I think it's more or less beyond question that Hillary Clinton, and her husband, have told a series of lies about Barack Obama. (I've put some familiar examples at the end of this post: anyone who wants to consider the evidence can do so, but it won't be as distracting to those who have already seen it.) I basically agree with what publius said about it:
"What’s so infuriating is that, in doing so, they assume their audience is too ignorant to learn the truth. It’s not so much that they’re attacking Obama – after all, that’s politics. It’s that Clinton’s attacks illustrate a deep contempt for voters. Call it “the rube strategy” – we’ll say what we want and most people will be too ignorant to ever figure out the difference."
However, I don't think the problem is exactly that they are assuming that most people won't follow the news closely enough to know who is telling the truth and who is lying. As far as I can tell, that assumption is accurate. The problem is that they are playing on that ignorance in a way that displays a different sort of contempt for voters: not the assumption that most people do not follow the news closely enough to be able to say what's wrong with criticizing Obama's 'present' votes on anti-abortion bills, which is probably true, but the idea that it is OK to manipulate them into casting votes they might not cast if people were not telling them lies.
Consider, for instance ...
... the email described in this story. It was sent to New Hampshire pro-choice voters two days before the primary, and was signed by "two dozen prominent women." It said, in part:
"The difference between Hillary's repeatedly standing up strong on choice and Obama's unwillingness to vote 'yes' or 'no' is a clear contrast, and we believe the voters in New Hampshire deserve to know this difference," the e-mail stated. "We support Hillary Clinton because she never ducked when choice was at stake."
The claim that Barack Obama's present votes on abortion bills in the Illinois Senate constitute "ducking when choice was at stake" is a lie. (See (3) at the end of the post for evidence.) And at least one of the women who signed the email says the Clinton campaign did not tell her any of this when they asked her to sign the email, and that she now regrets agreeing to:
Katie Wheeler, a former state senator, said the Clinton campaign had not given her background information about Obama's record on abortion rights when it asked her to sign the letter calling him weak on the issue, and said that, as a result, she did not understand the context of the votes that the letter was attacking him over.
"It should never have gotten to the point where anyone thought Obama was not pro-choice," said Wheeler, a founder of the New Hampshire chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "I don't think the Clinton campaign should have done that. It was divisive and unnecessary...I think it was a mistake and I've spoken to the national [Clinton campaign] and told them it caused problems in New Hampshire, and am hoping they won't do it again."
(Note to self: always, always find out the facts for yourself before signing things.)
The point of this email was to sway pro-choice voters by making them think that Barack Obama is not fully committed to women's right to choose. In sending it, the Clinton campaign apparently thought that presenting Hillary Clinton herself, and saying true things about Obama, might not be enough to convince people to vote for her. There are ways of responding to this thought that demonstrate respect for people's right to make up their own mind whom to vote for: trying to become a more compelling candidate, for instance, or accepting the possibility of defeat. But lying is not one of them.
Lying in an election is basically a way of saying: we know how you ought to vote, and if we can't get you to vote that way by presenting you with facts and arguments, or even with truthful but emotionally shaded appeals, then we will get you to vote our way by telling you things that are not true. It's hard to see what could be more profoundly disrespectful of people's right to decide for themselves whom to vote for.
It is also, needless to say, at odds with one of the basic principles of democracy: that people have the right to decide for themselves whom to support.
But it also undermines democracy by placing intolerable burdens on citizens. As I said above, I think that the assumption that most people are not following the news closely enough to be able to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying is probably correct. In part, this is because (in my humble opinion) many people are not sufficiently politically informed. I think that it is our duty as citizens to learn enough to cast informed votes, and that this requires both following the news to some extent and also acquiring enough background knowledge (e.g., of economics) to be able to assess what people say.
However, I do not think that it ought to be our duty as citizens to become complete political junkies, the sorts of people who follow each and every twist and turn in a Presidential campaign. Some of us are like that (she said, bashfully), but I cannot see any reason at all why everyone should be.
But when candidates tell the kinds of lies that the Clintons have been telling, they place citizens in a position in which the only way to know what is going on is to become political junkies. Being merely informed is not enough: you have to be the sort of person who actually remembers the article from 2004 that Bill Clinton was referring to when he said that Obama had changed his position on the war, and so forth.
It's like the tobacco companies' attempts to confuse people by coming up with research that seemed to show that smoking was harmless. The strategy is to sow enough doubt that people who are not willing to slog through the science, the interminable debates about the methodological deficiencies of this or that study, etc., etc., etc., are likely to come away with a vague sense that the case that smoking is bad isn't all it's cracked up to be. It is designed to leave people with two options: either spend an awful lot of time working through the science, or be misled. In so doing, it asks a lot of ordinary people who have lives to lead: it prevents them from just reading stuff, forming a more or less correct view, and acting accordingly. And it is deeply wrong.
