Penn, Clinton, and Obama: The Colombia Backstory

Crossposted at DailyKos

The recent news that Hillary's campaign strategist Mark Penn had a meeting last week with the Ambassador of Colombia should come as no surprise, as the sovereign state of Colombia is one of his other clients:

Attendance by the adviser, Mark Penn, was confirmed by two Colombian officials. He wasn't there in his campaign role, but in his separate job as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, an international communications and lobbying firm. The firm has a contract with the South American nation to promote congressional approval of the trade deal, among other things, according to filings with the Justice Department.

Susan Davis - Clinton Aide Met on Trade Deal WSJ 4 Apr 08

The Clinton campaign was clearly unhappy with this news but was clear that Penn was meeting solely in his capacity of chief executive, as Hillary has publicly stated she opposes exactly the deal which was being discussed, the Colombian government apparently didn't get the memo as their rebuttal was more ambivalent and suggested a 'level playing field' defence involving other campaigns:

A spokesman for Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe said the ambassador met with Mr. Penn to discuss the bilateral agenda. "There have also been meetings with the advisers to the campaigns of Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain," he said. "It's the embassy's job to explain Colombia's reality."

The spokesman said he didn't know if Mr. Penn was representing Sen. Clinton or Burson-Marsteller, which signed a $300,000, one-year contract with the Colombian Embassy in March 2007 to work on behalf of the trade deal and anti-drug-trafficking initiatives, according to the Justice Department filings.

Susan Davis - Clinton Aide Met on Trade Deal WSJ 4 Apr 08

They seem a bit confused.  But wait, there is more to this story.  As recently as Friday after the Penn meeting, President Uribe piled on to Senator Obama on his foreign policy credentials, sound familiar?:

In an interview with the Journal's Jose de Cordoba published Friday, Uribe said opposition to the trade agreement would deal a serious blow to U.S. relations with Colombia, one of Washington's strongest allies in South America where anti-American attitudes have been resurging in recent years. "I deplore that Sen. Obama, apparently because he wants to be president of the U.S., ignores all that Colombia has achieved," he said.

Labor unions have fought hard against the trade deal, arguing that the Bogota hasn't done enough to quell violence against trade union organizers. Uribe said that the country had made progress, and that the number of assassinated union members and teachers had fallen to 26 last year from 205 in 2001.

Nick Timiraos - Obama Refutes Colombian President WSJ 4 Apr 08

And here we go down the rabbit hole of surrealistic political statements, emphasising the disconnect between our political realities and some of our erstwhile geopolitical allies, the notion that the number of assassinated union members and teachers had fallen to 26 last year from 205 in 2001 was considered 'progress.'

Obama, quite understandably and to his credit, refuted this argument:

"I think the president is absolutely wrong on this," Obama told reporters on his plane Friday morning. "You've got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition." The Illinois senator has promised to rebuild America's reputation abroad.


"That's not the kind of behavior that we want to reward," Obama said. "I think until we get that straightened out its inappropriate for us to move forward."

Nick Timiraos - Obama Refutes Colombian President WSJ 4 Apr 08

Oh well, Hillary opposes this agreement too, right?  It's just another misdeed on the part of Mark Penn which her campaign deplores?  Right?  Well, then why did Uribe single out Obama for criticism?  There may be more to this story than meets the eye.

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An Undeclared Truce

The recent chorus of voices for Hillary to suspend her campaign have ceased, notably with Obama's unequivocal statement that she has every right to continue the campaign as long as she sees fit.  I agree wholeheartedly with this view.  It is in the best interests of the party for the process to continue without coercion or intervention, in spite of the 'hand-wringing' of concerned elected Democrats, especially considering the argument she has made on the 'disenfranchisement' of voters:

[H]er message about disenfranchisement seems to have taken hold. As Ms. Williams noted, there are still 10 contests to go, with perhaps 43 millions votes to be counted. To short-circuit the process would anger many of her supporters, especially those who have not yet voted. Thousands of people are coming to her rallies now, and her campaign has organized events in post-Pennsylvania states where people are thrilled to be part of a process from which they are normally excluded.

