Obama Defends Axelrod's Clinton Remarks

David Axelrod, Barack Obama's chief campaign strategist yesterday said, in answering a question about the political effect of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:

Bhutto’s death will “call into issue the judgment: who’s made the right judgments,” [Obama campaign manager David] Axelrod said. “Obviously, one of the reasons that Pakistan is in the distress that it’s in is because al-Qaeda is resurgent . . . That’s a serious difference between these candidates and I’m sure that people will take that into consideration.” . . . “[Clinton] was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit, was one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda, who may have been players in this event today, so that’s a judgment she’ll have to defend,” Axelrod said.

Later, Barack Obama defended Axelrod's remarks, saying:

When asked about Axelrod's remarks late Thursday, Obama told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “This is one of those situations where Washington is putting a spin on it. … He in no way was suggesting Hillary Clinton was somehow directly to blame for this situation.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Yes, Senator Obama is right. Axelrod was not suggesting that it was Clinton who actually murdered Benazir Bhutto. He was stating that Senator Clinton's action ONLY led to the death of Benazir Bhutto. Sooo much better no? Senator Obama, we're not stupid. And it is a disgrace to your campaign that Axelrod's statement was not disavowed and apologized for.

Update [2007-12-28 11:40:27 by Big Tent Democrat]: On the flip, I discuss a Lynn Sweet post that has a fuller discussion of Obama's appearance. It is devastating.

Lynn Sweet writes:

Blitzer asked, “Your chief political strategist, David Axelrod, causing some commotion out there today with his comments about Hillary Clinton, and blaming her—at least some are interpreting it this way—blaming her in part for a series of events that resulted in Benazir Bhutto's assassination today. Let me read to you what he said.” Obama replied—and I think I nailed the quote here—“No, I, I, I, I, I have to, I heard, I heard, I don’t need it, I don't need to hear what you read because I was, I overheard it when he said it, and this is one of those situations where Washington is putting a spin on it. It makes no sense whatsoever.”

Obama was seemingly desperate not to have Axelrod's quote repeated. I think the reason is obvious. I tmakes his defense of Axelrod look ridiculous. Sweet continues:

Blitzer continued, “Tell us what he meant. Tell us what he meant.”

Obama said, “He was—he was—he was asked very specifically about the argument that the Clinton folks were making that somehow this was going to change the dynamic of politics in Iowa. . . . [H]is response was simply to say that if we are going to talk politics, then the question has to be, "who has exercised the kind of judgment that would be more likely to lead to better outcomes in the Middle East and better outcomes in Pakistan."

. . . “He in no way was suggesting that Hillary Clinton was somehow directly to blame for the situation there. That is the kind of, I think, you know, gloss that sometimes emerges out of the heat of campaigns that doesn't make much sense, and I think you're probably aware of that, Wolf.”

Since a viewer by this point would have little idea what Obama was reacting to, Blitzer pressed ahead and read the quote.

That’s live television. Obama was trapped and Blitzer knew it. Blitzer said, “ Well, I know that sometimes comments can be taken out of context and you're trying to give us the context. I'll just read to you what he said, and then I'm going to let you just respond. "She was," referring to Hillary Clinton, he said…

“Wolf!” said Obama.

Blitzer continued, reading the Axelrod quote: "She was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which, we would submit is one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Al Qaeda, who may still have been players in this event today. So, that's a judgment she'll have to defend.“

Terrible job by Obama.

< Obama Advisors Disagree On Pakistan | New Iowa Poll: Clinton and Edwards On The Rise; Obama Dropping >
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    Making It Worse (none / 0) (#1)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 11:45:23 AM EST
    Good on Blitzer for reading the quote.  So often these days they let politicians off the hook by not reading the quote.   But let's make sure we do that to Republicans, too, okay, guys?

    I think Obama's making it worse.  He could simply say that he disagreed with Axelrod or that Axelrod misspoke.  The latter wouldn't necessarily have been true, but it would probably end the discussion.

