Bill Clinton: The Chris Matthews of South Carolina

Any doubts about the Clinton campaign's South Carolina message were dispelled by the ex-president's ugly remarks Saturday.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II)

I’ve thought most of the criticisms of the Clintons’ campaign, including the role played by Bill, have been overblown. Given the standard level of campaign rhetoric, and particularly considering the bile that will be launched towards Obama from the currently pro-Obama right-wing noise machine if he’s the nominee, most of the “controversial” comments have been rather mild, standard election fare, generating interest primarily because it was coming from the Clintons.

Beyond that, it seemed most of the efforts to inject dramatic racial conflict into the contest were media-driven rather than an intentional Clinton strategy. And all of the grave concern over how Bill Clinton is sullying the majestic glory of his status as an ex-president — all because he is, as anyone would, actively and aggressively campaigning for his spouse — has struck me as silly and slightly pompous.

But the last few days have changed my view on those matters substantially. The Clintons’ strategy has become increasingly trashy, even ugly, and yesterday’s remarks by Bill Clinton — in which he pointedly compared Obama’s candidacy to Jesse Jackson’s and thus implicitly (though clearly) dismissed South Carolina as a state where the “black candidate” wins, followed up by the Clinton campaign’s anonymous branding of Obama as “the black candidate” — reeked of desperation. Here’s how Clinton fan and loyal Democrat Anonymous Liberal put it:

It pains me greatly to write this post because — despite his many faults — I have long been an admirer of Bill Clinton. He’s a man with enormous political talents, and I think he has used those talents over the years to advance progressive notions of justice and equality in a significant way. And I think his commitment to these ideals is genuine and deeply held.

Which is why it is so disillusioning to see him engaged in what is obviously an attempt to marginalize his wife’s chief rival as “the black candidate.” Just today, he was trying to spin away Obama’s overwhelming victory in South Carolina by going out of his way to compare Obama to Jesse Jackson. There has clearly been an attempt by the Clinton campaign over the last week or so, led chiefly by Bill Clinton, to dismiss Obama’s success in South Carolina as being all about race. The goal has been to transport us back in time 20 years, to turn what had begun as an almost post-racial election into a replay of 1988. As Clinton knows, if Americans come to see Obama as the candidate of African-Americans — like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson in prior presidential races — his support among whites, hispanics, and other ethnic groups will plummet. . . .

Clinton is sullying his reputation, harming the Democratic coalition, and setting back race relations in this country, and he’s doing all of this solely to advance his wife’s near-term political prospects. It’s as if he’s become so focused on winning this primary battle that he’s completely lost sight of all larger considerations.

It’s hard to argue with any of that. As it turns out, the South Carolina polls were even more inaccurate than the New Hampshire polls were, though that fact hasn’t received much attention because predicting the wrong winner (as the New Hampshire polls did) is a far more dramatic error than under-predicting the winner’s ultimate margin of victory (as the South Carolina polls did). But, mathematically speaking, the magnitude of the polling error is actually greater in South Carolina.

The average of the pre-New Hampshire polls showed Obama with an 8 point lead, and Clinton won by almost 3 points — a difference of 11 points. By contrast, the average of the pre-South Carolina polls showed Obama with an 11 point lead, and he won by 28 points — a difference of 17 points.

One highly likely explanation for this huge disparity is that so many voters decided to vote for Obama in the last several days as a result of their revulsion towards Obama’s treatment by the Clinton campaign — and Bill particularly — just as New Hampshire voters decided in the last several days to vote for Hillary as a backlash against her ugly, patently unfair treatment by the press:

Bill Clinton’s aggressive campaigning in South Carolina in the days leading up to the state’s primary may have had a net negative effect among South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters, CNN exit polls indicate.

Roughly 6 in 10 South Carolina Democratic primary voters said Bill Clinton’s campaigning was important in how they ultimately decided to vote, and of those voters, 48 percent went for Barack Obama while only 37 percent went for Hillary Clinton. Fourteen percent of those voters voted for John Edwards.

Meanwhile, the exit polls also indicate Obama easily beat Clinton among those voters who decided in the last three days — when news reports heavily covered the former president’s heightened criticisms of Obama. Twenty percent of South Carolina Democrats made their decision in the last three days and 51 percent of them chose Obama, while only 21 percent picked Clinton.

That’s well-deserved and good to see. Presidential campaign tactics are often dishonest, deceitful and ugly. That’s true of every successful campaign. But that doesn’t mean there are no lines, and this last week, Bill Clinton (and thus, by effect, Hillary) has been (at least) flirting with that line and has now clearly crossed it — nowhere near what the Republicans will do if Obama is the nominee, but he’s nonetheless unquestionably on the wrong side of it.

