Clinton New Hampshire Campaign Bigwig Raises Obama Drug Issue

In a tactic similar to the widely-condemned political technique called “push-polling,” a top Hillary Clinton campaign official in New Hampshire pointedly raised Clinton political foe Senator Barack Obama’s own admission of drug use in a way that was sure to get the issue out there to voters and the press.

But will it backfire?

This latest attempt to drive up Obama’s negatives appears to be one more sign of growing concern in the Clinton campaign that Hillary Clinton’s inevitability is now about as inevitable as a sunny month in Seattle.

And a campaign that once seemed seamless and unifying now appears to need an emergency trip to the tailor’s shop since the seams are falling apart as the campaign risks dividing its own party and handing plenty of ammunition to any Republican who runs against Senator Clinton — if she gets the “inevitable” nomination.

The details in the news report aren’t pretty:

Billy Shaheen, the co-chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in New Hampshire, raised the issue of Sen. Barack Obama’s past admissions of drug use in discussing the relative electability of the Democrats seeking the presidential nomination today.

The fact is: this issue has not been an issue in the national press and even most conservative talk show hosts didn’t talk about it. It is now being raised by the Clinton camp as they see Ms. Clinton’s polls becoming increasingly tepid.

In an interview, Shaheen said, he remains perplexed about why, at this fraught point in history, voters and the media are not giving more attention to experienced Democratic candidates such as Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and are instead elevating into the first tier alongside Clinton a pair of candidates with less experience in Washington, Barack Obama and John Edwards. Shaheen also expressed his personal misgivings about whether Obama or Edwards would be electable if they became the party’s nominee.

Among his concerns about Obama as the nominee, he said in an interview here today, is that his background is so relatively unknown and that the Republicans would do their best to unearth negative aspects of it, or concoct mistruths about it. Shaheen, a lawyer and influential state power broker, mentioned as an example Obama’s use of cocaine and marijuana as a young man, which Obama has been open about in his memoir and on the trail.

“The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight … and one of the things they’re certainly going to jump on is his drug use,” said Shaheen, the husband of former N.H. governor Jeanne Shaheen, who is planning to run for the Senate next year. Billy Shaheen contrasted Obama’s openness about his past drug use — which Obama mentioned again at a recent campaign appearance in New Hampshire — with the approach taken by George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000, when he ruled out questions about his behavior when he was “young and irresponsible.”

Shaheen said Obama’s candor on the subject would “open the door” to further questions. “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’” Shaheen said. “There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It’s hard to overcome.”

Even a political novice can see this technique is akin to “push-polling” where a caller raises negative issues about someone while asking a question. Basically, Shaheen morphed into a Republican operative and asked the questions to get them out there, couching himself within a cocoon of plausible deniability that he was raising them himself.

Shaheen’s remarks were some of the most direct to date by Clinton campaign officials in addressing the issue of Obama’s past drug use as a potential problem in the general election. This week, the Clinton campaign has been focusing on the broader issue of Obama’s electability, arguing that Democrats would be better off nominating a tested candidate like Clinton. The Obama campaign declined to comment on Shaheen’s electability remarks.

This new “dirty tricks” twist — the Clinton camp raising the issue and blaming it on what the Republicans MIGHT do — is fraught with serious short and long term dangers for the Clinton campaign. Among them:

(1) It negates all the imagery the campaign did early on to create a more likable Hillary Clinton. If she thinks this has no place in the campaign — raising something Obama himself raised months ago in his book — then she needs to fire Shaheen and denounce this type of politics.

(2) After this episode, it will be difficult for Ms. Clinton or her husband Bill Clinton to ever denounce “the politics of personal destruction” that occurred during Bill Clinton’s term as president, or any other instances in the future. How can the campaign condemn Karl Rovian tactics when it is practicing them?

(3) Clinton is distrusted by her party’s left and this won’t help her. Having what some will interpret as a political surrogate try to get the drug issue out there to use against Obama will enrage many progressives who already distrust Clinton.

(4) The press is likely to take the gloves off more than ever when it comes to the Hillary Clinton campaign now. A recent report indicates that the smear against Obama having gone to a Muslim school came from a Hillary Clinton campaign worker, not the GOP. So this is now the second instance of personal attack politics coming from the Clinton side against Obama.

(5) Republicans and conservative talk show hosts will likely have a field day with this.
Each instance that surfaces of mega-hardball Clinton camp tactics will be used to say “Aha! See! They haven’t changed.” It’s hard to imagine Clinton running as a less-polarizing figure since voters who don’t like her or who have been skeptical of her will not like her more if they see her campaign doing slash-and-stab political tactics against Obama.

How big a bungle is this?

Even sampling some of the sentiment in the blogosphere confirms that the Clinton campaign could wind up literally winning the battle and losing the war — particularly in terms of imagery and eventually party unity.

