Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
The big news today--if you listen to the Hillary Clinton camp--is that Samantha Power, a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama (and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide), referred to Clinton as a "monster" in what she believed was an off-the-record remark with a reporter. She did apologize. But the Clintonites, ever on the lookout for an issue (or non-issue) to hype, quickly called on Obama to fire Power.
Non-News Flash: Aides to presidential candidates routinely refer to the competition in harsh terms, particularly when they talk to reporters off the record. More than once, a top Clinton person has told me that s/he believes Obama is a self-righteous fraud--or worse. It was, of course, always off the record. But if I had reported any of these remarks, I could have gotten the pop The Scotsman has received for disclosing Power's comment.
The Clinton people do deserve chutzpah points for trying to turn this nothing-burger into a full-course feast. During a conference call with reporters yesterday, Clinton's top spinner, Howard Wolfson, compared Obama and his aides to Kenneth Starr because they dared to question Clinton's refusal to release her income taxes. (In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank credited me with asking the question that prompted the Ken Starr remark --a quip obviously locked and loaded before the call.) The comparison was ridiculous. But in Democratic circles, there's not much of a bigger slur than, Hey, you're Ken Starr! For Democrats, Starr is the functional equivalent of a monster.
Now it's on to the Democratic death-march in Pennsylvania.
By winning decisively in Ohio and Rhode Island and narrowly in Texas, Senator Hillary Clinton managed to keep her presidential aspirations alive and guaranteed that the bitterly-fought Democratic contest will slog on for weeks, at least until April 22, when Pennsylvania (with its 188 delegates) votes. With these victories, Clinton put an end to Barack Obama's streak--though he still maintains a significant, if statistically slight, lead in the delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses. (Due to the rules governing Texas' odd joint primary-caucus, it seemed possible on Tuesday night, even probable, that Obama would pocket a majority of the delegates there, despite placing second in he popular vote.) More important, Clinton earned the right to claim that her case against Obama, which she and her aides sharpened in recent days, has been seconded by Democratic voters, including two important blocs for the party: blue-collar Dems in Ohio, a decisive state in general elections, and Latino Democrats in Texas. Obama netted his only primary win of the night in Vermont.
At long last, Clinton and her strategists seemed to have gained traction with their attacks on the candidate of hope. As Firewall Tuesday approached, the Clinton campaign did not introduce any new themes. But it did tinker with the mix and accused Obama of falling short on integrity, credibility, and experience. This new mash-up was a success. Catching a break because the corruption trial of Obama's onetime friend and contributor Tony Rezko began this week, Clinton aides repeatedly clamed there were "unanswered questions" about Obama's relationship with Rezko. Obama's aides countered that there were no unanswered questions about this much-investigated episode. (Obama, accused of no wrongdoing in the Rezko matter, has acknowledged it was dumb for him to have entered into a real estate deal with Rezko, especially since the politically-wired developer was under investigation at the time.) Prodded by the Clintonites, reporters started grilling Obama anew about Rezko. And being asked about the dirty dealings of a former pal is never helpful to a candidate selling change and reform. Simultaneously, Obama's camp came under heavy fire--from the Clinton campaign--for falsely denying that a campaign adviser had met with Canadian officials and discussed Obama's position on NAFTA. (The aide denied press reports that he had told the Canadians that Obama's criticism of NAFTA was merely political posturing.) It looked as if Obama the Inspirer was not playing straight.
While casting Obama as just another shifty, sleaze-tainted pol, Clinton and her lieutenants pumped up the volume on their well-worn charge that he's not ready for prime time--that is, when the phone rings in the White House in the middle of the night because there's a crisis somewhere. The Obama camp quickly cooked up a clever retort--Clinton failed her red-phone moment by voting for George W. Bush's Iraq war measure--yet Clinton's heavy-handed commercial, if it did not persuade any individual voter in Texas or Ohio, did define the discourse (and media coverage) in the days before these primaries. Experience, not hope, was the main subject of the debate. Advantage: Clinton.
