai thinks Clinton was the one who single-handedly forced the change, and what is motivating those feeding the reporter this information?
Here’s the gist of Bai’s blame-Clinton thesis:
You may recall that last spring, just after Mr. Romney locked up the Republican nomination, Mr. Obama’s team abruptly switched its strategy for how to define him. Up to then, the White House had been portraying Mr. Romney much as George W. Bush had gone after John Kerry in 2004 – as inauthentic and inconstant, a soulless climber who would say anything to get the job.
But it was Mr. Clinton who forcefully argued to Mr. Obama’s aides that the campaign had it wrong. The best way to go after Mr. Romney, the former president said, was to publicly grant that he was the “severe conservative” he claimed to be, and then hang that unpopular ideology around his neck.
In other words, Mr. Clinton counseled that independent voters might forgive Mr. Romney for having said whatever he had to say to win his party’s nomination, but they would be far more reluctant to vote for him if they thought they were getting the third term of George W. Bush. Ever since, the Obama campaign has been hammering Mr. Romney as too conservative, while essentially giving him a pass for having traveled a tortured path on issues like health care reform, abortion and gay rights.
This is clearly intended to absolve the anonymous Obama aides for making a decision that they — and the president — must have signed off on before it was implemented. Bai goes to great lengths to take them off the hook, and even compares their position to a ballplayer who would reject advice from Derek Jeter. In other words Bai is saying that anyone, even really smart political operatives like those working in Obama’s Chicago headquarters, or the top guys themselves like David Axelrod or David Plouffe, had no choice but to bow to the 42nd president’s wisdom.
Bai is right on target when he notes that the strategy — regardless of whose bright idea it was — was a clunker. While there is no guarantee that calling Romney a flip-flopper would have worked better, the investment of tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads trying to convince Americans that the Republican was a heartless plutocrat who abused dogs, outsourced jobs, killed cancer patients and hated ordinary people set the Democrats up for a fall once their target showed himself to be a likeable and reasonable person. The same tactic failed 32 years ago when it was tried by the Jimmy Carter campaign against Ronald Reagan, and right now that precedent is causing the knots in the stomachs of Obama campaign officials to tighten as they contemplate defeat.
If Clinton thought that he could apply the lessons of his own victories to President Obama’s re-election problem, he was wrong. As Bai points out, Clinton truly was a centrist, something that no one (except perhaps the president himself) thinks about Obama.
But the idea that it was only Clinton that advocated this strategy or that without his influence the geniuses running the Obama campaign would not have made this mistake is so patently self-serving on the part of his sources that it’s a wonder that a generally savvy observer like Bai doesn’t point this out.
If anything this omission, like the general thrust of his piece, points to an effort by Obama’s chief strategists to get out in front of the story of who led the president to defeat. Moreover, it is hard not to avoid the suspicion that pointing the finger at Clinton is a way of reminding him that if he thinks Obama loyalists owe him for his herculean efforts on behalf of the president he’s got another thing coming. Especially, that is, if he tries to call in IOUs from the Obama camp on behalf of another presidential run by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
But no matter where the Democratic fingers are pointing, the fact that they are already starting to blame each other for an Obama loss has to send chills down the spines of Democrats who are still operating under the assumption that Romney can’t win.