Questions are not attacks

Hillary Clinton’s ringing phone commercial has been called an attack ad. It’s not. Since when is questioning a candidate’s qualifications and comparing them to your own an attack? If even discussion of experience and ability becomes politically incorrect, our politics are in deep trouble. Qualifications and policies should be the essence of a campaign.

I heard that commercial referred to as an attack ad when I was interviewed the other night for More 4 news in London and I see it again in David Brooks’ column today. No, an attack ad is one the goes after character instead of qualification, one that tries to create scandal as political leverage, one that’s nasty rather than informative. We know attack ads when we see them. This is no attack ad.

Brooks is arguing that Obama’s campaign faces a fundamental choice: to continue to argue that he can bring a politics of reconciliation to Washington or to lose that, the essence of his campaign, and go on the attack. If, indeed, the Obama camp launches attack ads, that’s true.

But let’s not mistake substantive debate for attack. It’s legitimate for Clinton to question Obama’s experience and abilities in foreign affairs. And it’s legitimate for Obama to question various of Clinton’s qualification. And I do wish they’d discuss differences on issues and policies at every opportunity. Out of that debate comes a better election.

I’ll define the Obama campaign’s problem a bit differently from Brooks: They will be drawn to specifics on both qualifications and policies now, specifics they have masterfully avoided so far in their puffy clouds of rhetoric.

Brooks argues that the lesson here may be that you can’t change politics. That may well be true. But I don’t think Obama is teaching us that lesson. I’ve been saying that he has been running the ultimate political campaign, one built on political rhetoric and style over substance. But Brooks comes around to nearly this view at the end:

In short, a candidate should never betray the core theory of his campaign, or head down a road that leads to that betrayal. Barack Obama doesn’t have an impressive record of experience or a unique policy profile. New politics is all he’s got. He loses that, and he loses everything. Every day that he looks conventional is a bad day for him.

Besides, the real softness of the campaign is not that Obama is a wimp. It’s that he has never explained how this new politics would actually produce bread-and-butter benefits to people in places like Youngstown and Altoona.

If he can’t explain that, he’s going to lose at some point anyway.

So if he is forced to explain that and if he does it well, it could actually be good for him. Depends on what he has to say. And now we have five months to hear it. I think that’s a good thing for the campaign.

(Repeated disclosure: I voted for Clinton.)

  • Are you saying pundits can be totally clueless? Why I’m shocked, just shocked.

  • Paw

    Although I consider him among the least funny individuals my tribe has ever produced, Larry David nails it on HuffPo, as follows:

    How is it that she became the one who’s perceived as more equipped to answer that 3 a.m. call than the unflappable Obama? He, with the ice in his veins, who doesn’t panic when he’s losing or get too giddy when he’s winning, who’s as comfortable in his own skin as she’s uncomfortable in hers. There have been times in this campaign when she seemed so unhinged that I worried she’d actually kill herself if she lost.

    As far as substance and bread-and-butter benefits are concerned, Hillary has yet to provide a single iota of either to my little corner of New York (Long Island), during her years of completely undistinguished service. She is proven worthless, as opposed to Obama, who may be equally worthless but has yet to come to bat .

  • Saying “Questions are not attacks” is about as valid as saying “There are no stupid questions.” “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is obviously an attack, and “Are you planning to kill me, since I can identify you as my kidnapper?” is obviously a stupid question.

    So do you think it would be an attack if you heard the phone ringing seven times, with nobody answering it, and then cut to a clip of Hillary crying?

    Would it be an attack if you showed Bill campaigning, and the voiceover asked, “Do you suppose the North Koreans figure they can get away with whatever they might do, and she’ll forgive them, too?”

    Would it be an attack if you heard the phone ringing, and then cut to an answering machine saying, “Sorry, we’re not able to answer the phone right now. We’re in Iraq for the next hundred years, but if you leave your name, number, and the name of your community that’s just been hit by a hurricane, we’ll eventually get back to you.”

    Disclosure: I’m probably going to vote for Ron Paul on April 22. It’s a closed primary. I’m not sure yet who I’ll vote for this fall, but it won’t be Hillary Diane Clinton.

