Round 1 to Hillary!

Clinton baits Obama in the brawl over David Geffen.

Barack Obama

Let’s say you’re Barack Obama, and you’re building your campaign around a new, high-minded brand of politics, but then your rival takes a swipe at you. What do you do? A candidate who lets his opponent define him is a losing candidate, so you should respond quickly and sharply, because you don’t want voters to think you’re a weakling. But if you smack back, wouldn’t you be lowering yourself to your attacker’s level by practicing the old-style politics you rail against in every speech?

This thought experiment became a reality today for the Obama campaign. Maureen Dowd quoted former Clinton supporter David Geffen as saying a variety of unkind things about the former first couple. “Everybody in politics lies, but they [the Clintons] do it with such ease, it’s troubling,” said the media mogul, who hosted a fund-raiser for Obama Tuesday. (Here’s why he might be angry.)

The Clinton campaign immediately seized on the comments—as Obama had masterfully seized on comments by a Clinton supporter the week before. The Clintonites called for Obama to disavow Geffen’s remarks and return his money.

For Obama, this first major cut-and-thrust of the Democratic contest offered an opportunity to match his gallant and unconventional message with action. He could have ignored the ambush, picked up the phone to call Sen. Clinton, or disagreed with Geffen in public, saying that while Geffen was free to speak his mind, the public discourse doesn’t need anymore pollution. It would have been risky to gently rebuff a major donor, but it would have been in keeping with Obama’s high-minded stump speeches.

For the Clinton team, the Geffen remarks offered a chance to bait a trap. If they could goad Obama’s campaign into firing back, they could show that his soaring talk is just talk.

So, who won this round? Sen. Clinton. The Clinton team got exactly what they hoped for. Obama’s communications director, Robert Gibbs, responded sharply, alluding to the Lincoln Bedroom fund-raising controversies of Bill Clinton’s presidency. “We aren’t going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who was once one of their biggest supporters,” said Gibbs in a statement. “It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

The Clinton campaign responded on cue. “I would have thought that a campaign trying to change our politics would have disavowed those comments and moved on,” said Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson.

Obama’s other rivals took their chance to join in the fun. Asked at a Democratic forum in Nevada if Obama should denounce Geffen, New Mexico governor and presidential candidate Bill Richardson said yes and then gallivanted on the high road: “I think if we’re going to win we have to be positive. If there is anything about Democrats in the last few years, being a governor I felt this, we just cannot criticize the president. There’s plenty to criticize. … I think these name-callings are not good.” Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack joined in, too. An operative from another rival Democratic campaign responded from the sidelines: “These are the two candidates who most need to project strength and dignity and presidentialness, and instead they’re acting like children. Let’s hope it keeps up for the next year.”

The response from the Obama campaign was good, old-fashioned hardball. You call me a hypocrite, and I’ll respond by raising something out of your ugly past. But that wasn’t the way Obama has said he’ll play the game. It’s very hard to run in the political system while simultaneously running against the system, but that’s what has seemed so audacious about his campaign rhetoric. He has promised to lay down a lot of political weapons, and voters will reward him for taking that risk. But apparently, the weapons are still in his back pocket. (An Obama aide says I’m “overthinking” things.)

Does the Clinton team look a little thin-skinned? Yes, but they’ll take the rap for being thin-skinned if they can show their opponent to be a hypocrite. (Any distraction from talk about Mrs. Clinton’s war vote doesn’t hurt, either.) The veterans from the first Clinton campaign like to quote a line from their Jedi master Bill Clinton: Your opponent can’t talk when your fist is in his mouth. In this campaign it means that no one will be faster to hold Obama to the high standard he’s set for his campaign than his primary opponent.