DES MOINES, Iowa — “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”
So said the French politician Talleyrand after Napoleon had ordered the murder of one of his political rivals.
Much of the rhetoric in the spin room Thursday afternoon after the Democratic presidential debate in Iowa was about an apparent blunder committed by Bill Shaheen, the master New Hampshire political operative and until Thursday the co-chairman of the Clinton campaign.
Shaheen had been forced to resign after remarking to a Washington Post reporter that Sen. Barack Obama’s youthful drug use would be fodder for Republican attacks if he were the Democratic nominee.
Obama’s admitted teen drug taking would “open the door,” Shaheen predicted, to questions such as “Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?” This would be “hard to overcome,” in Shaheen’s view.
Was Shaheen’s commentary truly a blunder? Had the incident helped Obama or created an opening for John Edwards?
Or might it turn out to hurt Obama and thus help Clinton?
Why take Shaheen seriously?
There was also another question that went unasked Thursday: since no one could mistake Shaheen for an objective commentator, why would anyone take his remarks all that seriously to begin with?
As of Thursday night it was too soon to tell, but as sometimes happens in presidential politics, a peripheral figure suddenly became for 24 hours the most crucial person in the campaign.
Shaheen, the husband of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, has a sterling record of success: he piloted the New Hampshire campaign of Jimmy Carter in 1980, when he beat back the challenge of Ted Kennedy, that of Al Gore in 2000, when he crushed Bill Bradley, and the John Kerry effort in 2004, when he finished off Howard Dean.
My vivid memory of Shaheen is of his utter self-confidence. At the lowest point of the Kerry campaign in New Hampshire in September of 2003, when Dean’s popularity was at its peak, Shaheen told me that Dean would come unstuck — and sure enough, he did.
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On Thursday Shaheen said in a written statement, “I made a mistake and in light of what happened, I have made the personal decision that I will step down as the Co-Chair of the Hillary for President campaign.”
But it is difficult to imagine a strategist as canny as Shaheen is making a thoughtless “mistake.” A deliberate “mistake” — maybe.
He said in his statement that his comments “were in no way authorized by Senator Clinton or the Clinton campaign.” They need not have been to be effective.
How Trippi saw the 'blunder'
Edwards strategist Joe Trippi said the Clinton campaign was dogged by the reality that she has long been a Washington insider and can’t credibly campaign as a candidate who’ll radically break with the politics of the past, as Edwards and Obama each claim they will do.
“This (Shaheen episode) just makes them (the Clinton team) look even more political,” said Trippi. “They’re just digging themselves a deeper hole” into “the problem they’re trying to get out of.”
He added such attacks “are such a blunder” that they might help Obama.
But Trippi argued, using horse race imagery, “there’s a reason Obama has not run away from her and there’s a reason she hasn’t run away from him.” In other words, both horses are neck and neck on the backstretch.
“There’s a reason Obama hasn’t run away into the sunset and the reason is there’s a deep concern about his readiness to be president,” Tripp said.
Citing polling data on Obama, Trippi said, “A quarter of his own supporters think he’s not qualified to be president.”
Both Obama and Clinton are flawed candidates, he said, but “there’s another guy, John Edwards, who people here really like. They feel like they know him and they know he stands up for working people and they don’t have those kinds of doubts about him.”
Meanwhile, a few feet away from Trippi, Obama’s campaign manager David Axelrod was, in a restrained way, utterly enjoying the chance to spin reporters on the story line that the Shaheen episode cast a shadow on Clinton’s campaign.
All at once, the post-debate spin had turned into: what did Clinton know about the Shaheen comments and when did she know it?
“She said she didn’t know about it, she was sorry, and he accepts her at her word for that,” Axelrod said, recounting a conversation between Obama and Clinton on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport Thursday as they headed to the Iowa debate.
Axelrod dryly called the Clinton apology “a nice gesture, as far as it went.”
Did Clinton say to Obama that no one in her campaign knew about the Shaheen remarks, a reporter asked.
Who knew about the Shaheen comments?
“She didn’t say that so as far as I know,” Axelrod replied. “She said she didn’t know about it.”
He then noted that “Mr. Shaheen is a pretty significant figure in that campaign, but if they say he was on his own, then that’s their story.”
Do you believe that story, wondered a reporter.
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. I have no way to prove” that Shaheen was carrying out orders from the Clinton high command, Axelrod said.
“Every individual voter in New Hampshire and Iowa and across the country will make their judgment as to whether it was coordinated or not.”
Iowa is a place where an image of “clean” politics is supposedly important to voters, although Iowa political activists can dish the dirt as eagerly as politicos anywhere.
Interviews with Obama’s supporters in the state show that they see him as a noble, inspirational figure, in their view somehow above traditional gritty politics.
Shaheen’s remarks gave Obama an opportunity to lecture Clinton. As Axelrod recounted it, Obama told her, “It’s important for campaigns to send a signal from the top as to what kind of campaign you want to run. If you send a signal that negative campaigning is the fun part of campaigning, and treat it as a sport, then you’re sending a signal down the line that it’s all OK.”
Meanwhile Clinton pollster Mark Penn saw only good things in Clinton’s debate performance Thursday. He stressed her experience and — in an implied contrast to Obama — her readiness to be president.
“When she was asked what she would do in her first year as president, she had a very clear idea of how she would be president and how she would reverse the policies of President Bush. That shows she’s ready on day one to serve as president,” Penn said.
If voters are longing for a candidate of “change,” then Penn said, “Change is not something you can get by wishful thinking or hoping. It’s something like really comes about through work. She’s the candidate with the experience to make change happen.”
Penn’s implication: Obama lacks that experience.
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