  • Howard

    Your premise is flawless; of course it’s legitimate to question an opponent’s qualifications. Of course we ALL wish “they’d discuss differences on issues and policies at every opportunity.”

    The issue here is this specific ad: it’s fear-based, non-specific and pitched to purely emotional levels. It doesn’t add one iota to the public ability to contrast the qualifications of the two.

    That’s the debate you’re applauding?

  • Howard,
    It’s a 30-second spot. They never say much. I’ll repeat what I said above: questioning and comparing qualifications is a legitimate part of a campaign.

  • Of course it’s an attack ad. It ATTACKS Sen. Obama’s qualifications for office.

  • So what’s an opponent to do, then: Say the other guy’s perfect and just quit because of it? Questioning each other’s qualifications — so we can question them both — is the essential discussion in a campaign. Jeesh.

  • Eric Jaffa

    I would prefer to have Barack Obama as president handling a crisis than Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

    Obama is eager to meet with all the world’s leaders, including the leaders of hostile governments. He’d be more likely to have established lines of communication he could use in a crisis.

  • I agree with Mr. Francis, of course it is an attack ad. I attacks Sen. Obama’s character in a potential crisis situation. And it does not provide any specific information on Sen. Clinton’s qualifications. Worse yet, it’s not even original; if I’m not mistaken, Carter used the same ad against Reagan.

    I’m still waiting for someone to seriously question Clinton about her so-called experience. So far her campaign has done an excellent job of framing her as the one with 35 years of hard fought “experience” and Obama as the intellectual, pie in the sky, dreamer. The media just seems to take this template as fact.

    In the spirit of disclosure, I don’t have a dog in this race– I’ll be voting for McCain (someone who’s experience trumps both Dem candidates).

  • Cooler Heads

    This ad is an attack. But what a hoot! Who might be calling the White House at 3AM? Monica? Bambi? Bill, who has run out of gas AGAIN on the parkway home?

    Too funny.

  • The problem with the 3 a.m. ads is that it helps McCain.

    “Please keep running those 3:00 A.M. ads about who you want to answer the phone,” said Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s top foreign policy adviser, “because we like those.”

    Hillary is also out there saying that she and McCain have the experience and Obama doesn’t. Hey it’s OK to question your opponent’s qualifications, but Hillary is basically saying she’d rather have McCain as president than Obama.

    She keeps talking like that and she’ll have to join up with Joe Lieberman.

  • kat

    It is not an attack ad. It questions Obama’s ability to deal with a crisis.
    But it is quite clear that any questions regarding Obama are deemed an attack–the media has made him their chosen one and how dare Hillary suggest that he may not be up to the job. If the 3 am call came, Obama would just talk to the terrorists and ask them to be nice.

  • Aspertame

    Increasing, I am disenthralled with Obama. That does not make me more receptive to the Clinton rhetoric. Right or wrong, it reinforces my impression that there could be a fairly seamless transition from Bush to Hilary. Way to continue to play on fear!

  • kat

    Yes, the Obama side really knows how to play on fear so as everyone is afraid to question Sir Obama for fear of being called a bigot, a fear mongerer, a racist, or whatever else you have. Why is it wrong to question whether Obama is less qualified than Hillary? Why is it wrong to say his middle name–will he change it to Horace if he is elected and has to swear allegiance using his full name? Is he ashamed of his own name? Why is it wrong to question his dealing with Rezko, Donny McClurkin, William Ayers, Rashid Khalidi, Nadhmi Auchi, etc.? Why does the media make a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to McCain’s testiness with a Times reporter yesterday, but gloss over Obama’s whining on having answered 8 questions already? ” Aw, gee guys, you’re not supposed to ask me tough questions–you’ve always asked me the easy ones. What gives now. Sniff, sniff.”
    It seems to me that if Hillary asks a question about the chosen one, she is accused of playing on fear. Well, I’m afraid, very afraid, that Obama will be given a free pass to the Whitehouse, and all he is, is an empty suit with nice words who claims he has the power of good judgement. Where was that good judgement in his dealings with Rezco, Ayers, Auchi?

