Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama has presented himself to be a new type of politician: transparent, clean, aboveboard, and above all, positive. His campaign would be an idealistic one: no tricks, just plain old-fashioned honesty. Of course, coming from Chicago with its big-city machine politics this would be quite impressive if it were true. Alas, it is not.
As many are learning from David Freddoso's new book, The Case Against Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee was a practitioner of the dark arts himself -- and he has continued to rely upon tricks as tactics in his ground game.
The tricks of the trade
Obama prides himself on his early efforts to expand the voting rolls. As head of Project Vote in Chicago he tried to expand the number of African-Americans on the voting rolls. He has worked well with ACORN - a controversial activist group that is focused on voter registration and mobilization efforts. He said he wanted to empower disenfranchised citizens. When he ran his own campaign for the Illinois Senate and faced a formidable list of primary opponents, he sent his emissaries to challenge hundreds of signatures on the nominating petitions of all four of his primary challengers. He even disputed signatures on the petition of his chief opponent Alice Palmer, whom it is said he promised to not run against if she ran in the primary. In the words of the Chicago Tribune, he first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing it.
One of the candidates he eliminated, long-shot contender Gha-is Askia, now says that Obama's petition challenges belied his image as a champion of the little guy and crusader for voter rights.
"Why say you're for a new tomorrow, then do old-style Chicago politics to remove legitimate candidates?" Askia said. "He talks about honor and democracy, but what honor is there in getting rid of every other candidate so you can run scot-free? Why not let the people decide?"
Redrawing the map
After becoming a state Senator, he quickly set his sights higher and ran for a House seat against Congressman Bobby Rush. He lost. What to do now?
He set to work to redraw the state electoral map to serve his political goals.
Critics disparage this type of practice as gerrymandering; but when it is done by politicians that are favored by commentators it is characterized as "redrawing the map". Ryan Lizza writes in the New Yorker of Obama's work with Democratic consultant John Corrigan to gerrymander a district to bolster Barack Obama.
Like every other Democratic legislator who entered the inner sanctum, Obama began working on his "ideal map." Corrigan remembers two things about the district that he and Obama drew. First, it retained Obama's Hyde Park base-he had managed to beat Rush in Hyde Park-then swooped upward along the lakefront and toward downtown. By the end of the final redistricting process, his new district bore little resemblance to his old one. Rather than jutting far to the west, like a long thin dagger, into a swath of poor black neighborhoods of bungalow homes, Obama's map now shot north, encompassing about half of the Loop, whose southern portion was beginning to be transformed by developers like Tony Rezko, and stretched far up Michigan Avenue and into the Gold Coast, covering much of the city's economic heart, its main retail thoroughfares, and its finest museums, parks, skyscrapers, and lakefront apartment buildings. African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama's new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated. It also included one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in Chicago.
"It was a radical change," Corrigan said. The new district was a natural fit for the candidate that Obama was in the process of becoming. "He saw that when we were doing fund-raisers in the Rush campaign his appeal to, quite frankly, young white professionals was dramatic."
There is a political cliché that has become popular. Formerly, voters choose their politicians; now, politicians choose their voters and, in Obama's case, can choose to disenfranchise voters who support other candidates.
The senate race
When Barack Obama ran for the United States Senate only a few years ago he faced formidable rivals in the Democratic primary, people better known with longer and more established political pedigrees, or with ready access to campaign funds. Eventually, it became a two man race: Barack Obama and Blair Hull, a successful executive who had accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars and was investing chunks of it in his own race. Hull was in the lead as the primary season was ending when stories were leaked to the Chicago Tribune that he had a history of spousal abuse. These were true and he was forced out of the race. Barack Obama easily won the primary.
Who leaked the news about Hull?
David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign strategist, had actually interviewed with Blair Hull before signing up with Barack Obama and confronted him with the rumors of spousal abuse. His query was met with a “glacial look” and the answer “there is no paper on that”. In other words, Axelrod knew about the problem of spousal abuse on the part of Blair Hull. Did he, or the Obama campaign, leak or promote the Hull scandal?
The New York Times' Matt Bai wrote this about David Axelrod, Obama's campaign strategist, whom Bai describes as "part idealist, part hired muscle".
