CLINTON AND THE RACE CARD
Excerpt from Front Row Seat at the Circus by Jim Heath:
It was a much colder January evening as we reported live from outside the Palace Theatre in Myrtle Beach—at one point I couldn’t feel my lips move—and the security for this debate much tighter. Reporter Mike Essian pointed out both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama already received Secret Service protection (at this point none of the Republican candidates qualified) and over forty members of Congress were in attendance. In addition, “Security had to cut anywhere from 200 to 300 seats in the audience just to make things safe,” Mike said, which made scoring an invite to the debate the equivalent of finding a Willie Wonka golden ticket.
With five days to go until the primary, the eyes of politicos, and the world, were on the debate, which everyone knew would be one of the last of the primary season. The debate made international headlines with Clinton and Obama attacking each other’s integrity, both of them unleashing the most intense and personal exchange of the campaign.
It started early on, after Obama was asked by CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux if Clinton was right that he couldn’t account for $50 billion worth of new programs he had proposed: “What she said wasn’t true. We account for every single dollar that we propose. Now this, I think, is one of the things that’s happened during the course of this campaign, that there’s a set of assertions made by Senator Clinton, as well as her husband, that are not factually accurate.” With the crowd applauding, Obama kept going, steering away from his spending plan and onto the topic of the war in Iraq: “When Senator Clinton says—or President Clinton says—that I wasn’t opposed to the war from the start, or says it’s a fairytale that I opposed the war, that is simply not true. When Senator Clinton or President Clinton asserts that I said that the Republicans had had better economic policies since 1980, that is not the case.”
This was the first of many salvos Obama aimed at Bill Clinton by who he believed was distorting his views. As it had been clear in my interview, Obama was anxious to move beyond the Clinton era.
Hillary Clinton responded with her own put-down of the junior senator from Illinois: “I do think that your record and what you say does matter. And when it comes to…” (the audience burst out in applause) … a lot of the issues that are important in this race, it is sometimes difficult to understand what Senator Obama has said, because as soon as he is confronted on it, he says that’s not what he meant.”
The two then spent a few minutes debating what Obama had said about Ronald Reagan, which was a bit surreal in a Democratic debate. “You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan and you talked about the ideas,” Hillary said. “Hillary, I’m sorry. You just…” Obama interrupted. “I didn’t talk about Reagan,” Clinton said. Obama, more heated and angry than at any moment in his political career, replied, “What I said was that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart!”
The crowd erupted into applause, some booed, with the Democrats now providing their own version of the Maury Povich show.
“I just want to be clear about this,” Clinton followed up. “In an editorial board with the Reno newspaper, you said two different things, because I have read the transcript. You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name.” “Your husband did,” Obama, on the verge of losing his temper, interrupted. “Well, I’m here. He’s not!” Clinton responded to a cheering audience. “Okay. Well, I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama snapped.
And then Clinton went where she had never gone before.
“I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago!”
It was the first time during the campaign Clinton had tied Obama to Tony Rezko, a longtime Chicago fund raiser, who had been indicted on federal charges of business fraud and influence peddling. Obama had done legal work for Rezko and later returned more than $40,000 in campaign contributions linked to him.
The crowd booed, applauded, and groaned. Obama looked down and said, “no, no, no” as if he had suffered a body blow. Clearly this give-andtake showed the importance of the South Carolina primary, and sent a message to Democrats nationally that this fight was far from over.
That night, at the start of the 11 p.m. news I said, “You get the sense we’re right on the edge of history. You have the first woman who could potentially become the president and the first African American who could do the same thing, and South Carolina is going to be critical in helping them become the nominee. The Obama campaign told me tonight an expected win here on Saturday will propel his momentum into Super Tuesday where he could finish up this fight. The Clinton team says a win here after her victory in New Hampshire would make her the inevitable nominee.”
Our analyst Eddie Dyer said the fireworks didn’t help the Democratic Party, “For those two to go at each other like they did tonight really doesn’t do either campaign that much good. I think if I had to call it, Obama probably did himself a favor tonight; he came off a little more statesman-like than Hillary Clinton. If those two keep going at each other like that, the big winner will be John McCain.”