Katherine Q Seeyle - Clinton's Persistence Could Help Obama NYT 2 Apr 08

Both Speaker Pelosi and Howard Dean have also recently softened their moral arguments regarding superdelegate preferences:

WASHINGTON -- Citing Democratic rules, national committee Chairman Howard Dean on Tuesday said that the superdelegates who are poised to select the party's presidential nominee are free to back whomever they wish at the end of the primaries, regardless of who leads in the popular vote or pledged delegates.

"They should use whatever yardstick they want," Dean said in an interview at party headquarters. "That's what the rules provide for."


Although his comments amounted to a restatement of party rules, Dean's stance undercut an argument pressed by Illinois Sen. Obama and his backers. They have said the candidate who has the most pledged delegates should automatically win the support of any uncommitted superdelegates after the primary balloting ends.

Earlier Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) appeared to back away from that view. "These superdelegates have the right to vote their conscience and who they think would be the better president, or who can win," Pelosi said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Mark Z Barabak - Dean says superdelegates are free agents 2 Apr 08

And Dean is making conciliatory noises about seating the Florida delegation:

(CNN) -- Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Wednesday the party would "absolutely seat" a Florida delegation when it meets in August in Colorado for the national convention.

"It is my commitment, working with the Florida delegation and the campaigns, to find a fair solution so that Florida will be seated -- and we are confident enough that we have reserved hotel rooms for the delegates from Florida in Denver," he said.

Dean met with Florida's Democratic leadership to discuss how to handle the state's 211 delegates.

Dean says he's committed to seating Florida's delegates CNN 2 Apr 08

Does this represent the Democratic leadership caving in to Hillary's campaign?  Not exactly, it is looking like a sensible truce has been established, for the good of the party and all concerned.  Hillary's campaign has shifted gear as well, and the 'kitchen sink' period of the campaign may well be ending.  


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Time to Mend Fences

Throughout the current camapign, and I have been blogging here daily since January last year, the netroots in general and this site in particular have been my preferred source for the kind of intelligent and predictive commentary which anticipates the next phase of the race and the conventional wisdom which inevitably ensues.  It's kind of fun to be one news cycle or so ahead of the mainstream and to, in some small way, be a participant in that process.

I've never been much inclined to write a 'meta-diary,' though I read them with interest, being far more likely to posit some analysis of this or that subtlety of the vigorous contest we have all been waging, strike a blow for my candidate's cause or strike down some arch-blasphemy from the other side.  But things have changed and my loyalties are being tugged towards party unity above all things.  We are all in this to win it at the end of the day and if there is nothing more important at this time than party solidarity in the face of the coming general election.

Consider the following sensible remarks on the subject:

For all Democrats, the worst thing that has happened since January is the tarnishing of the Clinton brand. Clinton haters: Don't laugh. The truth is that when this whole thing began, the vast majority of Democrats--including Obama supporters--and a fair number of independents had largely positive views of Bill Clinton's record and Hillary Clinton's merits.

In light of today's economic crisis, most Americans look back fondly on the rapid and widely shared growth of the 1990s. What neoconservatives see as a "holiday from history" in foreign policy, most Americans see as a time of peace when the United States was respected in the world, and even rather liked.

And while Bill Clinton's triangulation (and his scandal) did damage to the Democratic Party, Obama himself has acknowledged that Clinton was right to pull the party back from "the excesses of the '60s." Clinton, Obama told me in an interview last fall, "deserves some credit for breaking with some of those dogmas in the Democratic Party."

E J Dionne Jr - Onward, Clintonian Soldiers The New Republic 1 Apr 08

It's true.  As Matt Bai wrote convincingly last December:

Obama can rail about poll-tested positions and partisanship if he wants, but some of his most memorable speeches since being elected to the Senate have baldly echoed Clintonian themes and language. He has repeatedly called on poor African-Americans to take more responsibility for their parenting and their children's education, and he has been skeptical of centralized federal programs for the poor, advocating a partnership between government and new kinds of community-based nonprofits. He has railed against "a mass-media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence and materialism." Such "values" stances were far outside the mainstream of the party before Bill Clinton expressed them.

In an impressive 2005 commencement speech at Knox College, Obama talked about economic transformation. "Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th-century solutions, let's imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century," he said. "What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in the new economy? If we made sure that college was affordable for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers and said, Your old job is not coming back, but a new job will be there because we're going to seriously retrain you and there's a lifelong education waiting for you?

"Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities," he went on, "even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs." Bill Clinton could have spoken those exact words in 1991. In fact, it would be hard to find a better summation of the substance behind Clintonism.

Matt Bai - The Clinton Referendum NYT 23 Dec 2007

I am no fan of the ethos of Hillary's campaign, but it is not worth tearing the party in two over.  And I am not inviting an argument over it either.  Numerous pollsters and pundits have noted the relative similarity of their platforms and positions and no more proof of that could be offered than the narratives of the campaign since February which have devolved to issues of character and fitness to govern, from both sides.  I support Senator Obama loyally and continue to do so in the face of what I might consider to be unjust criticism from the opposing candidate and her supporters, but I think the time has come to ameliorate our differences and start talking about what we agree about more often.  We are all in this together.

There's more...

Hillary's Electability Argument

From an interesting interview with Mark Halperin an insightful narrative is emerging that Hillary's path to the nomination is predicated on her making an 'electability' argument to the superdelegates and the party on the basis that Senator Obama can't win the general election against Senator McCain.  From Josh Marshall at TPM (emphasis added):

It really is all or nothing. You've got to convince your supporters, donors and to at least some degree the media that you're really in it, and in it with a shot. Otherwise you face the classic problem of a cascade failure. Poor fundraising generates bad press stories, which depress turnout at rallies, which create more bad press stories and eventually no press stories, etc. It's no different from the precarious position any campaign faces when the odds aren't looking good.

And so we have this vicious cycle in which the longer Hillary's odds become the further she has to up the ante to keep her candidacy credible -- in other words, the more forcefully she has to question the legitimacy of the nomination process and the more aggressively she has to push the idea that Obama can't win the general election or is not qualified to be president. (For example, the argument that the Clinton campaign now appears to be making to funders and the press is that Obama literally cannot win the general. And thus she's not only entitled but actually obligated to do whatever it takes to ensure that he's not the nominee.)

Josh Marshall - Stickin' TPM 31 Mar 08

The point is not whether Hillary should stay in the race, let's accept that as a given, the question is on what basis is she making her case for the nomination.  It is pretty clear it is based on her enhanced electability over Obama in the general election, as has often been mentioned here by her supporters with unequivocal certitude and assumed prescience.

As Halperin notes, there are 'sensitive' aspects to this argument that would anticipate exit polling in Pennsylvania, for example, aligning with those from Ohio in demonstrating an erosion of support for Obama among white demographics in these key swing states.  But a recent Gallup poll shows a completely different story of Obama's prospects, at least in the opinion of the electorate of both parties, over the fold.

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Hillary's Solvency Problem

While the campaign for the Democratic nomination devolves into issues of character rather than policy a new narrative has emerged in recent weeks, 'How and where will it end?'  In the now widely accepted context of the narrowing path to the nomination for Senator Clinton a succession of ideological arguments have taken centre stage in the punditry, of the issues and practicality of seating the delegations of Florida and Michigan, the ethics of continuing an apparently costly and negative campaign at the expense of the presumptive front-runner and the moral right of a candidate to continue the struggle for reasons of ambition versus solidarity.

But there is a far more significant, and mundane, consideration which is likely to govern the strategy and viability of Hillary's run for the presidency in coming weeks, money:

The New York senator's presidential campaign ended February with $38 million in the bank, according to a report filed last week with the Federal Election Commission, but only $16 million of that can be spent on her battle with Obama.

The rest can be spent only in the general election, if she makes it that far, and must be returned if she doesn't. If she had paid off the $8.7 million in unpaid bills she reported as debt and had not loaned her campaign $5 million, the cash she would have had available at the end of last month to spend on television ads and other upfront expenses would have been less than $2 million.

Kenneth P Vogel - Cash-strapped Clinton fails to pay bills Politico 30 Mar 08

Admittedly this issue has come up before, in February prior to the disclosure that Hillary's campaign had a personal best fund-raising month.  And the debts were largely covered at the expense of her cash on hand.  But this is not a good indication for the viability of her campaign in a season of contests which are unlikely to vault her back into the pole position.

There are other, subtle indications of trouble as well:

Check out this line from today's Bill Clinton-signed fundraising email for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign: "We're facing a big deadline on Monday. Our opponents and the media will scrutinize our fundraising reports and look for any sign of weakness. By making a contribution today, you can help make sure we show nothing but strength."

