Saturday, March 22, 2008

Answering The Fact-Checking Phone

The campaign narratives are well-known by now. Barack Obama is the fresh face full of hope and ideas but short on substance. Hillary Clinton is the experienced candidate with the will, determination, and worldliness to get the job done. The media has been complicit in promoting the Clinton campaign's theme, but don't seem too interested in vetting her claims, merely distributing them as given.

But how much of her claims hold water? She claims her eight years as First Lady as part of her years of experience, but you'd better ask which parts of those she wants you to ignore before advancing any storyline on anything President Clinton pushed through. She claims foreign policy experience on par with that of John McCain, but again you should really check with her before talking to anyone who was there.

NAFTA then and now:

On the domestic front, her recent staunch opposition to NAFTA helped garner primary victories in Ohio and Texas. But in claiming Bill's presidency as her own, she must also lay claim to one of his more successful endeavors (in terms of the legislative process), the passage of NAFTA in 1993. Flying in the face of her claims to the contrary, her recently-released schedules indicate several meetings in which she participated to drum up support for the now-disavowed trade agreement. Two people who were at a November 10, 1993 meeting of the sort have very different impressions of the event than the Clinton campaign has tried to disseminate:

Laura Jones, Executive Director of US Assoc. of Imp. of Textiles & Apparel:

That's ludicrous [to say Clinton wasn't advocating NAFTA.] There was no question that everyone who spoke including the First Lady was for NAFTA, it was a rally on behalf of NAFTA to help it get passed. It's unquestionable. And there are many people out there who were there who remember the incident who work in this industry.

Julia Hughes, VP of the same organization:

This is such a non issue to us, because obviously it was a pro-NAFTA group and a pro-NAFTA event. It was a 100 percent pro-NAFTA event. No one suggested any inklings of doubt since part of the agenda was to promote enthusiasm for passage of NAFTA.

[Clinton] was the highlight of the event. She was absolutely the capper to the event. It was a positive rally. I assure you if there had even been a hint of waffling from her -- because we were in the last days before NAFTA passed and it was a pretty hectic time -- we would have freaked out.

After testing the waters with several rebuttals, most of which crumbled atop the shaky foundation of untruths, Hillary's campaign seems to have settled on the line that she was opposed to passing NAFTA before health-care reform. Well, that's probably true, but that doesn't speak to opposition to the substance of the NAFTA agreement in the slightest. If people were concerned about the timing, they'd have a point.

Like most her campaign, her domestic trade policy is predicated on acceptance of history about 15 months long. That it's possible to examine the events of a decade ago seems to chafe her to an enormous degree.

Sniper fire in Bosnia:

In March of 1996, Hillary embarked on a European trip, stopping off to rally the troops in Bosnia with Sinbad and Sheryl Crow. Her retelling of the event:

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.

Unfortunately for her, she forgets other people were there. Sinbad, for one, doesn't recall ducking sniper fire. I've never been in a situation like that, but I imagine I'd remember it if I had.

Among the kinks in Clinton's story are the fact that the Dayton Peace Accords ending the war were signed in November of the previous year. She says that it was too dangerous for President Clinton to go, but he had indeed gone to Bosnia in January of that year, allowing for even less time after the official cessation of hostilities. (You may note that the President is standing on the tarmac in that picture. He doesn't seem to be ducking sniper fire, either.)

In its defense, the campaign offers contemporary newspaper articles declaring, "the first lady is...traveling to a potential combat zone." Um, yeah, but 'potential' combat zone is different than ducking 'real' sniper fire. What's their point, exactly? Again, we must ignore the pesky fact that Bill was there two and a half months earlier. And if she was taking her 16-year-old daughter into an active combat zone, perhaps DHS should have been contacted. I'll settle for 'okay, we embellished a bit.'

Even if we allowed the juxtaposition of facts as to the urgency of danger, the point of the trip was basically a USO, troop morale operation. Bob Hope for President.

Opening borders retroactively:

Ever the master of international diplomacy, Hillary has also given herself credit-during a debate in January and subsequently-for getting Macedonia to open its borders to Albanian refugees from Kosovo. Again, those meddlesome news archives pin the date of reopening at May 13, 1999. Clinton's visit to 'negotiate?:' May 14.

That's correct. She's so good at negotiations that she can force countries to reverse time and reopen borders retroactively. Now that's a talent Obama can't get his paws on.

Ending 30 years of fighting with support:

Perhaps more nefarious than her imaginative, if not substantial, tales of Bosnia, is Hillary's claim to have been a major player in ending the fighting in Northern Ireland. Nearly everyone there agrees that she played a role in the peace agreement. Nearly all of those people describe that role as peripheral.

David Trimble
, Nobel Prize winner for his part in the Good Friday Accords:

I don't know there was much she did apart from accompanying Bill [Clinton] going around. I don't want to rain on the thing for her but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player.

Conall McDevitt, chief negotiator:

She was certainly investing some time, no doubt about it. Whether she was involved on the issue side I think probably not.

George Mitchell, another major player, has said things along the same lines. So, the consensus is pretty clear. Hillary played an role greater than your typical First Lady, but was not a significant force behind the diplomacy central to the agreement.

No one disputes that Hillary's interest in politics and diplomacy is greater than most First Ladys, but that isn't her claim. Her claim is that she played a significant role in getting the deal signed, which is a claim that seems at odds with pretty much everyone involved. If 'supporting' peace is a qualification for President, the majority of the country could sign up.

There are two themes at work here. First, HRC loves to claim time spent as First Lady as equivalent to governing experience (at the same time ignoring Obama's actual governing experience in the Illinois Senate) but isn't so fond of having to take credit for the parts of those years which contradict her current stance. Moral: The past is present if it contributes to her current campaign narrative. The past is the past (or non-existent) whenever a conflict occurs.

Second, tea parties with the wives of foreign dignitaries is Clintonese for 'personally negotiating peace agreements and influencing foreign affairs.' No one doubts she took an active role, but having an interest in and being a major player in foreign affairs are not equivalent.

Regardless of interpretations of participation, the Clinton campaign is more than happy to play a game of 'hide the facts.' Buried in almost all of its rebuttals is a tacit admission of misrepresentation.

When questioned about the sniper fire, they claim Bosnia as 'potential' war zone. Potential, as defined, is antithetical to 'active,' thereby taking the rug out from under the claim in the process of trying to support it. At one point, a campaign staffer was even reduced to asking, "Has Barack Obama even been to Bosnia?" If that's not an admission of defeat, I don't know what is.

When confronted with a shifting timeline in Macedonia, they claim that she was influential in allowing more Albanians to cross the border, using the simple fact that publicity of the opening led to greater crossings two days after than the day of the reopening.

Overall, Hillary's claim of experience is central to her campaign, but it is infinitely reliant upon ignorance of the past and obfuscation of the facts. Her folly, though, is in believing that fudging through these claims is to her benefit. Obama is running on the fresh ideas platform with glaring success, and she's chosen to oppose that with a murky, ever-changing tale of politics-as-usual.

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