Jamie Rubin called me a few days ago, and he was upset. A top foreign policy aide in the Hillary Clinton campaign and a past assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Rubin believed he had been slimed by the Obama campaign, and he suggested I had been an unwitting party to the sliming.
Here’s what happened. Days earlier, the Clinton campaign had held a conference call to blast away at remarks recently made by Samantha Power regarding Senator Barack Obama’s Iraq policy. That morning, Power, a talented journalist, academic, and human rights advocate, had resigned as a foreign policy adviser to Obama after a newspaper reported she had called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” And during this conference call, Clinton’s senior foreign policy aides insisted that Power’s comments about Obama and Iraq suggested that Obama was not truly committed to withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. During that call, Rubin, as I wrote afterward, “derided Power as Obama’s foreign policy ‘Svengali or guru’ and claimed her remarks about Iraq were proof that Obama cannot create an efficient and effective foreign policy team, calling the episode ‘amateur hour’ for the Obama campaign.”
Rubin and the Clintonites’ interpretation of Power’s statements about Obama and Iraq was debatable, and their assault on Power struck some (read: me) as overkill and ugly.
Shortly after that conference call, the Obama campaign circulated a Washington Post clip to reporters that made it seem as if Rubin himself had his own “amateur hour” moment in 2004, when he was working for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. The newspaper reported that Rubin had apologized for having misrepresented Kerry’s position on Iraq by stating that Kerry would have probably launched a war against Saddam Hussein had Kerry been president in the preceding four years. (The George W. Bush campaign was enthusiastically using Rubin’s statement to claim there was not much difference between the two candidates on Iraq.) The Post published a statement from Rubin: “To the extent that my own comments have contributed to misunderstanding on this issue…I never should have said the phrase ‘in all probability’ because that’s not Kerry’s position and he’s never said it. That was my mistake.”
A-ha! the Obama campaign was saying: Rubin’s now slamming Power for an action similar to one he committed in 2004. In an article on the get-Power conference call, I reprinted a portion of this Post story.
After reading my piece, Rubin was livid at the Obama gang. Why? Because the Post story was false. Or sort of. At least enough so that it was, in Rubin’s view, not fair for the Obama camp to be disseminating it.
So Rubin contacted me to give his side of the story–an account that is backed up by a source whom I trust who also worked on the Kerry campaign in 2004–and it goes like this: In August 2004, Rubin was interviewed about Kerry’s position on the war by Jim VandeHei, then a reporter for the Post, and the following paragraph appeared in the middle of VandeHei’s subsequent article:
Knowing then what he knows today about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Kerry still would have voted to authorize the war and “in all probability” would have launched a military attack to oust Hussein by now if he were president, Kerry national security adviser Jamie Rubin said in an interview Saturday. As recently as Friday, the Massachusetts senator had said he only “might” have still gone to war.
Rubin’s reported remark was seen within the Kerry campaign as a “political disaster,” according to Robert Shrum, Kerry’s top campaign strategist. The Kerryites were attempting to portray their man as a leader who never would have misguided the nation into a mess like Iraq. Now a top Kerry aide appeared to be saying that Kerry probably would have followed the course Bush chose.
But Rubin’s remark was not fully (or, as he puts it, accurately) reported. What Rubin had said–and a later Post piece did note this–was, “In all probability, [Kerry] would have launched a military invasion with the support of the rest of the world by now.” And by that Rubin meant–as he later wrote in a 2007 letter to Shrum–that Kerry “in all probability” would have gone to war if the “entire world had concluded that Saddam Hussein would never comply [with U.N. resolutions compelling it to disarm] and the whole world supported us.” That was not a controversial point. If Saddam had not complied with U.N. demands and if the “whole world” had decided that military action was necessary, Kerry would have attacked Iraq. Acknowledging this was not saying much, and Rubin’s statement did not contradict Kerry’s stated position at the time. (But Rubin had been addressing an irrelevant hypothetical, for Saddam had been cooperating with international arms inspectors before Bush launched the invasion of Iraq.)
Yet if Rubin’s words had been twisted–if he had not misstated Kerry’s position in his interview with VandeHei–why did he weeks later apologize and say he had made a mistake? In his letter to Shrum–which Rubin wrote in response to Shrum’s account of this episode in his memoirs–Rubin noted that Kerry campaign aides
suggested that to defend myself was to somehow be disloyal to Kerry, and that the only loyal thing to do was to take one for the team and repudiate my statement. So I offered to do so….I repudiated my statement, stayed at headquarters doing TV appearances and never again played a meaningful role in the campaign.
So Rubin ended up saying he had made a mistake he hadn’t made. (How’s that for spin?) And it has haunted him ever since. Now he’s peeved that the Obama campaign has dug up this episode to undermine his criticism of Obama. The 2004 Post story reporting his apology is indeed effective political ammo–even if it misrepresented that convoluted chapter. And Rubin has reason to fret that the Obama campaign–and others–will drag it out anytime he’s leading a political charge.
“It’s fair game to debate a foreign policy adviser’s articulation of their candidate’s Iraq policy,” Rubin says in an email to me. “But it’s a cheap shot to send out an attack package based on a four year old controversy just because someone dares debate Iraq policy. This was a type of character assassination intended to stop me from engaging in legitimate debate. And it is doubly outrageous because the attempt to discredit me was based on a four year old charge that isn’t even true. What I hope is that the other campaign can just calm down and let the debate continue on Iraq without resorting to these reprehensible campaign tactics that I have always associated with the Republican attack machine.”
I’m persuaded that Rubin was unfairly hung out to dry in 2004 by the Kerry campaign. But given his participation in the spitball-hurling Clinton campaign–remember when Hillary Clinton mischaracterized Obama’s positions on Iraq?–Rubin may be asking too much if he expects his political foes to recognize the nuances of the 2004 episode. (An Obama aide tells me that the campaign staffers who distributed the 2004 Post article were unaware of the complicated backstory.) After all, the Clinton campaign’s attacks on Obama–such as its claim that Obama is not prepared to be commander in chief–have prompted Democrats and commentators to compare the Clinton camp to the Republican attack machine. Unfair attacks do not justify unfair attacks. But when kitchen sinks fly, everyone in the house has to watch out for falling plumbing.