Of course, the campaign could be playing an expectations game.

Carrie Dann and Chuck Todd - CLINTON FUNDRAISING PROBLEM? MSNBC 28 Mar 08

Indeed they might, and it remains to be seen what the March fund-raising figures will show when they are released, but it is increasingly clear that it will be campaign finance, not the unlikelihood of her achieving electoral victory on the metrics which were intended for the nomination nor the intervention of superdelegates or party elders, which will bring her campaign to a close.

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Over Before it Began

A candidate supporter diary for MyDD

A few weeks ago, in Time to Regroup, a case was made for an essential change in strategy by Senator Obama's campaign, that the strategic contest of sweeping advances and daring encirclement had achieved all reasonable gains possible, considerable as they have been, and that they would need to dismount and take Hillary's campaign's position by frontal assault, irrespective of casualties on either side.  

Nothing is more difficult than the art of manoeuvring for advantageous positions.

Sun-Tzu - The Art of War ~400 BC

Fortunately the gains of January and February left Obama's campaign far from it's starting point, deep in enemy territory, with an impressive string of victories and an almost insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and popular vote.  Time and again the Hillary campaign had been forced to dispute the significance of these losses with desperate rhetorical rear-guard actions while her campaign disengaged from local electoral defeats.  But Ohio, and to a lesser degree Texas, had checked Obama's momentum.  Taking that opportunity, where stalemate had been snatched from the jaws of victory, Hillary's campaign had chosen to make a tenacious last stand on issues of character and fitness to govern.  In the absence of electoral contests for many weeks it would be necessary to engage and defeat them on that ground, the position of their own choosing, a psychological battle rather than an electoral contest.

The historical parallel of this situation to infamous battles of attrition was soon evident in the punditry:

What the Democrats lost this week was the chance to paint the '08 campaign as a brilliant Napoleonic twinning of strategy and tactics that left history awed. What they have instead is a ticket to Verdun. Trench warfare, and the daily, wearying life of the soldier under siege. The mud, the cold, the dank water rotting the boots, all of it punctuated by mad cries of "Over the top," bayonets fixed.

Peggy Noonan - Over the Top WSJ 7 Mar 08

This apocalyptic analogy, conjuring images of mutual destruction and unacceptable losses for no gain captures the apprehension of Democrats that their destiny is no longer in their own hands, that the die has been cast in a lose/lose scenario:

The Democratic race has entered its World War I phase, a bloody fight between two adversaries making only the most incremental of gains. And there is no reason to think either side will emerge from the trenches anytime soon.

Jonathan Martin and Mark Allen - Obama, Clinton brace for deadlock 16 Mar 08

Senator Obama prepared for this phase by straightening his line, resolving the Rezko controversy, releasing his tax returns and enforcing discipline in the ranks.  He seemed to be preparing well when apparent disaster struck from an unexpected quarter, the media, using the lull between contests to troll their archives for newsworthy material.  It arrived in the form of the cultural shock of his former pastor's inflammatory remarks.  It was like a sudden and lengthy artillery bombardment in which distant observers can't imagine any survivors, but Obama's campaign met the challenge directly, and defiantly, with a call to look past the sound-bites to the larger but even more controversial issue, and emerged profoundly shell-shocked but arguably intact.  The dust was barely settling when Hillary's campaign received a similar barrage, a media-driven narrative that challenged the basic messages of her campaign, integrity and experience, over her unnecessary and seemingly trivial embellishments of her Tuzla visit.  This time it seems that while the bombardment was similar the damage was more severe.  Her position, built from 'facts' rather than values, was more vulnerable.  Her campaign, unable to confront the challenge by shifting the narrative, has been obliged to merely minimise their losses and unceremoniously carry out their dead.

Meanwhile the aggressive patrolling of 'no-man's land' continues, with daily opposition memos and conference calls, but a surprising perception has emerged.  Unexpectedly Senator Obama's campaign seems better equipped and positioned for this battle and is slowly but surely getting the better of Senator Clinton's.  What seemed like trench warfare has turned into a siege.

There's more...

