If the Clinton campaign's accusation that Obama 'plagiarized' Deval Patrick demonstrates anything, it is the first law of presidential election thermodynamics: Every candidate who rises to 'extraordinary,' will eventually be brought down to 'normal.'
For certain, very few people will ever be convinced that Barack Obama stole Patrick's words and tried to pass them off as his own. Taken at face value it is a laughable accusation that will be seen by most for exactly what it is: a preemptive distraction by the Clinton communications team from what appears to be yet another primary loss to Obama, this time in Wisconsin. Beyond face value, however, the accusation is not so easy to swat away. Accusing Obama of plagiarism did not brand him a plagiarist, but demonstrated exactly what happened has had another, unexpected and most definitely unwelcome effect on his campaign.
What was the chink the Clinton comment revealed? Simply put, it showed that Obama is not quite as unique, not quite as historic, and--most importantly--not nearly as anti-politics-as-usual as his campaign rhetoric claims him to be.
Of course he's not. Who could possibly be?
But for months, the central claim of the Obama camp has been precisely that their candidate is not like the others, that he is not a politician's politician like all the other politician's politicians in Washington, DC, or anywhere else.
In this narrative that defines and propels the Obama campaign, a vote for Barack Obama is not just a vote for a gifted orator and a deft campaigner, but a vote to end "politics as usual" in America--a vote to usher in a new era.
The flip side of this framing, of course, is Obama's claim that Hillary Clinton is "politics as usual," that when we look at or listen to Hillary Clinton what we see is a politician like all other politicians. And to change this country, so the Obama message goes, we must reject politicians who look and sound like all other politicians. That, in a nutshell, is the kernel of Obama's message of 'change.' And it has proven successful for him beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
The only thing that could bring it down, of course, would be some kind of event--some campaign moment--that revealed to the voters, quickly and easily, that Obama was not only similar to all other politicians, but that he was exactly like them.
Enter Deval Patrick, the young and charismatic first-term governor of Massachusetts.
As Americans would find out with the help of the Clinton campaign's Howard Wolfson, one of Obama's recent counter-critiques of Hillary was not only similar to one used by Patrick in his 2006 run for Governor--it was virtually identical. The observation gave rise to a video demonstrating the similarities between Patrick's words and Obama's.
Say what one may about the politics of accusing one's opponent of 'plagiarism,' the video of Patrick and Obama saying virtually the exact same words in two different campaign speeches has the effect of instantly dulling Obama's golden patina.
How could it be, voters will likely ask, that a candidate who claims to be unique--a singular figure who so many people refer to as a once-in-a-lifetime politician--is using the exact same words as another politician that most people outside of Massachusetts have never even heard of?
The answer is not 'plagiarism,' but something much more mundane and--in stark contrast to Obama campaign message--something 100% "politics as usual."
Obama's speeches, it turns out, are similar and even identical to Patrick's in places because they both hired the same political consultant to head their campaigns: David Axelrod.
Therein lies the answer to the 'plagiarism' charge. Obama did not say the same phrase as Patrick because Obama plagiarized Patrick's speeches, but because both candidates hired the same political consultant to manage the message of their campaigns. When Patrick was accused of being all-words-and-no-action by his opponent in the 2006 gubernatorial election, Axelrod devised a response for him that involved poking fun of the charge by referencing great speeches of iconic American leaders--JFK, FDR, MLK. And it worked.
When Clinton used the same critique to go after Obama, Axelrod simply reached for the same solution that had worked for Patrick and gave it to Obama.
Why not? What is wrong with doing this?
Absolutely nothing is wrong from a legal or even a political perspective. Candidates often draw on the successful messages of other politicians, both those that came before them and those against whom they are currently competing.
The problem is one of perception and image.
More than anything else, the 'plagiarism' incident has the potential to transform Obama's image from that of a singular historic figure who soars above "politics as usual," to that of a gifted, but ordinary politician--just another client of the handful of media Svengalis who pull the strings of candidates and manipulate public opinion to win elections. The curtain has suddenly dropped, and behind it we see: the political consultant.
Because Obama's supporters have responded with such passion to his claim that he can move politics to a new place (real passion, not 'cult' following, as some have arrogantly suggested), any viable evidence that Obama is a normal politician will inevitably erode some of his support. How much it will erode is unclear.
One thing is perfectly clear, however. Republicans always seek to turn the Democratic candidate's strength into his/her weakness. That means that if Obama were to win the nomination--as it seems likely that he will--the Republicans will strive to transform his rhetorical skill into his greatest political liability.
For many in the Obama camp, it is not even possible to imagine Obama's rhetoric being turned against him--his speaking skill becoming the very thing that turns people away from him. This is because for so many, Obama's speaking style has been the source of ardor, the sine qua non of their support for him as president. And for good reason. Obama is a great speaker. Listening to him is not only exciting, it is energizing and at times thrilling.
But this is an election, and laws of politics--like physics--still apply: What goes up, will inevitably come down.
Now we see how the Republicans will turn that against him--ironically, as a result of a stone thrown at the Obama camp by his Democratic rival for the nomination. The Republicans seeking to turn his rhetorical strength into his weakness will argue over and over that Obama's fancy words are evidence of his that he is a political huckster like all the rest. In this new frame, authenticity will trump inspiration. The candidate with the thickest tongue will be the candidate who is really real. John McCain's soporific, halting speeches will become the new gold standard of presidential trustworthiness.
The Deval Patrick moment reveals the direction that the inevitable 'swift-boating' of Barack Obama will take. He will be recast by the Republican machine as a duplicitous establishment politician gifted not at telling the truth, but at finding the right words to convince people of anything.
In that logic, the narrative will become 'the maverick versus the salesman.' And the speeches that once gave so many people hope, will suddenly make people wonder what this new man in town is selling and to what end.
If Democrats cannot imagine a November where 45% of the country equates Barack Obama with doublespeak instead of hope, with politics-as-usual instead of change--then they better try much harder.
Does this mean that the Democrats would do better to nominate Hillary Clinton to run against John McCain in the general election? Not especially. Hillary Clinton is the cosmic 'big bang' of right-wing attack politics. Whatever the Republicans have already brought out against her in past campaigns will pale in comparison to what they hit her with were she to win the nomination and head to the general election against McCain.
It simply means that Democrats should not delude themselves into thinking that one candidate has baggage and the other does not, that one candidate at the top of the ticket will bring easy landslide, while the other will bring certain failure.
This week's events revealed that there is indeed a chink in Obama's armor, and exploiting that weakness could well have a devastating impact on the passionate support his campaign has enjoyed, not to mention the outcome of the general election.
© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop