Posted on April 21, 2008 in Washington Watch

Watching the Democratic contest for the presidency unfold over the past several weeks brings to mind a scene I saw play out almost two decades ago.

It was in the lead up to a hotly contested governor’s race in New York, and I was in the lounge at JFK airport waiting to board an Egypt Air flight to Cairo. About a dozen Egyptian travelers were also there, many of them watching a television program. During the break, they were treated to a barrage of four inflammatory political commercials. The first dramatically reported that candidate X had not paid taxes and could not be trusted. The next countered with the charge that candidate Y’s associates had been guilty of fraud, raising questions about his honesty and integrity. There followed two more with much the same messages.

At the end, one of my fellow travelers looked at his companion and said, “So, these New Yorkers must choose between the crook and the fraud?” There were, of course, far more serious issues at stake in that campaign, but you would not have been able to discern this watching the election play out during that commercial break.

Much the same can be said watching this year’s Democratic primary as it devolves into an absurd caricature of itself.

During the past five weeks, the media’s nearly exclusive focus has been directed to troubling statements made by friends of the candidates, or verbal gaffes made by the candidates themselves.

This particular round began with comments made by former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, a supporter of Senator Clinton, who demeaned Senator Obama’s candidacy, saying, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position.”

The fallout over Ferraro’s remarks lasted a few days, only to be replaced by clips of sermons by Senator Obama’s former pastor in which he is seen damning America and in which he suggests that the U.S. government started the AIDS virus. After rejecting these remarks, Obama rather skillfully attempted to bring this chapter to a close with his remarkable speech on race in America.

A short respite followed, but before the media became bored or the candidates had an opportunity to focus on real issues, the next big story became Senator Clinton’s repeated exaggeration of her having braved sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996. This, too, played out for days until overtaken by a tape Senator Obama was released in which he says, “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. ... And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

This provided fodder not only for the media sharks but also the Clinton campaign, which charged that these words showed Obama to be “elitist, out of touch with average voters.” All of this and more was in sharp focus Wednesday night during the last nationally televised debate between Senators Clinton and Obama. Though much anticipated, the debate was an enormous letdown with exactly one-half of its allotted time on the absurd side issues that have become the media’s obsession.

Some claim that, far from being silliness and distractions, these matters are important indicators of a candidate’s character: their truthfulness, and their philosophies. Such a claim, however, is but a tortured bit of logic advanced to justify the media’s crass need for sensationalism.

It must be said that some blame for this sad state of affairs should be placed at the doorstep of the now desperate Clinton campaign. They have fueled of these faux controversies, seeking to exploit them to their advantage.

Being hopelessly behind in delegates, states won, and in national polls as well, Senator Clinton seems to believe that her only chance to win (all other gambits having failed) is to so weaken her opponent that he will appear unelectable. This, she hopes, will convince delegates to abandon the Obama campaign in support of her candidacy.

It has not worked. Make no mistake about it, Obama has been harmed by this effort. His negative ratings have risen to the mid-30% range, and Republicans now have ammunition they will surely use against Obama in the fall campaign (such as: “Obama is an out-of-touch elitist,” “Obama is tied to extremists,” “Obama is not ready to be Commander in Chief,” etc) – all compliments of Hillary Clinton.

But even with this, most indicators show that this negative campaign hasn’t slowed Obama’s march to the nomination. Since February of this year, Obama has increased his superdelegate count by 81. By contrast, Clinton has recorded a net gain of 3 (she actually added 10, but lost 7 who switched to Obama). When elected delegates and superdelegates are added together, his lead is now almost 150 delegates. In order for Clinton to eclipse this, she must win more than two-thirds of all the votes in the remaining ten states – something she simply cannot do.

And while Obama’s negative ratings have risen somewhat, Clinton’s negatives are now at 54%, with 6 in 10 voters saying they do not trust her. That is hardly material with which to build her own case for electability.

The bottom line here is that this absurdity, born of the media’s obsession and the Clinton campaign’s desperation, is accomplishing little but delaying the inevitable while causing as much damage as possible.

There is a strange pathology playing out here that is both sad and dangerous and I’m sure, to those outsiders looking in, very strange indeed.

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.

We invite you to share your views on the topics addressed within Dr. Zogby’s weekly Washington Watch by emailing jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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