    Aside from the Clinton aspect to this, this part of Obama's explanation I think is also a problem, IMO, "who has exercised the kind of judgment that would be more likely to lead to better outcomes in the Middle East and better outcomes in Pakistan."  It's true that the Bush Administration's judgement has been terrible and they certainly have the sidam touch.    But it also implies that the U.S. can prevent and control things like the Bhutto assassination so long as the president has good judgement and that's simply not true.

    It is true that we got ourselves into a mess by placing our bets on resolving Pakistan on her, but that's different than thinking that if only we'd had more troops in the area, then Pakistan would be stable.  Pakistan hasn't been stable for a very long time.  If anything, a stronger push against al Qaeda from Afghanistan might have forced Musharraf's hand earlier.  

    Now, certainly, a competent State Department and Administration would be an enormous help in Pakistan and the Middle East, there's a reason why everything the current folks touch turns to crap (the foreign policy is run primarily by lunatics in the VP's office), but I think that's likely to be vastly improved in either an Obama or Clinton administration.

    The man gives a great speech (none / 0) (#2)
    by Maryb2004 on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 11:49:05 AM EST
    in front of crowds, but in debates and Q&A he reminds me of Al Gore.  (Who I think ran a terrible campaign).  So many words; so little for the viewer to take away. That's what concerns me the most about an Obama campaign.  

    He never takes control of the question.  That question was about Axelrod but the answer needed to be about Obama.  The candidate always needs to grab the question and run with it - move quickly off of the defensive onto the offensive.  Obama was on defense that entire interview. He made an attempt to take control of the question from Blitzer.  He failed. And stayed on defense.

    Agree (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 12:15:37 PM EST
    The 30-second answer, particularly when he's being pressed, is not his strongest suit.  He's gotten better in debates, so hopefully if he's the nominee he'll improve.

    Although I do worry that this is the flip side of being a media darling.  He does great as long as the interviewer isn't putting him on the defensive.  He comes across as smart and funny and charming, all good things not only generally but for a GE candidate.  But he's not good on the defensive and I'm not sure he'll get much opportunity to improve given the short time until the primary and the media love until after he's the nominee, when it will be too late.  It's the one thing I think could hurt him media-wise.  Otherwise I tend to agree with BTD that all else being equal Obama's media darling status is a big plus.


    Being a media favorite is always (none / 0) (#6)
    by Maryb2004 on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 01:00:15 PM EST
    a plus because the media controls the narrative unless the candidate can control the media (it's a circle).  It's something to consider when making a choice.

    It's true the media likes Obama.  They like that he has an interesting back story.  They like that his family is telegenic. They particularly love the extended clips he can give them when he gives speeches - a telegenic candidate making a great speech before an adoring crowd. Especially if he's lit well and not behind a podium.   It works for them.

    But they also love nothing more than exerting their own power, controlling the story and having a real horserace.  So if they have the power to make him look weak in debates and interviews they will do it. It's just a question of how much they'll do it and, almost more important, when they'll do it.  

    My opinion is that the worst part of this interview isn't the substance or lack of substance of his reponse, but that he looks weak.  I think that most people in Iowa (except the very small percentage of policy wonks)have gathered enough information and are heading into the intuition phase of the decision making.  So he could give an absolutely correct substantive answer and buried in that answer could be a great opinion on an issue - but if he looks weak and doesn't take control of the interview it hurts him.  Nobody is paying attention to substance - they are listening to their guts.

    I think to the extent that the situation in Pakistan affects Iowans at a gut level (which it should), it's bad for Obama.  It's a known mess; he's an unknown quantity.


    I agree (none / 0) (#13)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 02:25:54 PM EST
    that it's more Obama's reaction than the substance that makes it such a bad interview.  I thought the same thing on his "present" answer a few days back.  Anything he says other than "political ass covering" to explain those votes is probably untrue, but it's how you say it that's important.  You need to at least sound like you have a story and believe it even if it won't hold up to scrutiny because the beauty of being the media darling is that you might not get the scrutiny.  But if you sound weak, even a media that wants to love you will pounce because sharks love blood in the water more than they love even Obama.  