Unanswered questions about Tony Rezko, a friend and contributor, who is now on trial for corruption and extortion. Contradicted denials about a campaign adviser's contact with the Canadian government concerning NAFTA. And don't forget that lack of experience on national security.
The Hillary Clinton campaign seems rather satisfied with its current lines of attack against Barack Obama. On this morning's conference call with reporters, as voters in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont were hitting the polls, top Clinton aides hammered these points repeatedly, noting they were pleased that reporters covering Obama were beginning to ask him about these matters. Obama has "credibility questions," asserted Phil Singer, who handles opposition research for the Clinton campaign. Howard Wolfson, the communications director, made much of the fact that the Obama campaign had sent an aide to take notes at the trial of Rezko, a developer indicted on corruption charges. His trial began yesterday. The aide's presence "belies the fact," Wolfson maintained, that Obama has downplayed his relationship with Rezko, who helped raised about $150,000 for Obama and who bought a strip of property next to Obama's home.
The Clintonites suggested that Obama could be a witness in the trial--though the list of expected witnesses made public on Monday did not include the Illinois senator--and Wolfson noted that Obama will continue to be "dogged by questions" related to Rezko unless he "answers them fully." Due to these "unanswered questions," Wolfson said, Democratic voters will not want to seal the deal with Obama.
On January 9, 2003—five years before he would become the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee—Senator John McCain strode to the Senate floor and began a speech by citing the National Academy of Sciences: "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." He then pointed to a host of scientific studies that had outlined the negative consequences of global warming. "The United States must do something," he proclaimed, announcing that he and Senator Joseph Lieberman were introducing legislation that day to establish mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions and set up a system for the trading of emissions credits.
In the past few days, as Hillary Clinton has intensified her attacks on Barack Obama prior to the all-important primaries in Ohio and Texas, she has claimed that he has been "missing in action" regarding Afghanistan. Clinton has been trying to make the case that she's better prepped than Obama to be commander-in-chief and more qualified to answer the phone at 3:00 a.m. when crisis strikes. To prove her point, she notes that Obama, who chairs a foreign relations subcommittee covering European matters, has held not one hearing on how to bolster NATO in Afghanistan. This weekend she told reporters on her campaign plane that he has failed in a "responsibility that is directly related to Afghanistan." She urged the journos to grill Obama on this. She said that Afghanistan is "one of the two most important challenges internationally." And she added, "I think he was missing in action...because he was running for president."
It's true that Obama has convened no meetings of the subcommittee, but his camp counters that he became chair of the subcommittee early last year, just as he was starting his presidential campaign. Clinton is technically correct that Obama could have used the subcommittee to conduct oversight of actions and policies related to Afghanistan. But the full foreign relations committee, under the guidance of Senator Joe Biden, has held several hearings on Afghanistan that covered NATO's role there. It's not as if the foreign relations committee did nothing on Afghanistan because Obama did not take on the mission. Also, as happens with many committees, the chair of the full committee reserves the right to handle the big issues him- or herself, and Afghanistan counts as a big issue.
Clinton ought to be careful about hurling stones in this area. As she always tells campaign crowds, she is a member of the Senate armed services committee. In February the committee held two hearings on Afghanistan. On February 8, it focused on appropriations for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was a witness. Eight days later, the committee zeroed in on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, holding a two-part hearing examining recent reports on Afghanistan. Key witnesses included senior officials from the State Department and the Pentagon responsible for the administration's Afghanistan policy.
Clinton attended neither of these hearings. She was on the campaign trail.
Many hearings occur on Capitol Hill without all members--or even a majority of members--of the committee in attendance. In fact, that's more common than not. At plenty of hearings, the committee chair is the only senator or representative present. So it's no surprise or scandal that Clinton was not there for these two Afghanistan hearings. (She did participate in two hearings on Afghanistan held by the committee in the first half of 2007.) But in a campaign season, a spinner could easily say that she's guilty of the same charge she tosses at Obama: putting presidential campaigning ahead of Afghanistan. Her neglect, certainly, is not the same as his: he held no hearings for a year; she attended no hearings this year. But as Clinton throws the kitchen sink at Obama, she ought to make sure nuts and bolts don't bounce back at her.