  • Aspertame

    I volunteer at the local PS – overheard: “I’m not comfortable with the fact that he doesn’t have a more American name.”

    Disingenuous to bat one’s eyes and ask above questions without acknowledging the not at ALL subtle baiting going on with his name. What an “in your face” it is to the Muslim world, by the way, to see a candidate with such a name even progress *this* far. Could the reverse happen over there? (“Kennedy” was not such an American name either, at one time. Or “Guiliani”.)

    On her side, it’s just a given that Every Single Day, Clinton gets baited as regards her own name. The difference? There just aren’t enough charismatic *liberal* televangelists or Rush/Coulter equivalents to keep the spotlight focused there. Funny that on the GOP side, all attacks lately seem to be more about advancing Clinton’s candidacy than tearing her down.

    4 more years of BilHil in the White House. Maybe 8. Do I really have to be a Clinton “Hater” to think that this is a Very Bad Idea? That they had their moment and that nothing good will come from the reprise? That even just in a demoncratic (anti-monarchic) sense, that it’s a bad idea to keep Presidential Power “in the family”? (The hand playing: “I’ll call your son and raise you a wife!”)

    Again, repeat, I’m not an Obama fan. Give me a viable alternative to the current 3 stooges. Please?

  • P. Henry

    Found this on the web, food for thought.

    Posted by OldMan March 6, 2008

    Hillary’s Resume

    Hillary Clinton has been telling America that she is the most qualified candidate for president based on her ‘record,’ which she says includes her eight years in the White House as First Lady – or ‘co-president’ – and her seven years in the Senate.

    Here is a reminder of what that record includes:

    – As First Lady, Hillary assumed authority over Health Care Reform, a process that cost the taxpayers over $13 million. She told both Bill Bradley and Patrick Moynihan, key votes needed to pass her legislation, that she would ‘demonize’ anyone who opposed it. But it was opposed; she couldn’t even get it to a vote in a Congress controlled by her own party. (And in the next election, her party lost control of both the House and Senate.)

    – Hillary assumed authority over selecting a female Attorney General. Her first two recommendations, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, were forced to withdraw their names from consideration. She then chose Janet Reno. Janet Reno has since been described by Bill himself as ‘my worst mistake.’

    – Hillary recommended Lani Guanier for head of the Civil Rights Commission. When Guanier’s radical views became known, her name had to be withdrawn.

    – Hillary recommended her former law partners, Web Hubbell, Vince Foster, and William Kennedy for positions in the Justice Department, White House staff, and the Treasury, respectively. Hubbell was later imprisoned, Foster committed suicide? (explained death), and Kennedy was forced to resign.

    – Hillary also recommended a close friend of the Clintons, Craig Livingstone, for the position of director of White House security. When Livingstone was investigated for the improper access of up to 900 FBI files of Clinton enemies (“Filegate”) and the widespread use of drugs by White House staff, both Hillary and her husband denied knowing him. FBI agent Dennis Sculimbrene confirmed in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 1996, both the drug use and Hillary’s involvement in hiring Livingstone. After that, the FBI closed its White House Liaison Office, after serving seven presidents for over thirty years.

    – In order to open “slots” in the White House for her friends the Thomasons (to whom millions of dollars in travel contracts could be awarded), Hillary had the entire staff of the White House Travel Office fired; they were reported to the FBI for ‘gross mismanagement’ and their reputations ruined. After a thirty-month investigation, only one, Billy Dale, was charged with a crime – mixing personal money with White House funds when he cashed checks. The jury acquitted him in less than two hours.

    – Another of Hillary’s assumed duties was directing the ‘bimbo eruption squad’ and scandal defense:

    —- She urged her husband not to settle the Paula Jones lawsuit.

    —- She refused to release the Whitewater documents, which led to the appointment of Ken Starr as Special Prosecutor. After $80 million dollars of taxpayer money was spent, Starr’s investigation led to Monica Lewinsky, which led to Bill lying about and later admitting his affairs.

