So few teapots, so many tempests.
Irish-born Samantha Power took time out of her busy schedule Wednesday to have a chat with a Scottish newspaper reporter in London. During the course of the conversation, she happened to opine that Hillary Clinton is, in her view, a "monster" who is "stooping to anything" to win the Democratic nomination for president. Unkind remarks to be sure, though it's clear that Senator Clinton has been called far worse. At no point in the interview, for example, did Ms. Power suggest that the former First Lady killed anyone, a charge routinely leveled by some of the more unhinged members of our society.
Samantha Power, however, wasn't simply another of the roughly 45% of the American people who hold a negative view of the junior senator from New York. She is also—or at least she was until yesterday—one of Barack Obama's senior foreign policy advisers. The Clinton campaign, leaving no stone, pebble, or dust mite unturned, immediately seized on the Harvard professor's remarks, laughably insisting that it is now politically out of bounds to invoke the m-word when describing one's opponent.
What did Senator Obama do in response to this rather trivial matter? He caved in faster than a sand castle at high tide. Almost before the story had reached the blogosphere, let alone the traditional media, Professor Power had announced her resignation from the Obama campaign, disingenuously insisting it was her idea to step down.
There are two thoughts here, both of which deserve a bit of attention. First, Barack Obama is not having a good week. Ever since Hillary Clinton clobbered him in Ohio and snuck in ahead of him in Texas, the Illinois senator has been decidedly off his game. Initially petulant, Obama promised to respond in kind to Clinton's jabs, but it's clear that his heart just isn't in it. He's in a downward spiral right now, and it's hard to imagine that a victory in the Wyoming caucuses today will do much to pull him out of it.
When Obama diagnosed the national mood prior to announcing his candidacy for president, he was only half right. Certainly, Americans detest the petty back-and-forth politics that holds sway in Washington. They long for an era in which obstructionist partisanship is swept aside in favor of an approach that emphasizes consensus-building and problem solving. After eight years of blustering, inarticulate, and ineffective leadership, they want to be inspired again and be made to feel better about themselves and their country.
But they also want a president with a backbone, one who will make the tough decisions that need to be made at home and abroad. These goals are, of course, contradictory to some extent, but the most successful politicians manage somehow to address both in a fairly seamless manner. Ronald Reagan could reach out with one hand and slap you in the face with the other. Bill Clinton could do the same thing. The problem for the Democrats right now is that they are left with a pair of one-handed candidates.
Obama, at least for a while, looked as though he might have the gift. But if the past week is any indication, he appears to lack either the confidence or the desire to get down into the trenches and fight for this nomination. To some degree, this is his own fault: the problem with promising a new politics of unity is that it opens you up to charges of hypocrisy every time you pull out the hammer. Hillary Clinton can bait her rival, as she did so effectively in Ohio, and then respond to his counterattacks by decrying Obama's betrayal of first principles. If Clinton hadn't finally been driven by electoral desperation to stop worrying about her own negatives, this moment would have come much sooner.
Senator Clinton increasingly realizes that Hillary 2.0, like New Coke, has not been a marketing success. Indeed, some of her warm and fuzzy debate performances have played right into her opponent's hands. She is simply not going to match Obama in an argument over the politics of hope. Her trump card is fear: not just fear of the 3:00 a.m. telephone call, but fear of another listless Al Gore/John Kerry general election performance. Given a choice between weak-kneed inspiration and cynical toughness, even Democrats might ultimately opt for the latter. Above all else, they do not want to see a McCain presidency. This may be why, as Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey so inelegantly put it, "Bitch is the new black."
Which brings us back to Samantha Power. Barack Obama had an opening here, and he blew it. Nothing Professor Power said puts her in a category with Don Imus. She called Hillary Clinton a monster and used the f-word in reference to her own candidate's strategy in Ohio. Without associating himself with Power's comments, Obama could simply have said, "Samantha apologizes for her outburst, and that's good enough for me. She's still on the team." It would have been an act of both loyalty and strength, telling Senator Clinton that she doesn't get to determine his personnel decisions simply by whining to the press.
It would also have been good for the country. We are in a crazy period right now, where hollow gotcha journalism, best exemplified by the execrable Tim Russert, substitutes for real policy analysis. Candidates and pundits seize on even the most pedestrian insults and turn them into unforgivable gaffes. And sure, some things are clearly beyond the pale in decent discourse (the regrettable Mr. Imus, for example). But my guess is that most Americans, coming late to the Samantha Power story, probably heard her comments for the first time and blurted out, "What? Is that all she said?"
Senator Obama, then, let himself and all the rest of us down. By giving in to Hillary Clinton's faux outrage, he not only appeared weak and beaten, he actually diminished himself in the one area—foreign policy—in which he is most vulnerable. Even his supporters had to wonder, after this performance, if this man is really up to leading the party against the relentless assault of the Republican hit machine.
Further, by throwing Power under the Clinton campaign bus, Obama lost for all of us the chance to draw a new line in the sand. It is time to put an end to a politics which forces anyone who wants to be president to disown, disavow, and denounce each and every careless statement made by a supporter or an aid in the heat of battle. That, as much as anything else, is the sort of politics that Americans want to see changed. And the candidate of change missed his golden opportunity to stand up to the Tim Russerts and Hillary Clintons of the world and to say simply, "Get over it."