Likewise here: the Clintons' strategy seems to be designed to leave people with two options: either become political junkies, follow every tiny detail of all these stories, and make up your minds on the merits, or not, in which case you will be left with a vague sense that Obama is not all he should be -- a sense that is wholly unsupported by the facts. (To be clear: I am sure that Obama is not, in fact, all he should be. But to the extent that anyone reaches this conclusion based on lies, their sense that he is not all he should be is not based on facts.)
Ordinary people, who have actual lives, should not have to spend as much time on the minutiae of political campaigns as they would have to to assess the Clintons' claims. In fact, most of them won't. This is fine, or it ought to be: there is no more reason for everyone to be a political junkie (as opposed to merely well-informed) than for everyone to be a triathlete, or obsessed with the history of Renaissance coinage.
When politicians lie, however, they raise the amount of time it takes to do one's job as a citizen adequately, and they raise it dramatically. It's as though they walked up to people and said: if I weren't around, you might be able to fulfill your civic obligations by reading the papers, but thanks to my lies, in order to exercise your right to vote responsibly, you will have to spend hours Googling and going over long-forgotten articles in order to find out the most basic facts. If you don't, I'll be able to deceive you. Ha ha ha!
People who do that have no respect for voters, no respect for their right to make up their own minds, and no respect for our democratic system. The only way they will stop is if we stop tolerating it. In a democracy, we get the leaders we deserve. I very much hope we deserve better than the Clintons*.
*Footnote: as I have already said, I will support Clinton if nominated, because I think that all the Republicans would be vastly worse. (Lies in campaigns versus selling out habeas corpus, or a hundred years in Iraq, or remaking the Constitution according to Biblical principles? Not a close call, for me.) Moreover, since I think the issues at stake in this election are very, very important, I will probably not just support Clinton over any Republican, I'll donate to her and work for her. I'm not sure I ever had the impulse to insist on perfection, or even what strikes me as minimal OK-ness, in politicians; if I did, however, it vanished a long time ago.
I don't have to like it, though. And I don't have to accept it while we still have a choice.
Lies: a short, non-exhaustive list.
(1) The Reagan Quote
Hillary Clinton at the SC Debate:
"The facts are that he has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote."
""Her principal opponent said that since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas," Clinton told a crowd in Pahrump this morning."
What Obama actually said (aka "the exact quote"):
"The Republican approach has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom. Now, you’ve heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they’re being debated among the presidential candidates, it’s all tax cuts. Well, we know, we’ve done that; we’ve tried it. That’s not really going to solve our energy problems, for example."
"The only thing I pointed out was that there was substantially no difference in her record and his on Iraq, and that he had said in 2004 there was no difference between his position and President Bush. And he said that was somehow dishonest, but he never answers how it's not accurate. So this is crazy."
Bill Clinton, earlier:
"Second, it is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, numerating the years, and never got asked one time, not once, 'Well, how could you say, that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution? You said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war and you took that speech you're now running on off your website in 2004 and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?' Give me a break."
Big difference between Clinton's and Obama's record on the war: Obama opposed it in 2002, and said he would not have voted for the Iraq War Resolution, which, of course, Sen. Clinton did vote for. The 2004 quote, in context:
"He opposed the war in Iraq, and spoke against it during a rally in Chicago in the fall of 2002. He said then that he saw no evidence that Iraq had unconventional weapons that posed a threat, or of any link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
In a recent interview, he declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.
"But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports," Mr. Obama said. "What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made."
But Mr. Obama said he did fault Democratic leaders for failing to ask enough tough questions of the Bush administration to force it to prove its case for war. "What I don't think was appropriate was the degree to which Congress gave the president a pass on this," he said."
(OMG, I'm repeating a right-wing talking point!!)
(3) The 'Present' Votes
From the NYT, in an article that came out several weeks before the Clinton flyer:
"Pam Sutherland, president of Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, said Mr. Obama was one of the senators with a strong stand for abortion rights whom the organization approached about using the strategy. Ms. Sutherland said the Republicans were trying to force Democrats from conservative districts to register politically controversial no votes.
Ms. Sutherland said Mr. Obama had initially resisted the strategy because he wanted to vote against the anti-abortion measures.
“He said, ‘I’m opposed to this,’” she recalled.
But the organization argued that a present vote would be difficult for Republicans to use in campaign literature against Democrats from moderate and conservative districts who favored abortion rights."
"The Obama campaign has argued his present votes were part of a legislative strategy devised by the Illinois chapter of Planned Parenthood to counter a Republican leadership strategy to force pro-abortion rights Democrats into politically damaging “no” votes against popular abortion restrictions. The legislators wound then be attacked at election time for voting no legislation with names such as “The Born Alive Infant Protection Act.” The present votes would provide political cover and still have the same effect as a no vote.
The Tribune last year found few lawmakers remembered such a strategy and many of those who joined with Obama to vote present were, like him, in politically safe districts. But leaders of Illinois Planned Parenthood have maintained since the controversy erupted that they did in fact devise the present-vote strategy and asked Obama to participate.
Pam Sutherland, president and CEO of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, vouched again in the conference call that Obama’s present votes were made a the request of Illinois abortion-rights advocates.
