For the past few weeks, Bill Clinton has been leading many attacks against Obama. He is the one, for example, who brought Iraq back to the table first two weeks ago by attacking Barack’s shady record there — famously or infamously calling his anti-war reputation a “fairy tale.” Meanwhile, Hillary has remained slightly out of the attack circuit, which has allowed the campaign to get a lot of attention for its attacks (which other Clinton surrogate would the media cover even half as much as Bill?) while leaving the candidate out of the fray.
This strategy was especially successful in Nevada, where Bill Clinton went all out; he accused the Culinary of intimidating union workers (and claimed he had witnessed that), he went to the casinos the morning of the caucuses, etc. And Obama now realizes that he needs to fight back and cannot let Bill Clinton go unanswered. Speaking on ABC this morning, Obama said, “We’ve got a formidable opponent — actually, two formidable opponents, at this point, between Senator Clinton and President Clinton.”
Pressed on that point, he blasted the Clintons for “unbelievable falsehoods” and went after Bill Clinton directly: “He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts — whether it’s about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas. This has become a habit, and one of the things that we’re gonna have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he’s making statements that are not factually accurate.”
This is not a good situation for Obama to be caught in. His campaign realizes it needs to do something about Bill Clinton and that getting Obama himself to push back is probably the only way. But this draws Obama in a back-and-forth with his rival’s spouse rather than with the candidate herself. The media can now paint a Bill Clinton-Obama showdown during which Hillary can go around campaigning on positive rhetoric — and be covered as such.
This is why Bill Clinton is such a huge asset to his wife, no matter how many reports are being filed about his putting his foot in his mouth. The former president will always be covered by the media, and he is probably the only surrogate besides a vice-presidential pick (much later in the year) who can be used as an effective attack dog whose statements will be played on repeat on cable tv and whose criticisms will feature in the next day’s papers. No other surrogate of anyone can force a rival campaign to send its candidate — not a surrogate, a candidate — down to the fray to engage with a surrogate. Usually, surrogates are sent to answer surrogates, and the candidate does not have to spend a news cycle responding to all the attacks.
And the Clinton campaign is eager to get Bill and Obama to engage even more frontally, believing that this is a fight that favors them, especially heading into February 5th with a lot of states where Obama is not that well-known yet and where Bill Clinton is loved by the base. Howard Wolfson, one of Hillary’s chief advisers, responded to Obama today saying that his allegation that Bill Clinton was fibbing is a “right wing talking point.” And that’s one more news cycle in which Barack Obama will be stuck answering Bill.