Eddie and I then got into the biggest surprise of the campaign thus far, Bill Clinton’s decision to become the “axe man” for Hillary’s campaign. Just days before the debate, Clinton claimed Obama had put out a “hit job” on him for the accusation he had brought race into the campaign. He also blamed the media for buying into that narrative. Those comments led our newscasts and received statewide attention.
Half of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters were expected to be African American, and Clinton was using that fact to acknowledge his wife had fallen behind in polls. “They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender, and that’s why people tell me that Hillary doesn’t have a chance to win here,” Clinton said while in Charleston.
Former South Carolina Democratic chairman Dick Harpootlian openly complained Clinton’s campaign resembled the race tactics used by Lee Atwater, who we discussed earlier in this book. “To see the former president Bill Clinton begin to do some of this dirty work for his wife, some suggest it’s a little unbecoming of a former president,” I said on air. Eddie agreed and added, “It’s a very odd strategy to have Bill Clinton out in front for her and I just don’t understand. There are a lot of people you could put out front but he seems to be willing to do that.”
I asked Clinton strategist Mark Penn following the debate whether the former president was now an axe man for his wife’s campaign. “He’s no axe man,” Penn told me, trying to spin optimism for a campaign that had watched its huge South Carolina lead slip away. “Senator Clinton is running her campaign talking about the issues—the war, our energy future, and how we do something about the economy. And I think President Clinton has been a tremendous asset throughout this campaign. He raised the issue of Senator Obama’s votes on the war and his actual record on the war. And as Senator Obama has said himself, records are fair game in a campaign.”
Former state superintendent of education Inez Tenenbaum, who lost the 2006 Senate election to Jim DeMint, was an early backer of Obama. After the debate, she was quick to link the Clintons together. “Well I believe the candidates need to pull their own weight,” Tenenbaum told me. “The candidates need to be the ones who have interchanges with each other, not the candidates’ spouses, and that does concern me a great deal. So every candidate has to stand on his or her own two feet, that’s the only fair way to do it.”
John Edwards’ advisor Joe Trippi perhaps gave me the best soundbite of the night: “They were fighting over which one was a slum lord and which one was a Wal-Mart board member!”
As to those wondering about the impact for a community hosting two presidential debates, Brad Dean later told me when added up, the economic benefit from the two debates was $10.3 million. In addition, the publicity value from the print and broadcast coverage totaled just over $12 million.
A week later, I was back interrupting network prime time programming again, although much earlier this time. It was clear from all the polling we had that Barack Obama was going to defeat both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards by a comfortable margin. In the end he received 55 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 27 percent and Edward’s 18 percent. That 40 percent lead of Clinton’s when I interviewed her a year earlier had evaporated. Obama’s ability to get out the African-American vote, and excite younger voters, was key to his overwhelming victory.
After Obama won the primary by a huge margin, Bill Clinton compared the win to that of a prior black candidate: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ‘84 and ‘88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” The comment further inflamed the tensions between the Obamas and Clintons, and worried national Democrats began to wonder if the wounds were becoming too deep.
During a later interview, Jackson told me he was not offended by Bill Clinton’s comparison, but pointed out his presidential campaigns had led to rule changes that cost Hillary Clinton the nomination. “We changed the rules to proportionality, as opposed to winner-take-all which is a way of suppressing votes,” said Jackson. “By ‘88 I had as many delegates as I had popular votes. When Barack ran in 2008, Hillary Clinton won, at the end, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas barely. She would have been the winner except we had democratized democracy and opened the process up.”
And Jackson said his campaigns made it possible for both Obama and Clinton to be so close to making history. “The most significant thing is we answered the question of whether a black man or a woman could be accepted and the answer now is yes,” Jackson told me. “I tried to advance the cause of inclusion for all Americans. I remain concerned, passionately, about Appalachia. I think in some sense it’s a measuring stick of our character. If you ignore Appalachia, we an ignore anyone at our peril.”
With wounds from the 2008 primary fight still fresh, Democrats at least had one bit of good news. They could leave South Carolina and not look back. It was as good as lost in the general election.