The Clinton camp has issued a statement saying the comments weren’t officially authorized — but to many in the press (and many voters) who know how politics works, they will assume rightfully or wrongfully that this is a classic case of the use of a surrogate coupled with a statement of “plausible deniability.” Bottom line: the septic tank has been emptied — and not by the Republicans.

UPDATE:Shaheen has now issued a formal apology, saying he regrets his comments and they weren’t authorized by the campaign. But many will NOT buy it: (a) the sleaze was still shoved out there (b) there is no report yet that the Hillary Clinton campaign has dismissed him, (c) the Clinton camp’s own statement doesn’t totally repudiate the use of the issue, the points made by him, etc. Even with the apology, it still appears part of an effort to get an issue out into the press and to voters. It will likely not help Ms. Clinton with independent voters, either.

A SAMPLING OF WEBLOG REACTION:

Andrew Sullivan:

The hints were there already, but now a Clinton surrogate is flaying Obama for his refreshing candor about past drug-use. Again: this is the politics of fear. Check out the classic Clinton defensive crouch with respect to the GOP..But it’s a sign of how worried they are that their coronation has turned into something a little more complicated.

Roger L. Simon:

Now the Clinton folks are about to attack Obama for drug use. Well, gag me with a coke spoon! If this doesn’t win the hypocrisy sweepstakes, what does? All they are doing is reminding us of one of Bill’s most famous myriad howlers – “I tried it but I didn’t inhale” …. right up there with “I didn’t have sex with that woman.”

BarbinMD at Daily Kos:

It’s hard to say which is the most offensive part about this “concern” from Shaheen. Perhaps that he ignores that it was Obama himself who opened the door when he wrote his autobiography, and that he has used that chapter in his life to convince young people that drugs are a waste of time…Or perhaps it’s that Shaheen talks about Republican dirty tricks as he himself is engaging in them….So, the comments were not authorized or condoned, but then again, they weren’t condemned, were they? And will Billy Shaheen, who is no political innocent, pay any price for his comments? Or was this a directed hit from a floundering campaign?

Riehl World View:

Hillary is trapped in her past. Forget issues around Bill, the issue will not resonate as it only somewhat did when Bill ran. Obama did what Bill didn’t do in 1992, he neutralized it by confessing in a book and moved on. The American people have too when it comes to past drug use, particularly on the Democrat and Liberal side. Hillary has now waded into the heart of the politics of personal destruction. She, of all people, will get stuck in that swamp, particularly as Iowa voters detest negative politics. With Oprah this weekend … geesh. Hillary’s polling must have shown she needed to throw a bomb. She has. And it will explode in her face.

Truthdig:

Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign co-chair issued a sleazy attack on Barack Obama on Wednesday, which he tried to pass off as an exploration of “openings for Republican dirty tricks.” It’s a tactic we’re likely to see more of as the candidates jockey for position and one-time front runners get desperate.

Right Wing Sparkle:

Remember when Novak said the Clinton campaign had something on Obama and Obama diffused it by saying he wasn’t playing that game? The Clinton campaign has something on Obama, but they don’t want to be the ones to put it out there and they are just simmering for it to get it out.

I think it would be sweet for Romney, McCain, Thompson, Giuliani, and Huckabee’s campaigns to all come out and say, “We promise we will not be asking those questions in the general election. We understand Obama’s past discretions and considered it done.”

Wouldn’t that be delicious?

The Talking Dog (a TMV co-blogger) has a must-read post on his site, written in his inimitable style. A tiny piece of it:

This smear is, of course, a trial balloon at this stage, but an interesting one, coming from the spouse of Bill “I did not inhale… or have sex with that woman” Clinton. It’s certainly understandable why Hillary Clinton– who is in a dead heat with my college classmate Barack (no, I didn’t know him then, and indeed, no one I know knew him, which makes it somewhat difficult for me to comment on his drug use from 1981 to 1983, anyway)– would feel the need to try and go dirty at this stage. We are around 3 weeks from the Iowa caucus with all-important New Hampshire right after. Both are states where Sen. Clinton has not only failed to put away Obama, but she is actually slightly behind him, to the extent that the current polling means anything (though, the two are within margins of error), but the momentum is the wrong way for her. (Blame it on Oprah!)…

Anyway, go ahead, Senator Clinton, and attack Senator Obama on his drug use… that’ll be bound to score points in the “Live Free or Die” state. (To quote Dick Cheney… “big time”.)

Donklephant’s Justin Gardner (also a TMV co-blogger):

Excuse me, but didn’t Hillary’s husband talk about his drug use? And sure, he got nailed for it, but only because he told a half truth. Still, that guy became President. Twice.

I don’t know why the Clinton camp is letting these folks talk about Obama like this. It’s just dumb. It makes them look petty and pushes Barack further above the fray.