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Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter reflects on the racial fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Tuesday, January 15, 2008
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HH: As we follow closely Romney’s win in Michigan tonight, expected win in Michigan, I am completely unnerved by what’s going on in the Democratic side. I don’t have a grip on it, so we’re joined by someone who does. Jonathan Alter, of course, columnist for Newsweek, author of The Defining Moment, the magnificent book about FDR’s first 100 days in office. Jonathan, always a pleasure, Happy New Year to you.

JA: Same to you, Hugh.

HH: Now you’ve got to explain to my audience, a center-right audience, what is going on on your side of the aisle? It looks like, well, you called Mark Penn this week, Pig Penn, was his nickname at Harvard. It looks like a pig fight over there.

JA: Yeah, it’s getting ugly. You know, Democrats, they, sometimes, they have kind of a death wish, a suicide wish. We’ve seen it before. And we might be seeing it again. It’s hard to know just how ugly it’s going to get, but you’ve got to remember the Clintons don’t quit, and they do what it takes, and their history is that they don’t care a lot about the wreckage they leave in their wake. You know, they do, they’ve done, to my mind, and the mind of many Democrats, a number of very good things for the country. But caring about people outside their circle politically is not one of them. And that certainly is true of White House aides who have spent thousands and thousands of dollars in legal bills because of things that Bill Clinton did when he was president. And I think it’s true of the Democratic Party more broadly this time. They might just kind of take the party down with them. You’ve got to remember, if Hillary Clinton is nominated, she is a much less electable candidate than Barack Obama for two very simple reasons. Her strengths are with women and with regular Democrats, hard core Democrats. Democrats don’t need either to win a general election. They need independents, and college-educated men. And that’s where Obama is strongest. So he’s their best ticket to retaking the White House, but there’s a big question as to whether they will recognize that fact or not.

HH: Now Jonathan, in your column this week, it’s a fascinating look at inside baseball. You talk about how Penn and Axelrod, who’s Obama’s campaign manager, really dislike each other. Is that going to propel this campaign to even more brass knuckle episodes like the race one we’ve been watching this week? Or will the principals step in and say enough of this, we’ve got to preserve the ability for the other to side up with the former when it comes election time?

JA: Well, you know, I think both candidates did take a step back yesterday on this race issue. They both realized that it’s quite destructive for either one. It’s destructive just in raw political terms. It’s destructive for the party in the long term. But even in the short term, it’s harmful to Hillary if there’s a lot of focus on race, because it strengthens Obama’s claim on African-American support in South Carolina, which is coming up. And it’s damaging for Obama, because to the extent that he’s perceived as a black candidate, that’s really not good for him moving forward. So they both took a step back from conflict, and we’ll see what happens in the debate tonight. But I think that on some level, that is such an important part of the Clinton message, to try to not go to the racial thing, but to try to rip Obama down, and rip Obama apart. And to the extent that they do that, it will be interpreted in some quarters as having racial overtones just by the very fact of ripping him apart. And so I do think we are going to see more of this, because the Clintons don’t have that much of a message otherwise.

HH: Now Jonathan, you follow this stuff as obsessively as I do. Do you, as a lefty, resent what the Clintons are doing, kneecapping Obama this way? Or is it just part of the process?

JA: You know, I mean resent would be too strong a word. I think it’s unfortunate that they’re doing this. You know, to the extent that politics has become a contact sport, and to the extent that they’re fair hits, you know, that’s fine, that’s politics. But for instance, what they did to Obama on abortion in New Hampshire, which did not get very much attention, but they sent out a mailer to you know, tens of thousands of New Hampshire women, basically saying that Obama voted present on abortion in the Illinois State Legislature, you know, he’s not really all that pro-choice. That was the message of that mailer. He’s not reliable, he wouldn’t stand up for choice. And the truth is that those present votes were a legislative strategy by Planned Parenthood, which gives Obama a 100% rating. So the charge that Obama was somehow not solid from a Democratic pro-choice perspective on abortion was just untrue. It was a phony charge.

HH: And it’s hardball. Jonathan Alter from Newsweek, author of The Defining Moment, thank you, friend. We’ll check in as the campaign progresses.

End of interview.

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