It’s All About Authenticity

February 18, 2008 10:54 a.m.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the new attack line from the Hillary campaign, accusing Obama of plagiarism because an ad-libbed portion of his stump speech mimicked the language and rhythm of a two-year-old speech by his friend and supporter, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick told the New York Times that he and Obama freely exchange speech ideas and that he didn’t feel like a citation was needed.

The Clinton campaign held a conference call this morning to continue pushing this line of attack. TPM Election Central asked campaign adviser Howard Wolfson about Patrick’s remarks:

Wolfson said the plagiarism charge still holds because listeners go in with the assumption that Obama’s speeches are original, unless credit is given. “So I think it’s fine that Deval Patrick said that,” Wolfson said. “But what I’m concerned about is that the public has an expectation that Sen. Obama’s words are his own.”

Wolfson’s concern for the public’s fragile expectations would be quaint if it wasn’t so transparently self-serving. Obviously, this isn’t plagiarism.

But like the flip-flop line of attack Hillary is pressing on Obama’s public financing pledge, the attack speaks to her campaign’s effort to undermine the very thing that has been the centerpiece of Obama’s candidacy: his authenticity.

Sure he gives better speeches than I do, the Hillary line goes, but the words aren’t even his own. He may talk a good game about public financing, she asserts, but when push comes to shove his position is the same as mine.

The attacks are intended to bring down Obama’s positives, to knock him off his pedestal. But it’s hard to see how they raise Hillary’s. Her argument, boiled down, is: “He’s no better than me.” (Or perhaps, less charitably, “He’s just as bad as me.”)

Judged as political rhetoric, it strikes me as equally ineffective as her earlier charge that Obama was “raising false hopes.”

Late Update: Jake Tapper reports on the same conference call I referenced above:

I asked Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass, if they could assure the public that neither Clinton nor McGovern has ever done what Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, did when he used the rhetoric of Gov. Deval Patrick without footnoting him.

They would not.

In fact, Wolfson seemed to say it wouldn’t be as big a deal if it were discovered that Clinton had “lifted” such language.

“Sen. Clinton is not running on the strength of her rhetoric,” Wolfson said.

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