    —- Then they had to settle with Paula Jones after all.

    —- And Bill lost his law license for lying to the grand jury

    —- And Bill was impeached by the House.

    —- And Hillary almost got herself indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice (she avoided it mostly because she repeated, ‘I do not recall,’ ‘I have no recollection,’ and ‘I don’t know’ 56 times under oath).

    – Hillary wrote ‘It Takes a Village,’ demonstrating her Socialist viewpoint.

    – Hillary decided to seek election to the Senate in a state she had never lived in. Her husband pardoned FALN terrorists in order to get Latino support and the New Square Hassidim to get Jewish support. Hillary also had Bill pardon her brother’s clients, for a small fee, to get financial support.

    – Then Hillary left the White House, but later had to return $200,000 in White House furniture, china, and artwork she had stolen.

    – In the campaign for the Senate, Hillary played the ‘woman card’ by portraying her opponent (Lazio) as a bully picking on her.

    – Hillary’s husband further protected her by asking the National Archives to withhold from the public until 2012 many records of their time in the White House, including much of Hillary’s correspondence and her calendars. (There are ongoing lawsuits to force the release of those records.)

    – As the junior Senator from New York, Hillary has passed no major legislation. She has deferred to the senior Senator (Schumer) to tend to the needs of New Yorkers, even on the hot issue of medical problems of workers involved in the cleanup of Ground Zero after 9/11.

    – Hillary’s one notable vote; supporting the plan to invade Iraq, she has since disavowed.

    Quite a Rap Sheet or resume. Sounds more like an organized crime family’s rap sheet.

    The most amazing thing that real Americans ask:
    How in hell can trash like this be elevated to this level and become a serious candidate for President of the United States.

    God help us!

  • kat

    -Barack Obama served as a paid director alongside a confessed domestic terrorist granted funding to a controversial Arab group that mourns the establishment of Israel as a “catastrophe” and supports intense immigration reform, including providing drivers licenses and education to illegal aliens.
    The co-founder of the Arab group in question, Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, also has held a fundraiser for Obama. Khalidi is a harsh critic of Israel, has made statements supportive of Palestinian terror and reportedly has worked on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization while it was involved in anti-Western terrorism and was labeled by the State Department as a terror group.
    In 2001, the Woods Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit that describes itself as a group helping the disadvantaged, provided a $40,000 grant to the Arab American Action Network, or AAAN, for which Khalidi’s wife, Mona, serves as president. The Fund provided a second grant to the AAAN for $35,000 in 2002.
    Obama was a director of the Woods Fund board from 1999 to Dec. 11, 2002, according to the Fund’s website.  According to tax filings, Obama received compensation of $6,000 per year for his service in 1999 and 2000.
    Obama served on the Wood’s Fund board alongside William C. Ayers, a member of the Weathermen terrorist group which sought to overthrow of the U.S. government and took responsibility for bombing the U.S. Capitol in 1971.
    –Robert Malley, an adviser to Obama who has advocated negotiations with Hamas and providing international assistance to the terrorist group.

    –Dirty Chicago politics-

    Need we say more–quite a rap sheet–and there is more, or how in hell can trash like this be elevated to this level and become a serious candidate for President of the United States.(your words). If you want to talk about organized crime, you’d best study Obama’s friends in Chicago.

  • MD

    Isn’t this a premise based on a Harrison Ford movie? I’m surprised Jarvis is so wrapped up into the question, or is he? Does he feel Obama can’t handle that call and Hillary can? If so by what standard is he basing this, her 4 more years in elected office?

    None of us are idiots so to suggest that Hillary has launched nothing but fair attacks at Obama is idiotic. I remember South Carolina, as do many other people who don’t happen to be black. As for style over substance I again marvel at how short-sighted people get during a political season. I don’t think Obama has to prove that he’s smart enough for the job. He’s written 2 books and gained endorsement from extremely influential colleagues. That’s substance. If you want to question his “seasoning” okay, fair. But can we stop making him into some sort of Bush-lite.

