Beltway pundits described Hillary Clinton’s campaign entering the 2008 race as a “dream team” consisting of veterans of Clinton presidential and Senate victories. It turns out what many consider the nightmare of a Barack Obama presidency only occurred because of that dream team’s epic incompetence.
We are speaking in particular about a monumental and preventable opposition research failure that has been ignored so far by the mainstream media and the books written by reporters and Democrats about the 2008 campaign.
It comes down to this: If Hillary’s campaign had unearthed and leaked the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright sermon videos that rocked the political world in March 2008 just a few months earlier, it is highly unlikely that Obama would have won the primary. And those DVDs were easily obtainable, sitting in Wright’s church’s gift store.
When the videos of Wright’s sermons did emerge, Obama’s staffers and the political world realized they potentially could derail Obama’s candidacy. It is important, however, to understand the time context. Obama already had essentially won the nomination after more than 40 states had voted or caucused. Obama had a significant delegate lead over Hillary Clinton at that time, 1,893 to 1,617, according to the Washington Post, and only needed an additional 225 delegates to clinch the nomination. After the videos hit, Obama narrowly limped home to the nomination as Hillary outperformed him badly, 302-171 in delegates in the final three months.
The effect on Obama’s candidacy prior to the first contest, Jan. 3, 2008, in Iowa, or soon thereafter, would undoubtedly have been devastating and fatal to a largely undefined Barack Obama. It was clear at the time and in retrospect that Obama’s strategists were heavily banking on a win in Iowa to springboard their candidacy and in effect were placing an all-or-nothing bet on the table. Had Hillary won that contest with Obama a distant third, the pressure within the Democratic Party to coalesce around the “inevitable” Clinton would have rippled through the other early states and likely ensured her nomination.
Ask any Obama strategist today if they could have won the nomination without winning Iowa.
So, could Hillary’s campaign have found the videos and could it have injected them into the public arena? The answer to both questions is yes.
The controversy over Rev. Wright’s sermons was not a secret. It had emerged a year earlier in early 2007 when Rolling Stone went online with a story titled, “The Radical Roots of Barack Obama” just days before Obama’s candidacy launch announcement Feb. 10 in Springfield, IL. The story so rattled the Obama team that they pulled Wright from the speaking roster less than 24 hours before Obama’s Springfield event.
As Bernie Goldberg noted in his book, “A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media,” the Rolling Stone story should have triggered a flurry of mainstream media stories on Wright and Obama. Instead, the follow-up coverage was largely non-existent and apologetic. However, in the opposition research world, the story should have prompted a full exploration of the available evidence of Obama-Wright ties and the top end of any research team’s goals are videos that most dramatically explain the political problem.
Obama’s top strategist David Axelrod admitted in his just released book, “Believer”, the Wright matter was important and said the campaign in early 2007 had assigned a researcher to dig up Obama-Wright material. Newsweek said the same thing in its staff-written 2009 book, “A Long Time Coming…” When the tapes finally did emerge, Axelrod said he went back to the researcher who said the assignment slipped through the cracks.
Fox News cable host Sean Hannity had been highlighting the Rev. Wright-Obama issue in 2007 but did not have the video and was basing his coverage off of an on-camera interview he had done with Wright that questioned the church’s black separatist’s philosophy. The real bombshell hit on March 13, 2008, when ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross unveiled inflammatory excerpts from Wright’s sermons on Good Morning America. Fox News immediately began heavily highlighting the video on its shows for the next several days and the matter exploded into the news arena as the nation’s top political story. Axelrod, in his book, explained:
Two days after the Mississippi primary, however, the story went mainstream when Brian Ross, an investigative reporter for ABC News, ran the now infamous tape on Good Morning America. I was convinced it had been leaked to Ross by an opposing campaign. Later, Ross disclosed that, having been denied an interview with Reverend Wright, he was informed by the church that the DVDs of all Wright sermons were available for purchase. It was a good investment for ABC. The condensed reel Ross put together from the videos sent the political world into an immediate uproar.
Axelrod said had the campaign’s research team done its job, they would have removed the videos from public view like they did with many other records from Obama’s past.
If we had known about these jeremiads, we certainly would have encouraged the church to remove the tapes from their gift shop. We might even have encouraged the Obamas to remove themselves from the church. At the very least we would have been prepared for the onslaught we now faced.
So, Obama’s team failed by not finding the videos, but what about the Hillary dream team? Why didn’t it walk into the church, buy the videos, and drop them through a third party to Fox News to put the dagger to Obama’s candidacy? There is no answer to this question publicly that I have found. The answer must be that Hillary’s dream team was asleep at the switch and consequence is that she lost the nomination.
I wondered about this question since 2008, when I was told by a direct source that ABC had simply walked into Rev. Wright’s church to buy the sermons. As someone who has done opposition research in presidential and many other races, I was surprised. The best information usually isn’t that easy to find.
I wondered why authors of the supposed definitive 2008 campaign history, “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, hadn’t noted this colossal screw-up that fit the title of their book perfectly.
Again, we are reading the smart analysts commenting on how formidable the Clinton campaign will be in 2016 — another dream team in the making. I wonder this time whether it will invest in an opposition research team that is resourceful enough to walk into a gift store of the bomb-throwing preacher of their opponent?