Obama Takes Heat from the Other Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton is brushing off criticism that his campaign-trail rhetoric unfairly targets Sen. Barack Obama. Obama has complained that he's not sure who he is running against: Sen. Hillary Clinton, her husband, or both.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's something else Hillary Clinton is counting on. Bill Clinton is campaigning for his wife, denouncing Barack Obama and facing accusations of making distortions. Some of Obama's allies see a racial element to all this.

And the leading South Carolina Democrat says Mr. Clinton needs to, quote, "chill," which he's not - as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: During the Democrats' debate earlier this week in South Carolina, Barack Obama complained that at times he didn't know who he was running against - Hillary Clinton or her husband or both.

For weeks the Clintons have waged a frontal assault on Obama, from comments the Illinois senator made about Ronald Reagan to accusations of voter suppression by the Obama campaign in Nevada.

Weeks back, when the former president referred to Obama's Iraq war opposition as a fairy tale, some considered it as going too far. Obama supporters insist that it's time for Bill Clinton to dial it down.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): That's beneath the dignity of a former president.

CORNISH: That's Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy yesterday in Washington. Leahy has endorsed Obama.

Sen. LEAHY: There's a great deal of good things you could say about Senator Clinton, but - so to say the good things about her. Don't take cheap shots at Senator Obama.

CORNISH: Bill Clinton was anything but contrite. He accused the Obama campaign and the media of focusing on race and on the bickering between the two camps. At a campaign stop at a Charleston restaurant yesterday, the former president heard one voter refer to race bating in describing the recent back and forth. But Clinton says this isn't about race.

President BILL CLINTON: When you try to state a fact, it is wrong to accuse somebody who has a difference with Senator Obama of being a racist or somebody that has a difference with Hillary being a sexist. This is what we've been - some of us living for for our whole lives, waiting until we could all freely run and say whatever the heck was on our mind.

CORNISH: Clinton says some of the more, quote, "edgy stuff" was just part of honest debate. But voters who came out to see the 42nd president weren't so sure.

Nancy Olsen is a Clinton supporter on Goose Creek, South Carolina.

Ms. NANCY OLSEN: I guess I'm a little discouraged about that. I can't say he's done her any big favors lately. I'm very supportive of his being supportive of her and I'm glad he's out there, but I think his tone has been a little bit too strong.

CORNISH: Audrey Robinson and Marilyn Payett(ph) are both Clinton fans but undecided voters from Charleston.

Ms. AUDREY ROBINSON: It seems as though being that he's been in that office, he knows exactly, you know, what things are going on and have the inside scoop, so it seems as though he would take a different route on how he...

Ms. MARILYN PAYETT: He should not have gone that way. I think it's improbable for him being a former president to go that route. That's too much bickering. You know, he should stay political and go straight ahead and what the issues are.

CORNISH: But Joqata Jones(ph) says Clinton is doing no worse for his wife than any other candidates' spouse on the campaign trail.

Ms. JOQATA JONES: Nobody's going to push Michelle Obama around, you know? When they criticize Senator Edwards about some haircut or something, his wife nearly lost it. You know, she's tackled everybody who thought they had a criticism. So it's just that because he's so prominent that of course whatever he said ended up being engrained in people's minds.

CORNISH: Which may be why this week the Obama campaign announced it was starting a so-called truth squad to follow Bill Clinton around the state. The good news for both candidates is that none of the voters here say the bickering will affect their vote. Of course there are still two more days to go before Saturday's primary.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

INSKEEP: I've been reading this rundown of the politics and issues at stake in Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, and you can read it as well, if you like. Just go to npr.org/elections.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Bill Clinton Draws Fire for Attacking Hillary's Rivals

Clinton

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), at West End Community Development Center in Greenville, S.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former President Bill Clinton has been omnipresent on the campaign trail.

He has spoken to adoring crowds of Democrats and then, delivered red-faced rants to reporters. He has campaigned with his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, and campaigned without her.

The Clintons are increasingly being seen and covered as a pair — as though the two of them are running for president. This time, Hillary Clinton is the candidate, while Bill Clinton is the attack dog.

Sometimes he's not just attacking her opponents. Last week, he lacerated a reporter who asked him about a lawsuit that Clinton supporters had filed in Nevada. The lawsuit was in objection to state caucus rules, which Clinton supporters believed favored Obama supporters.

"Don't be accusatory with me. I had nothing to do with this lawsuit," Clinton told the reporter. "Some people in Nevada are old-fashioned. They think the rules should be the same for everybody, and everybody's vote should count the same. I had nothing to do with that lawsuit and you know it."

Hillary Clinton said she was neutral about the lawsuit. In the end, a judge ruled against the Clinton supporters who had brought it.

This was just the latest Bill Clinton tirade.

The former president has compared criticism of his wife to Republicans' swift boat attacks. He has called Obama's position on Iraq a "fairy tale" and has excoriated the media for not investigating Obama's past.

Sally Bedell Smith, who has written a book about the Clintons, is not surprised by the former president's intense, often emotional role in the campaign.

"Since Hillary's first race for the Senate in 2000, he has been very immersed in her campaigns in a way that they've almost become an extension of himself," Smith said.

That phenomenon, or impulse to justify his legacy, has become more apparent in the past few months, and at times, it has caused real problems for his wife, particularly when he said that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning: a statement that was easily disproved within a matter of hours.

Democratic strategist, Anita Dunn, thinks the former president's leading role in the attack on Obama poses potential risks to his reputation.

"I think that Bill Clinton always is concerned about his legacy. Clearly, his chief legacy would be to see Hillary Clinton being elected president, and he's fighting as only he can for that end," Dunn said. "But a huge part of that legacy also was the extraordinary affection and respect that African-Americans had for him. And he does run a risk with that huge part of the Democratic base, if he does continue personal attacks on Barrack Obama in this way. Short-term gain, long-term pain."

On the whole, Democrats agree that Bill Clinton is a net asset for his wife. He is a surrogate like no other — someone whose every word gets maximum media coverage. Democrats say his attacks on Obama worked in New Hampshire, by helping to crowd out Obama's message. It wasn't pretty, said one strategist, but it did help her win.

But other Democratic strategists, like Steve McMahon worry that the attacks could cause serious rifts inside the Democratic party — a potential problem for a general election.

"The campaign that Sen. Clinton and President Clinton are engaged in right now is a campaign designed to raise doubts about Barack Obama. To the extent that that's successful in the short term, I think it puts them in a position where, long term, they may do damage. If she is the nominee, and they're trying to get the Barack Obama-Lover back into the fold to support Hillary Clinton as vigorously as they'll need to in November in order for her to be successful, it's a very tough position to be in."

Then, as Sally Bedell Smith says, there is the famous Bill Clinton temper.

"One danger for them is that these displays of anger recall a lot of that turbulence from the 90s when they were arrayed against their enemies. If going forward, the nation wants to try and repair those sorts of rifts, it's not a reminder that's very helpful," she said.

Obama only mentions these issues obliquely, saying he doesn't want to refight the battles of the 1990s. But in a general election, if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, Republicans will not hesitate to be very specific.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.