Swiftboating redux

The term "swiftboating" entered American political jargon during the election of 2004. It originated with the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth and their campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry, skillfully reframing his Vietnam war record and service on swiftboats in negative and pejorative terms. In a stunning lapse, Kerry never mounted an immediate or aggressive response to the charges.

Democrats asserted that the Swiftboat Veterans were connected to the Bush-Rove-Republican campaign. Regardless, the term "swiftboating" soon became part of the popular-political lexicon and is now taken to mean an orchestrated effort to distort an individual's record or statements.

Over a week ago, while at a fundraiser in San Francisco, Barack Obama said that small-town Pennsylvania voters, feeling left behind by their government and the economy, have grown "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

It was, in fact, an insightful assessment of many people in the heartland (and elsewhere) who have felt disenfranchised and certainly not included in any economic upswing in the last decade or more. These are folks who have seen factories close, jobs shipped overseas or to Mexico, judge NAFTA to be wanting, and see health care growing increasingly out of reach. Jobs and pensions have disappeared, the value of their homes is declining along with the equity. Sending their children to college puts them between a rock and a hard place. Are they bitter? Indeed.

Of course, Obama's words could have been more artful. He could have chosen a better word than "bitter." Deeply angry, perhaps. When pressed later about the comments, he said what he has said so often in his campaign and before: unifying the country, making America work for all, is his meta-message. It's time to change the lives of many by addressing a multitude of issues confronting us, and in the doing we will once again be one. No one should be left behind. Obama gets it.

Of course, the Republicans, veterans of taking a candidate's statement and twisting it to fit their swiftboating framework, immediately took Obama's characterization and began to distort and spin. Obama noted that he was not surprised when John McCain weighed in, insisting that the people he knew in the heartland did not "cling" to religion or guns out of bitterness. Pundits on cable networks said that Obama, should he be the nominee, had just written the Republicans' fall ad campaign for them. No doubt, the Republicans are masters at getting middle America to vote, not in their self-interest economically, rather against candidates who they believe are a bunch of gay-loving, pro-abortion, antigun, antichurch liberals who don't share their values.

In other words, it's not about issues for the Repubs, it's about stoking the culture wars, made manifest by "values voters." Not issues voters, but values voters. This strategy has Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it and it has worked brilliantly.

So, Obama was not surprised.

What did take him aback, clearly, was that the harshest attacks, lifted from the Republican play book, came from the Clinton campaign &

biting criticism delivered not by surrogates, but by Hillary herself. She accused Obama of possessing an "elitist" view of faith and class and certainly his comments were not "reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans." She made the most of Obama's linkage of economic distress and hunting and religion (an unfortunate phrasing by Obama to be sure).

"The people of faith I know don't 'cling to' religion because they are bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich."

Suddenly Hillary was transforming herself into what Obama referred to as "Annie Oakely." She learned to shoot as a little girl on a small lake in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, she said. She killed a duck. Suddenly there was footage of her in a local bar throwing back shots with beer chasers. Had she started chopping wood out back it would have been a seamless transition. Over several days, again and again, she characterized Obama as being "out of touch" and a cultural "elitist" who is hostile to rural voters.

Recall Al Gore and John Kerry were portrayed in exactly the same way, and successfully &

only by the Republicans.

What the Clinton campaign has done is take comments which it knows hold more truth than not and distorted them to pure political advantage. And Hillary seems perfectly willing to bring down Obama if necessary in the process.

The strategy of whisky drinking and recalling weekends in a duck blind is so disingenuous that it reeks of the Rovian strategy of persuading voters to vote on cultural issues and not bedrock issues such as healthcare, jobs, schools and the recessive economy. It feels so false and manipulative that it can only be hoped that the voters of Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana are watching and know when they're being conned.

One pundit on cable news opined that Clinton, having concluded that the nomination was now out of reach, was hoping to wound Obama sufficiently so that he would lose against McCain and she could then resurrect her presidential ambitions in 2012. That's likely a stretch; but how else to explain a strategy of remaining in a campaign while your only hope (you're behind by all math counts) is that your opponent will stumble and you can use that misstep to severely wound. That is what the Clinton campaign has been engaged in and it feels sordid and profoundly cynical.

Why is it so hard for the Clinton campaign to see that Hillary would only have grown in stature and voter esteem had she stepped forward and supported the essence of Obama's statement while drawing distinctions between herself and him on issues. People are struggling. Many are bitter. Angry. Mistrustful. How best to repair eight years of Republican neglect and damage?

And this is not the first time she has joined John McCain in attacking Obama. She did exactly the same when pressing her credentials as commander in chief. It's remarkably shortsighted and, in its own way, revealing.

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