Taking Offense Is the Best Offense

How umbrage has become this year’s hottest campaign tactic.

The Obama photo on the Drudge Report

Barack Obama extended his winning streak to 12 consecutive contests Monday when he successfully took umbrage. His chance came when the Drudge Report claimed Clinton staffers were passing around a picture of Sen. Obama in the native dress of Wajir, a rural desert area in northeastern Kenya. Drudge didn’t explain to whom the picture was being sent, and the only context for the picture was a quote from an alleged Clinton staffer asking: “Wouldn’t we be seeing this on the cover of every magazine if it were HRC?”

It was just the opening a presidential candidate craves, a perfect opportunity to take umbrage. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe immediately cried foul, charging the Clinton campaign with “the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party in this election. … It’s exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world.” On a conference call with reporters moments later, Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, said that the “divisive” picture suggested that the customs of other cultures were “worthy of ridicule or condemnation.” Finally Obama completed the response cycle in a radio interview: “The notion that the Clinton campaign would be trying to circulate this as a negative on the same day that Senator Clinton was giving a speech about how we repair our relationships around the world is sad.”

The swift reaction from the Obama forces was good damage control and even better umbrage-taking, a political tactic that has been elevated to a high art in the 2008 campaign. There was once a time when campaigns didn’t respond to items like this for fear of giving them too much publicity. But if done correctly, candidates can exploit flamboyant displays of public upset to gain attention, raise money, put their opponents on the defensive, and distract from an unfavorable story.

Last week, John McCain may have united his conflicted Republican Party on the umbrage platform. Conservative commentators once groused he was too liberal. Heck, he’d even been endorsed by the New York Times. Then the paper ran its widely criticized story about alleged conversations among McCain associates about an alleged improper relationship with a female lobbyist. The conservative world united in group indignation at the cheap shot by the liberal Times. Even better, McCain and the RNC got the chance to send out indignant fundraising letters.

John Edwards perfected the use of resentment to raise campaign cash. When Ann Coulter called him a “faggot,” his aides immediately sent out a fundraising appeal. His campaign also raised money off of the press’ obsession with his$400 haircut. Elizabeth Edwards took umbrage repeatedly on her husband’s behalf—calling in to Hardball to rebuke Coulter and even posting a defense of him in Slate’s Fray. Each time, she generated sympathy, rallied the troops, and won attention for the campaign.

The key to taking successful umbrage is keeping the expressions of outrage in proper proportion to the offense. Calling for an apology from your opponent for some slight that seems too minor can make you look like a whiner. Or, it can make you look like a simple huckster who’s trying to push fake goods.

During John McCain’s pitched battle with Mitt Romney, his instinct for crying foul was so sensitive, it started to look like he would start a fight if Romney looked at a voter the wrong way. McCain called on Romney to apologize to the military for suggesting a withdrawal from Iraq that Romney never suggested. He called on him to apologize to Bob Dole for a minor dig. In professional soccer, basketball, and football, officials penalize players who overdramatize fouls or injuries that haven’t taken place. Perhaps politics should find a way to incorporate the same rules.

Hillary Clinton raised money by stirring outrage about a Washington Post story that mentioned her neckline and successfully took advantage of the crass statements by Chris Matthews and David Shuster. She also benefited from spontaneous indignation on her behalf. When Barack Obama said Clinton was “likable enough” before the New Hampshire primary, he may have motivated her female supporters to give him a thumping for being so rude.

But Clinton’s umbrage meter may have gotten a little too sensitive as her campaign has struggled. At a press conference in Ohio this weekend, Clinton shook two Obama fliers in her hand and took offense at his distorting attacks. “Shame on you, Barack Obama,” she said. “Meet me in Ohio and let us have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign.” The fliers, or their like, have been around for a while, and though Clinton is right that they hardly live up to Obama’s claims to be offering a new kind of politics, her sudden outrage felt like a stunt. She seemed one click away from asking that they rumble in the parking lot at sundown.

In the controversy over the Drudge photo, Obama had a perfectly good reason to challenge any story that even hints at the notion that he’s a Muslim. He’s been dogged for months by false rumors that he is a closet Muslim who doesn’t say the pledge of allegiance, sing the national anthem, or eat apple pie. (Obama’s campaign has also learned that ignoring Drudge can have a price. Just last week, the Obama campaign was on the defensive when Drudge highlighted quotes from Michelle Obama in which she said she was proud of her country for the first time. Conservatives pounced and Cindy McCain said she had always been proud of her country, taking umbrage for the nation.)

The Obama aides have no evidence other than the Drudge Report that the Clinton campaign was trafficking in this image in order to stir fears about his Muslim connections, but he had reason to be suspicious. One Clinton staffer had to resign in Iowa after trafficking in unfounded rumors about Obama’s secret Muslim leanings. A national co-chair had to resign for appearing as if he were trying to push stories about Obama’s past drug use.

Just because the Obama camp had reason to be suspicious doesn’t mean aides needed to clutch their chest as flamboyantly as they did. The extra measure of acting helped them milk the political benefits. By playing up the picture, the Obama team also makes it look like the Clinton campaign is desperate and will stop at nothing to slow his campaign. The flap created headaches for the Clinton team on a day when Hillary was giving a big foreign-policy speech meant to stress her readiness to be commander in chief. Campaign manager Maggie Williams had to issue a statement and then later explain why that statement didn’t include a denial. By the end of the day, the campaign had to issue another press release answering questions related to the whole business. Sometimes taking offense can be the best offense.