    For afellow who purportedly (none / 0) (#3)
    by oculus on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 11:56:09 AM EST
    doesn't believe in divisive politics, . . .?  Has Hillary Clinton responded?  If I were Obama, I would concentrate on Clinton's Kyl-Lieberman vote at this point, not her AMUF vote.  

    Has Obama ever explained (none / 0) (#5)
    by ding7777 on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 12:35:55 PM EST
    why he has voted for every War Supplemental if he thought it was wrong?

    The actual response was good (none / 0) (#7)
    by tommyg on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 01:12:22 PM EST
    He probably should have just let Wolf read that misleading out-of-context BS and then made his response.  Instead, he let Wolf read the quote afterwards which could confuse some simple-minded people.  Still, his actual points were a very good rebuttal to the Clinton campaign/media which were the ones who first politicized it and continue to do so by asserting it will help her.

    To you I suppose (none / 0) (#9)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 01:18:55 PM EST
    I thought he was dishonest.

    Overreaction? (none / 0) (#8)
    by bradkc on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 01:18:51 PM EST
    All the campaigns are guilty of trying to exploit Bhutto's death for presidential-primary politics. It's not just Obama; Clinton and the Republican bunch are doing the same thing. None of the candidates is looking particularly statesmanlike at the moment.

    That said, it doesn't appear to me that Obama or his campaign is suggesting that Hillary Clinton is directly or indirectly culpable in Bhutto's assassination. Instead, his flak is saying, quite rightly, that the Iraq fiasco was a major diversion that effectively enfeebled the pursuit of real terrorists in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think that's true, though I don't agree with the Obama campaign's decision to make that point in the middle of Bhutto's funeral procession.

    Definitely (none / 0) (#10)
    by tommyg on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 01:23:25 PM EST
    The Clinton campaign is being very hypocritical in attacking Obama for this when Evan Bayh and she herself have politicized it as well.
    And then they twist Axelrod's words around to mean something it clearly didn't.  Quite despicable.  The problem is that the media is allied with them, so there is no one to call them out on it.

    The Key Difference (none / 0) (#14)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 02:33:20 PM EST
    is that none of the Clinton people have tried to blame her assassination on Obama or any other Democrat.  I don't like Bayh's comments, but they only go to why he supports Clinton.

    Clinton herself has talked about Bhutto but hasn't made the direct argument to her campaign and neither has her staff, to my knowledge.  Sure, the experience argument is there every time she talks about how she's known Bhutto for years.  But it's implicit and not explicit.  It's a scalpel and not a sledgehammer, which is required in this kind of circumstance.  

    She also got "lucky" - not that Bhutto was assassinated, which is a terrible tragedy, but that her campaign had already pivoted to the theme of strength and experience in an uncertain world.  Had they waited a couple of days, they'd be accused of milking the Bhutto assassination even if the ads had been long planned, but because the stump speech and ads were already focused on this, it's more difficult to accuse the campaign of changing course to take advantage of the tragedy.  


    I don't condone this kind of rhetoric (none / 0) (#11)
    by Aaron on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 01:36:33 PM EST
    The assassination of Benazir Bhutto should not be used as a political football, but it appears that Clinton, Edwards and Obama have seized upon this tragedy in an effort to gain some advantage, I doubt it will do any of them any good.

    There are some places that you just shouldn't go, and using a political assassination as rhetorical fodder is one of those places.

    Clinton, Obama Seize on Killing -- Washington Post

    But Aaron (none / 0) (#12)
    by squeaky on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 01:49:30 PM EST
    The assassination of Bhutto is a huge international event of concern to everyone. Would you have the candidates say nothing about it, imo that would be worse.

    It sounds like you are trying to mitigate Axelrod's remark by implicaticating that the other candidates also put their foot in their mouth.


    As you point out, this goes beyond an unfortunate. (none / 0) (#15)
    by Aaron on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 02:56:40 PM EST
    ...choice of words, it's about our national interests and whose judgment can be trusted.

