So what to make of Monstergate? On the surface, the campaign controversy du jour could hardly be a more straightforward story. A few days ago, Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author and Harvard scholar who served until a few hours ago as one of Barack Obama’s top foreign-policy advisers, was quoted by the Edinburgh-based daily The Scotsman heaping scorn on Hillary Clinton: “She’s a monster, too — that is off the record — she is stooping to anything … You just look at her and think, ‘Ergh.’” This morning, as word of the incendiary indiscretion spread (the story led the Today show) and the fever mounted, a number of congressional Clinton backers demanded that Power resign from the campaign. “It’s really a test for Obama,” said Representative Nita Lowey of New York, and she was right. For months now, Obama has vowed to fire anyone on his staff who “is involved in trying to tear people down personally,” as he put in December. So Power’s exit late this morning was, in a sense, inevitable.
But Monstergate, I think, reflects something deeper: the fact that many of the people around Obama have grown accustomed to, shall we say, a forgiving national press corps. Retroactive declarations of off-the-recordness happen all the time. Whether the journalist confronted with one chooses to let it slide or be a hard-ass is a matter of discretion. How much do you like the source? How much do you need the source? It’s fair to say that many people in Obama’s circle believe that Clinton is in fact a monster. Many have said something similar to reporters. And this was not the first time one of them slipped up on attribution. But until now, the press, as part of a broader pattern of kid-gloves treatment of Obama, has largely chosen to let those mistakes pass. And that has bred a certain sloppiness — one that, in the case of Power, has now come back to bite them.
This sloppiness is not confined to dealing with the press. Much has been written about the case of Obama’s economic guru, Austan Goolsbee, and the Canadians, but it’s worth revisiting in the context of Monstergate. In telling the Canucks to pay no attention to his boss’ saber-rattling on NAFTA, Goolsbee was being candid and stating the plain truth: Nobody who knows Obama believes for a second that he is anything but a staunch free trader; they know that he has no intention of trashing the trade treaty. But Goolsbee was also being sloppy. And so was the campaign in its ludicrously transparent, transparently ludicrous efforts to mislead the press about what occurred. (The Canadians contacted Goolsbee not in his capacity as Obama’s guy on economics but merely as a University of Chicago academic? As Bill Clinton might put it, Give me a break!) The whole imbroglio fairly reeked of an operation that had become accustomed — too accustomed for its own good — to a sleepy, besotted press corps.
By now, of course, it’s clear to anyone with two eyes in his head that the kid-gloves days are over for Obama. Suddenly, the press is treating him more like it has handled Clinton since, er, day one. As a front-runner, in other words. The shift in tone and temper is coming as something of a shock to Obamaland, and not least to the candidate himself. In a post a few days ago, I remarked on the somewhat contentious news conference that Obama held last Monday in San Antonio, the one that ended with reporters annoyed at its brevity and Obama saying, plaintively, “C’mon, guys, I just answered, like, eight questions.” Last night at dinner with two of the savviest political analysts I know, one of them maintained that this was an utterance infinitely revealing about Obama — the equivalent of “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” for WJC or “No controlling legal authority” for Al Gore. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but I do believe that it speaks volumes about BHO’s mind-set and expectations regarding the national media. (Let’s not forget that Obama himself at first denied that the Goolsbee meeting with the Canadians ever took place.) It also gives off the distinct whiff of arrogance and entitlement that’s lately been emanating from him. Eight questions! OMG! That’s, like, three more than I usually answer — and five more than I should have to answer!”
Let’s be clear. Few campaigns I’ve ever covered have been run with as much skill and discipline as Obama’s has. His chief strategist, David Axelrod, handles the press with aplomb and savvy. Robert Gibbs, his communications czar, is one tough cookie. But the rest of Obama’s adjutants — and the candidate himself — had better get with the program. The Media Beast, after months of blissful slumber, is now awake and as grouchy as an undercaffeinated grizzly bear. And the Clinton campaign has no intention of letting it return to sleep. Unless and until all of Team Obama understand what that means, there are going to be a lot more days like this. Days that end with blood and severed limbs all over the floor. —John Heilemann
For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.