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Don’t sell ‘Obambi’ short

BARACK OBAMA is learning -- the hard way -- that no good deed goes unpunished. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has already gone after him with charges of negative campaigning. But in case that doesn’t work, they’re also going after him for being ... too polite.

Charges of negativity are a campaign season staple, so in February, when Clinton-pal-turned-Obama-supporter David Geffen went public with some choice observations about Hillary, (“everybody in politics lies, but [the Clintons] do it with such ease”), it was no surprise to see the Clinton campaign respond by accusing Obama of tolerating attack politics.

That backfired. The fracas made Clinton look thin-skinned and vindictive, and Obama’s poll numbers climbed. And though it’s too soon to say, the same thing’s likely to happen if the Clinton campaign tries to blame Obama for the anti-Clinton “1984" YouTube mash-up created by Philip de Vellis.

With its efforts to paint Obama as a negative campaigner showing so little promise, the Clinton campaign is shifting to a new tack. Now it is going after Obama for having tried to be polite about an issue that’s become one of Clinton’s greatest liabilities.

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That would be her October 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. That vote -- and her continued refusal to call it a mistake -- has many Democrats wondering just why she was so very wrong about the Bush administration’s case for war when a political newcomer like Obama was so very right.

Obama wasn’t in the Senate in 2002. But he made his views crystal clear in a speech on the same day that Clinton and 28 other Senate Democrats voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq: “I don’t oppose war in all circumstances.... What I do oppose is a dumb war.... A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

Today, Obama’s speech looks prescient. He got it right on everything: Saddam Hussein’s lack of WMD; the costs in lives and money of an indefinite occupation; the likelihood that war in Iraq would divert resources from Afghanistan and “fan the flames of the Middle East ... and strengthen ... Al Qaeda.”

Adding insult to injury, Obama still seems to be getting it right, nearly five years later. Congressional Democrats have coalesced around a version of Obama’s proposed Iraq plan. Clinton, meanwhile, finds herself in the galling position of watching Obama, a political babe in arms, emerge as the new standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

If you’re an old hand like Clinton, it’s awkward to explain how a neophyte like Obama outscored the pros. This, presumably, is why the Clinton campaign tried so hard to claim this week that Obama might well have voted for the Iraq war himself, had he been in the Senate in 2002.

The “evidence” -- trotted out both by Clinton pollster Mark Penn and by none other than Bill Clinton -- consists mainly of a statement Obama made in an interview during the 2004 presidential campaign. The interviewer contrasted Obama’s consistent antiwar position with the 2002 votes to authorize the war cast by John Kerry, John Edwards and other Democratic leaders. But when he was asked to speculate on how he would have voted had he been in the Senate in 2002, Obama answered: “What would I have done? I don’t know.”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been gleefully crying “gotcha!” about this. But in context, it’s clear that Obama was hardly suggesting that his views on Iraq were more ambivalent than he’d originally claimed. Obama sensibly declined to say “I told you so” at the expense of his party’s nominees. Instead, he refused to play the interviewer’s game and condemn his Democratic colleagues. Unlike them, he noted, he wasn’t “privy to the Senate intelligence reports.” But, he continued, “What I know is that, from my vantage point, the case [for war] was not made.”

That wasn’t ambivalence about Iraq, that was simple courtesy, and the Clinton campaign shouldn’t try to put a negative spin on it.

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Obama’s relative inexperience in national politics has led many commentators to nickname him “Obambi.” And it’s true, in some ways, that Obama has been as naive as Disney’s baby deer: A more seasoned (and cynical) politician might have realized that even his efforts to be gracious could someday be used against him.

But those eager to use “Obambi’s” naivete against him should go rent the Disney film. In the movie, Bambi is challenged by privation, loss and a hostile rival, but he perseveres ... and by the end of the movie, he’s the new Prince of the Forest.

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com


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