    While I don't condone or excuse the tactic, I must agree with the criticism of Hillary Clinton, which is not that she is directly responsible for the death of Mrs. Bhutto, but that she along with the rest of Congress who voted to allow this president to invade Iraq, and did so NOT because they actually believed Iraq was a threat, but because they feared for their political careers if they voted against it, the way Barack Obama did out of conscience and good judgment.  

    Clinton was part of the apparatus which allowed the Iraq war to occur, that was itself responsible in no small way for creating the situation we now have in Pakistan.  That being Musharraf's hold on power has now become directly dependent upon maintaining a continuing radical Islamic threat within his country, because without them he has no reason to exist, his own people despise him, and Pakistan is in a shambles economically as a result of his decisions.  Much like the Bush administration and the Republicans, he needs Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the Islamic fundamentalist movement as a matter of political survival.  Benazir Bhutto held no real power, therefore she was expendable, if that were not the case she would have been much better protected by Musharraf's forces.  As it is, Al Qaeda just did him a favor, a huge favor since now he has no opposition. It really couldn't have turned out better for him.  In fact I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it turned out he had a hand in helping Al Qaeda reach her.

    So yes in that sense Hillary Clinton helped to create the climate which destabilized Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, and a much greater problem that goes beyond the assassination of one individual, and will have far-reaching implications for the entire world.  She gave George Bush a pass, not because she believed it was the right thing to do, she did it because she thought it was going to help her politically, and it is perhaps right that Obama remind everyone who is responsible for the mess we're in today.  Hillary Clinton, as a US senator who supported an unnecessary war based upon lies and deceit, is personally and politically responsibility for these larger problems.  She made the wrong choice, and she made that choice for the wrong reason.  So while I may disagree with anyone using this assassination to make a political point, the point itself is indeed highly valid.


    The Apparatus That Allowed the Iraq War (none / 0) (#16)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 03:19:16 PM EST
    Obama is also part of the apparatus that has helped the Iraq war continue.   He has voted repeatedly for funding Iraq, even using right wing talking points about not "playing chicken with the troops."  It's a shame he couldn't use his great oratory skills to demand an end to the Iraq war or to explain to the American public how cutting off funding was not, in fact, playing chicken with troops.  But he has chosen not to.

    This is why Obama's 2002 stance isn't playing better.  He hasn't DONE anything to end the war in Iraq.  It's not enough to be right about something, you need to act on those convictions.  He hasn't.  

    His other problem is that Hillary Clinton did not single-handedly authorize the Iraq war.  So did Biden, Dodd, Edwards, and a lot of other Democrats.  The 2004 nominee had voted for it.  It had the support of most Americans at the time.  So the criticism is not limited to Clinton's judgement, which is where Obama these days almost exclusively aims it, it's aimed at most of Congress and the American people.   Now the criticism may very well be true, but I don't know that "I told you so" is a great political slogan, especially when once you've gotten into a position to do something, you've done nothing.  

    In any event, I think believing that Pakistan would be fine and glorious if only we had more American troops nearby is simplistic and ridiculous.  Pakistan was an internal mess before the Iraq War or even 9/11.  Bhutto, for all her glowing press, had an impressively corrupt administration.  Her successor, Sharif, was in and out of office in some political maneuvering by the President.  When he was re-elected in 1997 he purportedly received something like 90% of votes cast, which understandably raised questions about fraud.  Sharif was overthrown in a coup by Musharraf in 1999 after trying to remove Musharraf as head of the military.  Pakistan is a mess and has been a mess for a long time.

    The President, Congress and the American people have to live with the consequences of Iraq, but I don't think it's fair to suggest that those consequences extend to the Bhutto assassination.  It seems to me that the internal meltdown in Pakistan has been a long time in coming.  Maybe U.S. policy has made it worse, but it isn't the root cause.


