Behind scenes, campaign aides wage harsh battle

Effort aims to sway coverage voters receive

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / April 13, 2008

While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have remained reasonably civil during their fight for the Democratic nomination, addressing each other forcefully but with decorum for the most part, an angrier battle is raging in inboxes and conference calls.

There, the strategists and press aides for the two candidates slug away with a nyah-nyah, your-mother-wears-Army-boots tone that is intended to highlight the purported failings of the other candidate and thus sway the daily coverage against their foe. And they're using bloglike, sometimes nasty vernacular in ways that would have raised eyebrows even among hardened campaign staffs in years past.

Consider the time three weeks ago when Obama press aides got hold of a Clinton campaign news release and then re-sent it, snidely annotated, back to reporters.

After each assertion in the memo by the Clinton campaign, the Obama camp added, in boldface, such pleasantries as "Huh?" "These guys kill me," and "Thanks for the laughs guys." On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Obama campaign sent out a statement that described Clinton's remarks about ousted strategist Mark Penn as "laughable, but also typical of a candidate who has said one thing but done another this entire campaign."

Not that the Clinton campaign has been any gentler, or any less petty. In December, attempting to undermine Obama's position that he was not driven by lifelong ambition to occupy the Oval Office (unlike some people he could mention), the Clinton team sent out a release with the blockbuster "news" that "In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want to Become President.' " After the release was widely ridiculed, the Clinton campaign said it had been joking.

In late March, after Obama was quoted disputing the notion that his two-and-a-half days off the campaign trail constituted a vacation, saying "It's a long weekend that most Americans get about 50 times a year," the Clinton camp sent a release to political reporters that huffed: "Really? Most Americans take fifty long weekends a year? Spoken like a true man of the people."

Obviously, harsh words are nothing new on the campaign trail. Nor is it surprising that a long, hard-fought, and still-close primary battle between two opponents with few substantive policy differences might turn into a rhetorical arms race.

But to Deborah Tannen, author of "You Just Don't Understand" and "The Argument Culture," the personal nature of the exchanges between campaign operatives suggests that the informal, sometimes snarky vernacular of the blogosphere and such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook has filtered into the political dialogue.

"What strikes me is the conversational tone," said Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "It's more like the snide comments people make in conversation. The line between public discourse and private discourse is getting blurred, because so much of our 'public' discourse is really private. The Internet: Is that public or private? It's more like private conversation than a public lecture."

Consequently, with the rise of the Web, Tannen said, "It's now an aspect of our public discourse that so much of it takes the form of what you previously would only have heard in private conversation."

Rogers Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed. "People feel free to say things on the Internet, often anonymously, that they wouldn't say in a public meeting," Smith said. "That's contributed to the media appetite for nasty stories, and it helps set a tone in which this kind of personal sniping just seems to be everyday political discourse."

He said Obama has more to lose, given that he has positioned himself as offering a new kind of politics, "so the more the Obama people do it, the more it makes it look that this is not a new politics, but rather that it's the dreariest form of politics as usual."

At a time when media outlets have greatly multiplied and many young voters get their news from comedy shows, another facet of contemporary discourse may also be at work, namely, the desire to build "buzz" by wielding a verbal blowtorch and making comments that might once have been considered over the line.

"The hope is you can put something out there that will be picked up on the public airwaves and be repeated," said Tannen.

As the campaigns have accelerated toward the important April 22 primary in Pennsylvania, there have been instances when the daily campaign memos have gone beyond mockery into full-bore assault.

On March 21, a memo from the Obama campaign, headlined "A history of misleading voters," accused Clinton of misrepresenting her record on nine issues and cited the "staggering" fact that a USA Today/Gallup poll found only 44 percent of respondent viewed Clinton as trustworthy, compared to 67 percent for the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain (and 63 percent for Obama).

"After eight years of an untrustworthy president, can we really expect that a candidate who is viewed as so much more dishonest than McCain will somehow be able to beat him?" the memo asked.

Within hours, the Clinton campaign fired back with a memo accusing the Illinois senator of "practicing lowdown politics," and contended that "top journalists are calling the Obama campaign desperate, saying that it's amateur hour in Chicago."

David Zarefsky, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author of "Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate," said such exchanges reveal "a real desire on the part of both campaigns to structure the conversation in a way that presents the opponent as a really unacceptable candidate personally."

"There is a cost to this," Zarefsky added. "It's making it harder for the party to unite, and making it harder for the supporters of whatever candidate doesn't get the nomination to turn out in big numbers in the fall."

Don Aucoin can be reached at

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