It’s not quite an Apology Crisis in the Punjab!, but it may be a crisis for Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. What’s going on? From the Washington Post:
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) issued a round of apologies yesterday for a memo generated by his campaign staff that referred to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as a senator from the Indian region of Punjab and criticized her record on outsourcing.
Pointing the finger at his campaign staff, Obama told the editorial board of the Des Moines Register
that he “thought it was stupid and caustic.” Obama said that the memo
“not only didn’t reflect the complicated issue of outsourcing . . . it
also didn’t reflect the fact that I have long-standing support and
friendships within the Indian American community,” according to a story
on the paper’s Web site.
The Post reports that Sen. Obama posted an apology on the website of South Asians for Obama. Went there, couldn’t find it, but the Post quotes Obama as writing:
“The memo’s caustic tone, and its focus on contributions by
Indian-Americans to the Clinton campaign, was potentially hurtful, and
as such, unacceptable,” Obama wrote.
“In sum, our campaign made a
mistake. Although I was not aware of the contents of the memo prior to
its distribution, I consider the entire campaign — and in particular
myself — responsible for the mistake. We have taken appropriate action
to prevent errors like this from happening in the future.”
Here is the full text of the memo, courtesy of Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune. (If I may digress — Thank you, Eric Zorn and Chicago Tribune for making the full text of the document behind a news story available so that your readers can evaluate it for ourselves. In the current internet age there is no excuse not to do so. I’m talking to you, practically every other media outlet. TV, radio, newspaper — you all have web sites. When you are reporting on some leaked memo or report — post it!. Don’t selectively quote from it in your story because. If you have the document, give it to me. Because, otherwise, I wonder what you’re hiding? Are you trying to slant the story one way or the other. I’ve heard that reporters do such things. Post the document! End of mini-rant.)
Okay, back to the apology. Obama steps up and takes responsibility for the memo, even though he neither knew about it, reviewed it nor authorized its release. He said it was a dumb mistake, hurtful, unacceptable, stupid, caustic. He says his campaign is taking step to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. All the ingredients of a good apology. (Although note that while “taking responsibility” Obama also blames his staff.)
But that isn’t really what is interesting here. What is interesting is the dynamic behind why this memo went out in the first place, why it was a problem and why Obama felt the need to apologize for it.
Why the memo? Obama’s campaign is trying to chip away at Sen. Clinton’s lead. Opposition research people are a little nuts. They focus on finding ways to attack opponents and may be very good at that, but sometimes lack a sense of the larger picture. In this case, linking Hillary to support for outsourcing sounds like a charge that might dim her support among certain Democratic primary voters who get worked up about that issue.
But the way they went about trying to get the media to bite on this charge was where the dumbness comes in. The L.A. Times explains:
The memo, headlined, “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)’s Personal Financial
and Political Ties to India,” was prepared by Obama’s opposition
research department and distributed to reporters last week in exchange
for a promise that they not reveal where it came from, a common
practice by campaigns.
Like that’s going to work! The idea is one campaign anonymously give the media some dirt on their opponent and the reporters pretend they came up with it themselves. Because, you know, they’re such great investigate reporters. Not lazy hacks eating donuts on the press bus, waiting for someone to leak them a memo. If all goes well, the other campaign takes a hit from the negative story while the campaign that planted the story leaves no fingerprints.
I’m sure this has worked many times in the past. But sometimes it blows up in your face. That’s what happened here. What went wrong? Take it, L.A. Times:
The memo, which became public after it was obtained by the Clinton campaign …
“Hey, reporter, don’t tell anyone you got this from me, wink, wink,” just doesn’t work that well in the internet age. Somebody’s going to tell. And somebody’s going to forward it to their buddy at the Clinton campaign. And believe me, Hillary’s people knew exactly what do with this. They are beyond old pros. They are Jedi masters of political infighting. Suddenly this sneaky little attack on Hillary’s ties to India became a Punjab crisis for Obama. More from the L.A. Times:
… drew criticism from Indian American groups who complained that it
played on stereotypes. One group with close ties to Obama’s campaign,
South Asians for Obama, posted a scathing note on its website late
Sunday saying its members were “shocked and dismayed.”
“The main thing people have a problem with is the implication that
having ties to the Indian American community, that fundraising from
Indian Americans in the United States, is a problem,” group spokesman
Dave Kumar said. “It goes against the inclusive nature of the campaign.”
See that? They’ve got South Asians for Obama criticizing Obama! It’s the Jedi mind trick, baby!
Making this counterpunch all the more effective is the Mr. Clean image that Obama has cultivated of being above “slash and burn” politics. That’s all very well, but no one is above slash and burn politics. At least no one who actually has a chance of winning an election anywhere outside Candyland. Leaking that memo was slash and burn politics. But if you say you’re above slash and burn and then you do slash and burn, who gets burned? Not your opponent.
Of course, the Clinton campaign just firebombed Obama with all this. How does she get away with it? Hillary never said she was above slash and burn. No one would believe her anyway. So no apologies there.
So does Obama’s apology put an end to this kerfluffle? Maybe not:
An e-mail sent out early this morning by a grassroots group, South
Asians for Obama, called the initial response “unsatisfactory.”
The mass e-mail makes it clear that Mr. Obama’s Indian-American
supporters were ticked off over the memo and the Obama campaign’s
nonchalant reaction to it. (Obama’s Indian-American Backers Seek Further Apology Over Memo, Latest Politics)
It is bad when, again, your own supporters, demand a re-apology. Welcome to the big time, Obama. You just got Punjabbed!
By the way, read that entire post by Josh Gerstein to learn three reasons that leaking the memo was an incredibly dumb move by Obama’s team in the first place … aside from giving Hillary a chance to nuke them.
Here is a bonus 4th reason:“As a South Asian, I feel he is one of us – the son of an immigrant, in
tune with cultural identity, with a broader sense of the world. I have
never felt that so much of a person’s life story so embodied my own,”
Chandra added. (“Barack Obama gets key Indian American backing,” Hindustan Times.com)
Then there is this:
”As we saw with George Allen an apology is not
enough. If you are running for the office of the president of the
United States then every word you say is on the record and you should
be aware of that. The reality is that there are no second chances. If
you are going to disparage an entire race and community of people you
should be held accountable for that,” said Rahul Manchanda, US-India
Political Action Committee.
Whether the Indian American
community accepts the apology is uncertain, but the quick response by
the Obama campaign is perhaps testimony that the support of America’s
wealthiest community cannot be taken for granted any more. (Obama apologises for memo, NDTV.com)
Yikes! The ghost of George Allen! Obama really stepped in the macaca this time.
But it is early yet. I predict the presidential campaign will provide us with many other apologies to examine before it ends.