    Sorry To Hear (none / 0) (#22)
    by squeaky on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 04:38:26 PM EST
    That you have lost your objectivity. Obviously you are not alone in that Obama can do no wrong.

    Here's Why Obama Should've Put This to Rest (none / 0) (#17)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 03:41:03 PM EST
    Compare his clip with Wolf to Clinton's.  This is why Obama should've simply moved beyond the Axelrod stuff by saying he misspoke and then launch into a broader discussion of Pakistan.  Instead, it's the Clinton stuff that's going to get play - no matter how many smart things he says on Pakistan (I haven't seen any, but Obama is a smart guy, so I'm sure he could), it's going to get lost.

    Exactly (4.00 / 1) (#20)
    by Maryb2004 on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 04:07:25 PM EST
    Although Clinton had the advantage that Blitzer treated her like a grownup candidate and asked her grownup questions - like, what do you think we should do?  Where Obama had to fend off the "hey do you have control over your staff" question because Axelrod made such a stupid mistake.

    The thing about Clinton's answer - nobody's really going to remember what she said, just that she sounded authoritative and in control when she said it.  

    I doubt an international investigation is going to uncover anything during any time frame that will be meaningful. And an international investigation won't prop up Mushariff and solve the instability problem in Pakistan that was just made frighteningly worse. But that doesn't matter. She sounded well briefed, she had an idea that wasn't automatically laughable and she sounded good saying it.


    Exactly (none / 0) (#21)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 04:19:47 PM EST
    How she said it was just as important as what she said, something that was true of Obama as well, IMO.  

    But I think there are a couple of smart things she did in the answer:

    • offered an idea that doesn't sound crazy and didn't automatically give credence to the government's story (which is what Obama did in his statement, blaming the shooting on terrorists, for those paying attention, if that quickly turns out not to be true, that's going to look bad),
    • reminded people that she knew Bhutto, (e.g. I've got experience with foreign leaders),
    • talked about the history of Pakistan (e.g., unlike Axelrod, and by extension Obama, I actually know something about Pakistan and its history),
    • took a shot at Bush without going overboard (e.g. she didn't do to Bush what Obama's team did to her), and
    • talked about this as primarily an issue for the Pakistanis (e.g., reassure folks that she knows not everything has a U.S. military solution).

    She made a lot of political points, but didn't do so overtly.  In fact, she did it while claiming not to want to politicize the tragedy.  It helps that I think she probably means all of it.  I doubt that she personally takes any joy in Bhutto's assassination (how weird must it be to have people you know assassinated and Bill Clinton was supposedly deeply affected by Rabin's murder) and so it's easier for her.   But still, nicely played.

    Yes, it helps that Blitzer talked to her like a grownup, but she was also helped by the fact that Patty Solis Doyle hadn't just run her mouth off.   You can only get distracted by stupid things your campaign manager says when the manager says stupid things.


    And Now Here's Clinton's Response to Axelrod (none / 0) (#19)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 04:05:39 PM EST
    Also from the Blitzer Interview (taken from mydd.com):

    Clinton: First, Wolf, I really regret that anybody would try to politicize this tragedy. I personally knew Benazir Bhutto. She was Prime Minister when I visited Pakistan on behalf of our government. I stayed in touch with her over the years. I don't think politics should be playing a role in how our country responds, both on the personal level to the tragedy of this assassination.

    But furthermore, Pakistan has been unstable for a long time. Benazir Bhutto's father was deposed and killed. Obviously, we know that President Musharraf came to power in a military coup. So the instability in Pakistan has long pre-dated any of the recent events. Therefore, I think you need to have an historic understanding. You need to look at Pakistan as a country that still today - the best information that we have - wants to have a better standard of living, wants to have a democracy and the United States should be doing more to promote that. I regret that President Bush's policies have failed to create that kind of environment. I hope it's not too late. I really do. And that's why I'm calling on the President now to begin to make some of the changes. If he has a good relationship with President Musharraf, which he claims to have, then let's have an envoy. Let's have this international investigation. Let's do what we know will work to try to stabilize Pakistan at this time.