“It was our strategy from Planned Parenthood,” Sutherland said.
“Sen. Obama was key to that present-vote strategy,” She continued. “He was always gong to be no votes on all of these bills. But we specifically asked him to vote present because he was so respected among his fellow Democrats that, if he did the present vote, they would follow suit. And that ended up being the case. They did follow suit. And not only did many of the Democrats follow suit. So did a couple of Republicans follow suit."
“It actually worked, because the then-Senate President was no longer able to use these votes against candidates in their races,” Sutherland added.
This is also interesting. And in case anyone wonders whether Pam Sutherland, the head of Illinois Planned Parenthood who appears in many of these stories, is just saying this because of the present election season, here she is giving the same account in 2004. Another person from Planned Parenthood who was involved with this strategy writes about it here.
This line of attack seems to have convinced the former President of Chicago NOW to switch from supporting Hilary to supporting Obama. YouTube videos here.
(4) The Teachers' Union Lawsuit
Bill Clinton on the suit to bar caucus sites in casinos:
"There were teachers who filed the lawsuit. You have asked the question in an accusatory way, so I will ask you back," the former president said. "Do you really believe that all the Democrats understood that they had agreed to give people who worked in the casino a vote worth five times as much as people who voted in their own precinct?"
"Did you know that? Their votes will be counted five times more powerfully, in terms of delegates to the state convention, compared to delegates to the antional convention."
Matthews noted the state party approved the set up.
Clinton: "What happened is nobody understood what happened..they uncovered it. And now everybody's saying, ''Oh, they don't want us to vote...what they really tried to do was to set up a deal where their votes counted five times, maybe even more, as much."
"Well that sounds terribly unfair -- the casino workers' votes will count five times as much? Awful! Except it seems to be completely false. So where did Clinton arrive at this number? I can't say for sure, but it seems he just made it up.
As is often the case in the Rube Goldberg delegate allocation system used in caucuses, there is an absurdly complex formula to determine how many delegates each precinct receives. But the Las Vegas Sun crunched the numbers, and according to their calculation, if 10,000 people voted at the at-large precincts, they would make up around 6 percent of the total delegates for the state. Now, does that mean that the votes of those who vote there will count five times as much as anyone else's? Only if you assume that statewide turnout will be so large the at-large precincts will only make up 1.2 percent of the vote (6 percent divided by 5). That would mean, under this scenario, that total turnout in the Democratic caucus would have to be 833,333.
Will turnout be that high? Well, no. As the Sun recently reported, "Democratic circles are abuzz with excitement about Nevada’s caucus, and people are starting to think that the state party’s early estimate - recently repeated by Sen. Harry Reid - of 100,000 people might just be possible."
In order for the at-large precincts to be over-represented, the turnout there would have to be incredibly low, while turnout everywhere else in the state is incredibly high, and there is no reason to think that will happen."
(Actual Democratic turnout: 116,000.)
The idea that "nobody understood" what rules governed the apportioning of delegates in Nevada until a few days before the caucus, and a few days after the Culinary Union endorsement, is also pretty far-fetched:
"The state Democratic Party unanimously approved the caucus rules last March, and the Democratic National Committee signed on in August. Four of the six plaintiffs [in the suit to ban the caucus sites; hilzoy] are members of the committee that approved the rules."
(5) Social Security
Headline: "We need a president that will help hard-working families keep more of what they earn." Description of Obama: "a plan with a trillion dollar tax increase on America's hard working families. Lifting the cap on Social Security taxes to send more of Nevada families' hard-earned dollars to Washington."
In fact, Obama has no such plan. He has said he would "consider" raising the cap. Oddly enough, so has Clinton:
"Obama tried to describe his position at a campaign stop outside Las Vegas on Wednesday, saying the worst part about the mailer is that Clinton has said she would consider doing the same thing he wants to do.
He said he thinks requiring high-income earners to pay more Social Security taxes is the best way to prevent a cut in benefits.
Currently, workers pay Social Security taxes on the first $97,500 in income - anything above that is exempt. Obama said he would consider keeping the exemption for up to around $200,000, but anyone earning more than that should have to contribute more. He was not specific about what he would do.
"There might be some exemptions, but once people are making over $200,000 to $250,000, they can afford to pay a little more in payroll tax," Obama said. (...)
Three months ago, Clinton told an Iowa voter privately that she would consider raising the income limit as long as there was a "gap," with no Social Security taxes on income from $97,500 to around $200,000. An Associated Press reporter overheard the conversation."
In addition, the $1 trillion figure is wrong. Eliminating the cap -- not raising it, and not exempting people who make between from $97,500 and $200,000 -- would raise $1 trillion over ten years (cite, pdf), but Obama has not proposed eliminating the cap. Moreover, not including the 'over ten years' part is deeply misleading. (I mean, I could describe a one cent increase in, say, drivers' license fees as "a trillion dollar tax increase" if I got to add, under my breath: "over the next five millenia.")
And let's not even get into the question whether voters making over $200,000-250,000 count as middle class.