DES MOINES, IA.—The Obama campaign faced a distraction on Thursday after some news outlets ran stories suggesting chief Obama strategist David Axelrod seemed to link Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq war with the assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Sen. Barack Obama vigorously defended Axelrod during a CNN interview on Thursday evening for comments Axelrod made in the morning after a speech Obama delivered in Des Moines. The dust-up will likely be over by the time you read this and the news cycle has moved on.
The Des Moines remarks were Obama’s penultimate “change” speech, completely overshadowed by Bhutto’s murder. The terrorist attack returned the conversation to foreign policy.
In standing up for Axelrod, Obama fell back on one of his campaign standbys and blamed the off-message situation on “Washington,” as in “Washington is putting a spin on it.”
Obama got a little impatient with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when Blitzer started to read him the Axelrod quote. One of the most accomplished speakers in the nation was reduced to stuttering as Obama tried to head off Blitzer from reading the quote on national television.
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.”
(Might you wonder what “I overheard it” means? One should not read this literally. Obama was not standing near Axelrod when he was talking to reporters after the speech. A bunch of reporters were interviewingAxelrod near the press risers at the back of the hall.)
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.
(At this point it was the reporter making the argument--asking if the assassination would bring the campaigns more to foreign policy and “that’s been more Hillary Clinton’s sort of strength, is that is that…that’s what the Clinton campaign will say, that this plays right into her strength.”)
Obama: “Now, first of all, that shouldn't have been the question.”
(Disputing a question is a technique Obama has used in the presidential debates when confronted with being asked something he did not want to specifically have to respond to. )
Obama then said, “The question should be, "how is this going to impact the safety and security of the United States," not "how is it going to affect a political campaign in Iowa."
"But his 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."
Obama went on to defend Axelrod, one of his closest advisors.
“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. “
Here’s another version; I asked Axelrod, “Looking ahead, does the assassination put on the front burner foreign policy credentials in the closing days?
Axelrod replied, “Well, it puts on the table foreign policy judgment, and that's a discussion we welcome. Barack Obama had the judgment to oppose the war in Iraq, and he warned at the time it would divert us from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, and now we see the effect of that. Al Qaeda's resurgent, they're a powerful force now in Pakistan, they may have been involved — we've been here, so I don't know whether the news has been updated, but there's a suspicion they may have been involved in this. I think his judgment was good. Sen. Clinton made a different judgment, so let's have that discussion.”