    Blitzer: What about the specific criticism of your foreign policy judgment that we heard from Senator Obama, we heard earlier in the day from his chief strategist, David Axelrod. What about that, that implied criticism that some of your decisions on these national security, foreign policy issues raise questions about whether or not you should be president?

    Clinton: I just regret that both of them would be politicizing this tragedy and especially at a time when do we need to figure out a way forward. That's what I'm focused on. I'm focused on extending my sympathy to Benazir Bhutto's family. I'm focused on doing everything I can as a Senator, as someone with a platform running for president, to try to be both positive and effective in helping to set a course. We have a year to go with President Bush as our president. A year is a long time. We know the threats that could be posed with a nuclear armed country like Pakistan becoming more and more unstable.

    I have found that President Musharraf is someone that needs, in my opinion, to have a very consistent message and then frankly the help that would come with helping him and those who are in leadership positions understanding that this is not just about the United States - obviously, we have a very important national security interest. This is about what happens to Pakistan. President Musharraf could become as important to the future of Pakistan if he changed course and began to act in a way that would create more confidence to have these free and fair elections, to restore an independent judiciary, to take the shackles off the press, to say that he trusted the Pakistani people. That's what I'm hoping will happen over the next we

    So here we have Clinton as the above-it-all, just trying to move into the future politician and Obama "playing politics."  This cannot possibly be where Obama wants to be and yet this is largely his own campaign's doing.  Stunning.


    Edwards Joins the Party (none / 0) (#23)
    by BDB on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 04:38:57 PM EST
    Via TPM Election Central, Edwards condemned Axelrod's remarks
    "It's ridiculous. It's a ridiculous stretch," said Edwards. "I think in times of international crisis -- which this clearly is -- what America needs to be doing and serious presidential candidates need to be doing is providing an atmosphere of strength and calm. We need to be a calming influence and not stoking the fire and certainly not be talking about the politics of this."

    This has the makings of a disaster for Obama and the other campaigns clearly sense it.


    my goodness, (none / 0) (#18)
    by cpinva on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 04:01:24 PM EST
    aaron the mind reader! he just knows that sen. clinton, along with nearly every senator in office at the time, voted to authorize bush to go start a war, immediately, in iraq, just to cover her ass politically. how does the seer aaron know this to be the case? beats me, he doesn't say, we're just supposed to accept it on his word.

    aside from the blatant revisionism in your posts, they just aren't very good. it must be nice to have a mind wholly uncluttered by facts, makes life so much easier.

    the facts: sen. clinton, along with nearly every other senator then in office, voted to authorize bush to use every means at our disposal, up to and including force of arms, to make saddam rid his country of the wmd's they, and all the world, were assured he had, by none other than colin powell, at the UN.

    sen. clinton, et al, had as much info as the rest of us, though clearly not all of it, since the good stuff was held back by bush. she, and the rest, voted on what they perceived to be the best course of action. it turned out they, and we, were all "misled" (read: lied to) by the bush administration.

    for the record, sen. clinton, as early as 2004, stated that, had she known then what she knows now, she'd never have voted for that authorization. further, she (foolishly, as it turns out) trusted bush when he said he'd use every diplomatic means first, to accomplish the goal, military action would be a last, desperate resort.

    as far as the votes for continued funding of our occupation of iraq, it's a harsh judgment call: vote only for a bill that includes a date certain for withdrawal, knowing full well bush will veto it, and run the very real risk that the troops will be harmed by bush in response, or vote on one bill with that in it, to make your point, then vote to fund the troops, knowing bush is gone in a year?

    what's the best thing to do? again, beats me, i don't have to make that call, congress does. from my perch, free of the actual responsibility, i'd go for bush's jugular. of course, i also don't have to face those men and women doing a very difficult job, in harsh circumstances, on a daily basis. i also don't have to explain, to their families and friends, the subtle nuances of my votes.

    it's fine to disagree with clinton's record, or obama's (such as it is), but at least do so with the facts.