    Once again I find the Hillary supporters way more inclined to belittle the opponent instead of just liking their candidate more. They have a sense of entitlement and that you could compare unfavorably to the Bushies

  • George Miles

    Declaration of Independent Democrats

    When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for the people of a political party to make a Pledge that on November 4, 2008, I will only vote for the candidate that wins the most pledged delegates in the Democratic nomination process of 2008. If through an undemocratic act of arrogance the party leadership or Super Delegates override the will of the pledged delegates and not offer the legitimate winner of all the pledged delegates as the parties nominee, I will only vote for the legitimate winner of the pledged delegates as a Write In Candidate on November 4, 2008. This pledge is made as an act of moral conscious in the name of justice, honor, liberty and democracy. A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we should declare the causes which impel us to sign this Declaration of Independent Democrats Pledge.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all women and men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness along with the right to collectively determine the nominee of our party based on the popular vote of each and every member within our party. There is no place for the elitist undemocratic institution of a Super Delegate in the Democratic Party, for we are the party of and by the people.

    The purpose of this pledge is to stop Senator Hillary Clinton from leading the Democrat Party into a suicide charge of spin and hype that dishonestly will perpetrate an undemocratic and Un-American disenfranchisement of the loyal Democrat voters that participated in ALL the Democrat Primaries and Caucuses. In simple terms, we don’t want Senator Clinton to do the same thing to us that George W. Bush did to us in 2000; steel the election.

    This is not a threat, it is a serious pledge and before making this pledge really ask yourself if you intend to back it up.

    This is not a strategic pledge it is a moral one that is meant to inform the corrupt and arrogant powerful within the Democratic Party that we the people will not put up with anything but a legitimates democratic out come in the picking of the Democrat Party’s Nominee for the President of the United States. To be consistent with the morality of fairness Florida and Michigan must be redone, allowing a fair competition. This actually benefits Senator Clinton by giving her more potential elected delegates to try and win to over come Senator Obama’s delegate lead. This is honorable and legitimate and fair.

    With regard to the extremely undemocratic existence of the Super Delegates, this should be the last election that Super Delegates take part in. The Democratic Party needs to really be a party of the people and abolish the Super Delegates after this election. Sadly in this election the Super Delegates have to determine the future of the Democratic Party, so they seriously need to consider the impact of this pledge and the impact of their actions!

  • lovell

    Hi, I got your website off CNN. I do got ask you some question because I am black and I am honor to see a Female and a Black American running for the office. But is it stricking how it is Hillary Clinton that said at the beginning that Michigan and Florida will not count because they move up their voting dates. Was it Hillary saying she have 30 years experience and then want bring up these records. Why have she shown her tax records. You is a supporter of her enlight me on her 30 years experience. Because if she had all this experience what did Al Gore do. He was the Vice President and he was not even elected in 2000. He was a white man and he came from Bill Clinton cambinet. Here you have a female and a black man both will be targets for the Republican but one have more baggage then the other. Do you think Hillary will pull off? Unless you are a sleep she will not get the votes if Republican got anything to do with it. For as Obama only thing they can try to do is speak on his name, try to tie him with Rizko and that is it. Then experience but I do not think they will win on that win the Economy and this War is doing bad. So again please tell me how will Hillary win? Since you got all the answers. My email is on here because I want you to persuavie me.

  • kat

    So all Obama has going for him is a muslim name and a crooked land deal? What reasons can you give that he is capable of being a leader? Yes, Hillary has a record, some of which you may not like, but that has to be better than no record at all. If a long record is a hindrance, and an empty suit is a plus, then God help America. Hopefully, McCain will crush him.

  • Fountain of obvious

    Uh, Hillary’s problem:

    She doesn’t have any experience either – and she’s not even willing to admit it.

  • You have to be joking. As long as it’s posed in the form of a question it’s not an attack? I guess that means as long as I ask “Is Jeff Jarvis insane?” instead of saying “Jeff Jarvis is insane” then I’m being fair.

    If the answer to the question is so heavily implied that it’s obvious, then it’s not a question.