Many Democrats — including progressives — have an ambivalent attitude towards the Clintons despite Hillary’s relatively conservative record since she’s been in the Senate. They distrust their “triangulation” and soul-less political tactics, as expressed most vividly in Hillary’s case by her years-long support of the Iraq War and general support for war-loving policies.

But they also respect the Clintons for being among the very few Democrats of any significance with the willingness and ability to stand up to and defeat the right-wing monster and, most importantly, to recognize its true character. The Clintons’ behavior over this last week does nothing but highlight the absolute worst parts of their character and make any rational person dread the return of the whole Clinton show to the White House — not because of how their political enemies react to them but because of how they, almost addictively, conduct themselves.

This behavior may be shrewd because dividing the Democratic electorate along racial lines may be their best chance for success. It may not matter, because the huge number of large states being contested on February 5 places a premimum on party establishment support more than anything else, and Clinton has a significant advantage there. But regardless of their strategic value, comments such as the ones coming from the Clinton campaign about Obama over the last couple days are ones that would (rightfully) provoke angry protests and probably accusations of “racism” if they came from the Right, and there’s no reason those comments ought to be treated any differently because they’re coming instead from the Clinton campaign.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall, who — by his own reckoning — has long been one of the most loyal and admiring Bill Clinton fans around, has been increasingly critical of the ex-President’s behavior over the last couple of weeks and, specifically, his “Jackson/Obama” comparison yesterday. In a post this morning, Josh points out the numerous differences between yesterday’s primary and the 1984 and 1988 primaries won by Jackson and concludes:

Bill Clinton’s reference to Jesse Jackson’s wins in South Carolina pretty much speaks for itself. But there’s a further part of the story that’s well worth pointing out. . . .

[I]n addition to whatever else he was trying to convey, Bill Clinton’s statement about Jackson’s victories was, while accurate, highly misleading on something like three or four different counts.

I must say I’m surprised by the number of people willing to defend Bill Clinton’s comments here. Had the Obama campaign dismissed his loss in New Hampshire by casually suggesting that it’s unsurprising that he lost given that the state is predominantly white, would that have been an appropriate comment to make? Most of these elections are complex and most voters — including black voters in South Carolina — are influenced by numerous factors.

Blithely suggesting that Obama won South Carolina because he’s the “black candidate” is, at best, a sloppy and destructive way of trying to divide the electorate on racial lines in favor of the Clinton campaign. Why is that defensible?

UPDATE II: Several other commentators who are generally fans of the Clintons have similar reactions to Bill Clinton’s comments and offer additional thoughts, including Scott Lemieux and Steve Benen.

There seem to be two strains of argument in defense of Bill Clinton: (1) the Jackson comparision wasn’t racial and (2) it was racial, but not malicious, and anyone objecting is being “overly-sensitive” and is failing to appreciate that politics is a “contact sport.” The first objection seems to require little effort to refute. Here, after all, is what the Clinton campaign itself is saying:

Clinton campaign strategists denied any intentional effort to stir the racial debate. But they said they believe the fallout has had the effect of branding Obama as “the black candidate,” a tag that could hurt him outside the South.

Is there something ambiguous about that?

As for the “suck-it-up” defense that politics entails rough tactics and one can’t whine about it, that is true as far as it goes. As I said, I think many of the controversies about past Clinton comments have been manufactured and the Obama campaign has, at times, been somewhat whiny and overly delicate in their objections. But that doesn’t mean that there are no limits.

For those who are arguing that we need tough tactics in politics, does anything go? If it’s the case — as it certainly seems to be — that part of the Clinton strategy is to depict Obama as the “black candidate” comparable to Jackson’s candidacy in the 1980s — meaning a candidacy perceived as representative of racial minorites and unable to attract white voters — all in order to encourage racial tribalism in voting and to attempt to win by making it a “black v. white” primary (knowing there are more white voters than black voters), is that all acceptable, all part of the “politics-is-a-tough-game” justification?

And for all the people who are labelling these concerns “whining” and insisting on the need for tough tactics: were you saying the same in response to complaints about, say, the 1988 Willie Horton campaign or the 2000 “McCain-had-an-out-of-wedlock black baby” slurs or 2004 Swift Boat attacks or this year’s “Obama-is-a-Muslim” emails? The point isn’t to suggest an equivalence between those attacks but to underscore the fact that complaints about unfair or divisive campaign tactics aren’t inherently “whiny” or unrealistic. Sometimes those complaints are valid because the tactics in question are way over the line — for those who recognize that such lines exist.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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