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.
No matter what happens in the Democratic caucus in Nevada (this Saturday) and the Democratic primary in South Carolina (next Saturday), Barack Obama has a problem. Mind you, I'm not predicting his demise. But as he and Hillary Clinton head toward Supersaturated Tuesday on February 5, Obama will have a profound challenge that she will not.
Both have money and organization. But she is running a conventional campaign; he is not. She waves her resume, cites her experience, and proclaims she is ready to do the heavy lifting on Day One. He claims that he can change politics--and, thus, government policymaking--because of his vision and strength (and force) of character. He is mounting a campaign that aspires to be transformative. She is heading a campaign that seeks to put its candidate into a job.
After South Carolina, the presidential campaign will be dominated and shaped by ads. With so many states--including California--in immediate play, there's no way the candidates can do retail politicking that matters (like they did in Iowa and New Hampshire). It will be easy for Clinton to sell herself (in conventional terms) through television ads, radio spots, mailers, and the like. Obama may find in tougher to convey the intangibles he is banking on--hope, faith (in him), transcendence--via 60-second snippets. Before signing up with a noble crusade, some Democratic voters might need first to feel the Obama magic. On the other hand, no voter needs to experience Clinton's soul to conclude she is the most qualified for the job.
Connecting with voters in a transformative manner will be a difficult task for Obama in the crazy nine days between South Carolina and February 5. As a more conventional candidate, Clinton could have an advantage at this stage. After all, the conventional often works.
The email came in: Barack Obama Campaign about to Announce a Major Endorsement. Who could that be? Al Gore? The campaign was holding a conference call in minutes to break the news. I quickly called in. And the big catch turned out to be....Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.
This certainly won't turn the race. But one standard line for Senator Hillary Clinton has been that she has outdrawn Obama in senatorial endorsements. She had bagged ten; he had six. Now Obama has cut her lead by 25 percent. She better watch out!
In the conference call, Leahy gave one reason for picking Obama over Clinton and former Senator John Edwards:
I believe many around the world have lost respect for America....I think we can restore that respect. But we need a president who can reintroduce America to the world.
I asked the obvious question: why did Leahy think that Obama could better reintroduce America than Clinton?
What did the umpteenth Democratic presidential debate, held in Nevada on Tuesday night, demonstrate? That Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton each need a nap. The trio looked worn out. Perhaps that was why few punches were thrown. The Iraq war, the politics of race, tears (or near tears)--the Democratic contest had become rather heated in recent days. Clinton, using misleading information, had accused Obama of being a disingenuous hypocrite regarding the war. Obama's camp had seized on a comment Clinton had made to Fox News and assailed her for supposedly dissing Martin Luther King Jr. And Edwards had snidely insinuated Clinton might not be strong enough to be president (after she became emotional at a campaign stop in New Hampshire). It was getting nasty.
But in Las Vegas, there was relative calm. And no one hit the jackpot.
Senator Hillary Clinton appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday, for the entire show, and asserted once again that Senator Barack Obama's rhetoric does not match the reality of his record. Referring to voters, she remarked, "I want them to have accurate information about our respective records." Yet moments later, Clinton, ostensibly providing voters with information about Obama's record, falsely characterized what Obama had once said about Saddam Hussein--to make it seem that prior to the war Obama was weak on Saddam.
During the show, Tim Russert brought up Clinton's vote in October 2002 for the legislation authorizing George W. Bush to take military action against Iraq, and he quoted a speech Obama gave at that time:
I know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors....I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.
Russert then asked Clinton, "Who had the better judgment at that time?" Meaning you or him.
Clinton insisted that her support for the war resolution had been merely a vote to pressure the Iraqi dictator to allow weapons inspectors into Iraq. She quickly moved on to attack Obama:
And in Senator Obama's recent book, he clearly says he thought that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, and that he still coveted nuclear weapons. His judgment was that, at the time in 2002, we didn't need to make any efforts. My belief was we did need to pin Saddam down, put inspectors in.
You can read it in his own book, Clinton was saying: Obama didn't want to do anything to stop Saddam, even though he feared that Saddam did possess chemical and biological weapons.
That was one helluva charge. Obama was willing to sit back and let a WMD-toting dictator go along on his merry own way (while Clinton was doing what she could to pin down that snake). Could this be true? Had Obama been a do-nothing appeaser of Saddam in 2002? (Forget for a moment that it turned out Saddam had zilch in the WMD department at the time.) I emailed Howard Wolfson, the communications director for the Clinton campaign, and asked for a citation to back up this incendiary allegation. He quickly replied, directing me to page 294 of Obama's Audacity of Hope.
Last night--that is, at 1:30 in the morning--I ran into a top Hillary Clinton adviser at the bar in the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was beaming. Earlier in the day, she had said to me, "I'm just praying the spread is 9.9 percent"--meaning she was hoping that Barack Obama would not win by double digits. Well, that was then. Joking, I said that I could imagine Clinton sending Mark Penn, her chief strategist, a telegram that said, "Stop. Come back. Stop. All is forgiven. Stop." Her eye opened wide and she exclaimed, "Oh, I hope not." Clinton's narrow victory in New Hampshire, she said, was not a vindication, but a warning. "We still need to retool," she explained. "This is not over." Clinton would have to change plenty from here on: be more open to the media, not be so over-handled. New Hampshire, she added, had been a near-death experience for Hillary Clinton. "We need to learn from our mistakes," she said. This aide was hoping for big changes within the Clinton campaign. Will that come? I asked. "You never know, politics can be unpredictable," she said with a smile.