Tensions Boil Between Obama-Clinton Camps

DENVER — As Democrats arrived here Sunday for a convention intended to promote party unity, mistrust and resentments continued to boil among top associates of presumptive nominee Barack Obama and his defeated rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One flashpoint is the assigned speech topic for former president Bill Clinton, who is scheduled to speak Wednesday night, when the convention theme is “Securing America’s Future.” The night’s speakers will argue that Obama would be a more effective commander in chief than his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

The former president is disappointed, associates said, because he is eager to speak about the economy and more broadly about Democratic ideas — emphasizing the contrast between the Bush years and his own record in the 1990s.

This is an especially sore point for Bill Clinton, people close to him say, because among many grievances he has about the campaign Obama waged against his wife is a belief that the candidate poor-mouthed the political and policy successes of his two terms.

Some senior Democrats close to Obama, meanwhile, made clear in not-for-attribution comments that they were equally irked at the Clinton operation. Nearly three months after Hillary Clinton conceded defeat in the nomination contest, these Obama partisans complained, her team continues to act like she and Bill Clinton hold leverage.

After a period earlier this month when the two sides were working collegially over strategy, scheduling, and other convention logistics, things turned scratchy again in recent days.



Some senior Obama supporters are irritated at how they perceive the Clintons fanned — or at a minimum failed to douse — stories that she was not even vetted as a possible vice presidential nominee. This is because she told Obama she preferred not to go through the rigorous process of document production unless she was really a serious contender, an Obama associate noted.

One senior Obama supporter said the Clinton associates negotiating on her behalf act like “Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific still fighting after the war is over.”

A prominent Obama backer said some of Clinton’s lieutentants negotiating with the Obama team are “bitter enders” who presume that, rather than the Clintons reconciling themselves to Obama’s victory, it is up to Obama to accommodate them.

In fact, some senior veterans of Clinton’s presidential campaign do believe this.

“He has not fully reconciled,” said one political operative close to the Clintons, “and he has not demonstrated that he accepts the Clintons and the Clinton wing of the party.”

While the Clintons have a relatively easy job in Denver — to deliver gracious speeches and accept what are likely to be loud cheers from their supporters — it is “Obama who has the heavy lifting” this week, this aide said.

This is because large numbers of Clinton backers — 30 percent in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll — are still not backing Obama over McCain.

The peevishness on both sides and the volume of behind-the-scenes catcalls are noteworthy because both the Clinton and Obama teams had resolved in pre-convention talks that it was overwhelmingly in the interests of both sides to get along.

Both Obama and Clinton associates have said for weeks that one of the challenges of Denver would be to control the news media narrative, in a city full of reporters and political sources, at an emotional moment for both the Obama and Clinton teams.

Several hours after this story was first published, Obama strategist David Axelrod and Clinton senior adviser Maggie Williams, issued a joint statement. It did not address the reportedly bruised feelings over Bill Clinton's speaking assignment, but said:

"We understand that some in the news media are more interested in reporting the umor of controversy than the fact of unity. The fact is that our teams are working closely to ensure a successful convention and will continue to do so. Senator and President Clinton fully support the Obama/Biden ticket and look forward to addressing the convention and the nation on the urgency of victory this Fall. Anyone saying anything else doesn't know what they're talking about. Period." 
 

 

While Bill Clinton remains angry about how he and his wife were treated by both Obama backers and the news media — and he is particularly resentful at what he sees as unfair allegations that he tried to exploit racial divisions for political advantage — he has made the decision that he will put forward a positive face for Obama’s benefit at Denver.

It is harder to do that when the topic is foreign policy and national security, which lends itself to restrained, rather than boisterous, partisan rhetoric.

“That puts him in a terrible bind, because you can’t give a ringing endorsement when you’re talking about foreign policy,” a longtime Clinton adviser said. “Obviously, the hard thing to talk about with Obama is commander in chief, of all his many talents.

“You don’t rah-rah about commander in chief. You rah-rah about hope and change and a new party and all that. So no matter what he does, somebody will find fault with it.”

Hillary Clinton, who associates said seems more at peace with the results of the nomination battle than her husband, is treating her speech preparation as an all-hands-on-deck exercise, bringing back longtime aides who worked with her during the White House years and in her Senate office.


Jim Kennedy, a veteran Clinton press hand and now an executive at Sony studios, was recalled to work on a speech draft, as was former White House speechwriter Lissa Muscatine, according to Clinton associates.

Many of Hillary Clinton’s negotiations with the Obama team, aides said, have been led by former White House lawyer Cheryl Mills — a fiercely loyal associate of the Clintons who is known for her relentless and sometimes combative advocacy on their behalf.

Another longtime associate, former White House chief of staff John Podesta, said he has little doubt that Hillary Clinton will easily meet her political challenge in Denver. He predicted that her supporters will “blow the roof” off the convention center with cheers for her, and that she will in turn make a rousing appeal for Obama.

Podesta, the founder of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, said Bill Clinton’s challenge is harder. “I think he’s got a high bar because he needs to show enthusiasm, and the press will be looking for any stray remark as a sign that he doesn’t fully support” the Obama campaign, Podesta said, adding, “It’s a bar he’ll get over.”

Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Bill Clinton, said his boss "looks forward to making the case that Barack Obama is the best candidate to restore America's standing in the world."

Paul Begala, a former operative who has spoken to both Clintons in recent weeks, agreed. He said the former president, whatever mixed feelings remain from the primaries, will work to elect Obama because, “It’s killing him to watch what has happened over the past eight years. It’s been torture to watch the slow unraveling of so much of what his administration achieved.”

 
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