Ten weeks ago, as the Democratic nomination fight teetered on the brink of its really ugly phase (with Wright and bittergate yet ahead), David Brooks mocked the Obama campaign's purported belief that "they can go on the attack, but in the right way. They can be tough and keep their virginity, too. " Strange for a conservative to denigrate and sexualize a politician's attempt to restore a measure of integrity to public discourse, but Brooks did rather pungently frame the task Obama has set for himself.
Now we're in the end game, and guess what -- Obama has beaten Clinton, and maintained his integrity. In fact, he's beaten Clinton in large part because he's maintained his integrity while she has publicly sacrificed hers, shred by shred. The contrast in the way each has handled the other's gaffes has been dispositive.
Recall Hillary's gleeful seizure of Obama's "bitter" remarks -- remarks betraying a measure of condescension that she's more than matched on multiple occasions -- as a campaign bludgeon. This was at the height of their endless Pennsylvania slugfest. Here's CNN's account on April 12:
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana (CNN) - Hillary Clinton sought on Saturday to fan the flames surrounding Barack Obama's controversial assertion that voters in some small towns are "bitter."By that date, the Clinton campaign was already clothing supporters in "I'm not bitter" tee shirts.
Clinton told an audience of automotive workers here that she was "taken aback by the demeaning remarks Sen. Obama made about people in small town America."
"Sen. Obama's remarks are elitist and out of touch," she said. "they are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans, certainly not the Americans I know, not the Americans I grew up with, not the Americans I lived with in Arkansas or represent in New York."
Clinton aides said they planned to make Obama's comments central to their message on the campaign trail this weekend. The New York senator will campaign across Indiana Saturday, and will return to Pennsylvania on Sunday.
In a soft-spoken denunciation of her Democratic rival that lasted several minutes, Clinton played up her own faith and Midwestern roots before attacking point by point Obama's claims that people who feel disenfranchised in small town America "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."
"Americans who believe in God believe it's a matter of personal faith," she said, to periodic applause. "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."
On the issue of guns, Clinton said: "People of all walks of life hunt, and they enjoy doing do because its an important part of their life, not because they are bitter."
Now contrast Obama's response to Hillary's bizarre, disturbing, overdetermined reference to RFK's assassination on Friday. As soon as the news broke, the campaign did stick the shiv in. It was an arthroscopic cut, unimpeachably appropriate, tightly restrained, and not repeated:
Sen. Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign.The New York Post that very swiftly poured gasoline on the fire, misleadingly headlining its scoop, "Hillary Raises Assassination Issue." But the understated Obama campaign statement struck the match (a one-match fire, as we liked to shoot for in summer camp). Hillary's comment is impossible to interpret -- yes, she was illustrating that primary fights have often stretched into June, but why illustrate the case with an assassination? -- and the Obama camp did not pretend to. But their statement did validate most readers' and viewers' impression that there was something deeply creepy about the RFK allusion.
Obama himself waited a day to respond directly. When he did, speaking to Radio Isla Puerto Rico, it was with the magnanimity that's become a personal signature. Yet that very magnanimity drew a sharp if unstated contrast to Clinton's response to his own longest-resonating gaffe:
I have learned that when you are campaigning for as many months as Senator Clinton and I have been campaigning, sometimes you get careless in terms of the statements that you make and I think that is what happened here. Senator Clinton says that she did not intend any offense by it and I will take her at her word on that.The Obama campaign's two-step response to the assassination allusion culminates a pattern established over many months. Repeatedly, Obama's attacks -- occasions on which he has called out the Clinton campaign tactics -- have been precisely calibrated to highlight flaws that Hillary (and Bill) were displaying day-by-day on the campaign trail. But these rebukes have been modulated by statements of praise, validations of the overall Clinton effort, even excuses for their excesses. A few occasions on which he's killed with kindness:
March 30 news conference in a high school gym in Johnstown, PA:
My attitude is that Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants. Her name is on the ballot. She is a fierce and formidable opponent, and she obviously believes she would make the best nominee and the best president.Beaufort, S.C., Jan. 24: Playing the adult in the Clinton sandbox:
Black voters shouldn't blame Senator Clinton for running a vigorous campaign against me," he said. That should be a source of pride. It means I might win this thing. When I was 20 points down, I was a 'person of good character' and my health-care plan was 'universal.' The fact that we've got this fierce contest indicates I'm doing well, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that....
Good Morning America, Jan. 21:
Let me sort of dispose of the whole issue of President Clinton. I have said this repeatedly. He is entirely justified in wanting to promote his wife's candidacy," Obama said. "I have no problem with that whatsoever. He can be as vigorous an advocate on behalf of her as he would like. The only thing I'm concerned about is when he makes misstatements about my record. That's what I'm seeking to correct.
You know the former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling...He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts -- whether it's about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas.Obama's attacks on Clinton have not been any the less effective for their soft edges. From January on, he has used her attacks to argue that her immersion in Rovian politics -- her willingness, as he's said at his sharpest, to "say anything to get elected" and "calculate and poll-test" positions -- has distorted her judgment and limited her power to reform the political process, as he has pledged to do. In a sense, that's a character attack, as Geoff Garin charged in an April 25 op-ed. But it's one that resonates, as Hillary has demonstrated these limitations over and over. Obama has simply added accents to the self-portrait she's drawn.
Surprise, Mr. Brooks: Obama has managed to "attack, but in the right way." And "virginity" is your hangup. Obama does it with integrity.