It is difficult to discuss Axelrod in certain circles in Chicago without the matter of the Blair Hull divorce papers coming up. As the 2004 Senate primary neared, it was clear that it was a contest between two people: the millionaire liberal, Hull, who was leading in the polls, and Obama, who had built an impressive grass-roots campaign. About a month before the vote, The Chicago Tribune revealed, near the bottom of a long profile of Hull, that during a divorce proceeding, Hull's second wife filed for an order of protection. In the following few days, the matter erupted into a full-fledged scandal that ended up destroying the Hull campaign and handing Obama an easy primary victory. The Tribune reporter who wrote the original piece later acknowledged in print that the Obama camp had "worked aggressively behind the scenes" to push the story. But there are those in Chicago who believe that Axelrod had an even more significant role - that he leaked the initial story. They note that before signing on with Obama, Axelrod interviewed with Hull. They also point out that Obama's TV ad campaign started at almost the same time. Axelrod swears up and down that "we had nothing to do with it" and that the campaign's television ad schedule was long planned.
Axelrod worked for years at the Chicago Tribune and is a long-time political fixture in Chicago who presumably knows a great deal about movers and shakers in town. The reader is left to draw his own conclusions.
Obama went on to win the Democratic primary. A promising young politician Jack Ryan was his Republican challenger, but was forced to drop out when the Chicago papers compelled his divorce papers to be opened, revealing a sex scandal involving his former wife, actress Jeri Ryan. The Republican Party, in extremis, drafted Alan Keyes as their Republican challenger to Obama. The contest was a foregone conclusion. Barack Obama won.
On the presidential campaign trail
The campaign for the presidency has also been marked by the advent of new types of tricks.
In the liberal New Republic, Sean Wilentz noted that Barack Obama "played the race card and blamed Hillary Clinton" and portrayed a campaign that was eager to wield charges of racism against the Clintons -- and to do so unfairly in the opinion of Wilentz and many others (McCain tasted a bit of this poison a few weeks ago in the wake of Obama's claim that McCain was trying to scare people away from Obama because his face didn't look like the face of other Presidents portrayed on our dollar bills).
Indeed, whenever Barack Obama is scrutinized or questions charges of racism are routinely raised by his campaign. Critics are accused of being "smear artists" or failing to be intelligent enough understand the nuances behind Obama's elisions and obfuscations.
Barack Obama also appears to have intimidated superdelegates into supporting him. Superdelegates include members of Congress who need money to run their races. In an earlier article, "Barack Obama's Goldmine", I speculated that Barack Obama might use the information he gained about voters and his ability to raise and deploy vast amounts of money to reward supporters and punish opponents. There were reasonable grounds to believe that such support was being "bought" by measuring the correlation between his donations to superdelegates and the level of support shown to him compared to Hillary Clinton. Roger Simon's article in Politico adds a new dimension to this type of tactic. The Obama campaign appears to have used their financial resources to coerce wavering delegates to support Obama by threatening to "primary" them. Gerrymandering (see above) has made positions safe for incumbents in general elections. What incumbents fear the most are primary challengers, which they can lose. Members of the Clinton campaign believe, Simon writes: that Obama operatives were calling members of Congress, all of whom were superdelegates, and threatening to find, fund and run primary opponents against them if they committed to Hillary.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, told me his campaign did not do this, though Steve Hildebrand did say that superdelegates were reminded that some would see a racial dimension to overturning the decision of pledged delegates. "We definitely made that argument," Hildebrand said
Threatening to fund Democratic challengers to incumbents and suggesting the "race card" might be played is not the new type of politics that Barack Obama has been espousing before his adoring crowds. However, as "Bittergate" showed, what voters see behind the teleprompter is not what you might see behind closed doors.
Recently, Barack Obama has tried to chill free speech by engaging in “lawfare”: filing a complaint with the Justice Department to prevent the airing of a critical ad by the American Issues Project that highlights his ties to former Weatherman Bill Ayers. A Constitutional law professor trying to prevent the exercise of First Amendment rights or a Chicago-style politician using all the tools at his disposal to win?
Any other tricks of the trade?
As Tom Lifson wrote, “the new kind of politician is playing one of the oldest game in politics: handing out street money”. This refers to money handed out to ward leaders and other supporters to increase voter turnout and support. As Catherine Lucey writes in the Philadelphia Daily News, this behind the scenes-and nearly invisible- ploy represents exactly the kind of transactional politics Obama has run against”. Chicago-style politics by one of its smartest practitioners.
As was his breaking of his promise to accept public financing of his campaign and his promise to engage in town hall meetings with John McCain. Once the primary was over, those promises-as were many others-were thrown under the bus.
Will there come a time when voters will feel that Barack Obama is not the man we thought he was?
There the tricks that Barack Obama crafted in Chicago can be played on national scale, with enough money and organization. And Barack Obama does not lack for either.
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.