The Day Hillary's World Stood Still

In spite, or perhaps because of, the recent disturbing influence of the Wright controversy a narrative has descended on the primary campaign and the punditry associated with it's perceptions.  Hillary is done.  Not toast, but the smell of crisping slices is filling the room.  Her narrative of 'experience' is slowly being eroded, her most egregious whoppers are being discussed with first person accounts and documentary evidence.  Her finances are parlous and her path to the nomination is tenuous.  In the 'down the rabbit hole' logic of the Clinton campaign the failure of the Florida and Michigan re-votes, ironically, is the death knell of her campaign:

Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton was back in Michigan, a full two months after its "primary," pleading with the state legislature to allow a revote in the state. As she stood in downtown Detroit, it was becoming increasingly clear that there would be no do-over and she looked for the first time as if she realized she had lost, in that typically defiant "I'll-drag-you-all-down-with-me" Clinton way. After all, she had staked whatever little she had left on a revote in a state in which fully 40% of the Democratic voters showed up on a cold January day to vote Uncommitted (ie, anyone but Clinton, the only name on the ballot), in which the most recent public polling shows her in a dead heat with Barack Obama, and where she had firmly backed the "disenfranchisement" she was now decrying. And even this slender straw of a revote was denied her: the extent of the despair is plain.

Paul Jenkins - The Day Hillary Clinton Knew She Had Lost Huffington Post 21 Mar 08

Well 'scorched earth' seems to have been postponed in this case because the 'math' just doesn't seem to add up, in spite of Ickes' and Penn's best efforts to spin the inconceivable.

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Hallelujah! Obama's a Christian

Crossposted at One Million Strong

Well, first he wasn't 'black' enough and then, according to Ms Ferraro, he wouldn't be where he was if he wasn't black.

Then he was repeating Republican talking points and glorifying Reagan and suddenly he was 'too liberal.'

And recently he hadn't passed the 'Commander-in-Chief threshold' but was then considered a suitable vice presidential choice.

And now he isn't as Muslim as we thought, as far as we know, in spite of our doubts about his middle name and we are revelling in the deep, spiritual connections we believe he has had with his inflammatory and anti-patriotic Christian pastor.

Sheesh.  So he is a Christian after all and within a couple of news cycles every mall-crawler and sleep-walker will know it with certainty.  Glad we cleared that up.  Has it occurred to any of his enthusiastic detractors that the sum of the criticisms which have been insinuated or levelled at Senator Obama, when taken as a whole, are mutually and even sometimes internally contradictory?  Cognitive dissonance anyone?

In the gleeful attempt to destroy Obama's electability, in spite of his apparently inevitable lead in pledged delegates and popular vote, in fact any democratic metric one cares to mention, has it occurred to any of you that there is a glaring lack of intellectual integrity and consistency on the part of his detractors, not to mention the messages which have been emanating from Hillary's campaign, whether from staff, surrogates or the candidate herself?

NAFTA and the Canadians, plagiarism, Rezko, race, homophobia, patriotism, reproductive rights, 3AM phone calls and etc.  Ad nauseum.  I am watching a campaign slowly self-destruct in the detritus of unpleasantness and it is not Senator Obama's.  If you have been reading the media closely since the Ides of March a subtle narrative is emerging, in spite of the opposition research and myriad, surrogate smoke and mirror attacks on Obama, of a growing impatience with this process, it's motives and intentions on the part of the Democratic establishment.  My reading is that this perception is inexorable and that the tide is slowly and inevitably turning Obama's way, for a variety of compelling reasons.

Given the almost inevitable metrics of the Democratic nominating process since Wyoming and Mississippi it is increasingly clear that the only possible path to the nomination for Hillary Clinton's campaign takes a long and thorough detour through the the lowlands of slanderous denouncement of her opponent.  

The only possible opportunity she has to gain the nomination involves destroying the chances of her rival.  Whether this approach is intended to achieve it's intended goal in August of this year, via party insiders, or is intended to keep her prospects alive for another run in 2012 is a question that supporters, superdelegates and down-ticket Democrats will need to consider carefully in coming weeks.  I fear the hubris of Hillary's candidacy could be the third act of a tragedy worthy of the ancient festival of Dionysius.  

Whether it consumes the party or just her retinue the die is almost surely already cast and it is up to the party itself, like the traditional chorus of old, to make it's choice before the climax unfolds.  Pride cometh before the fall but it need not consume us all.

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Time to Regroup

A candidate supporter diary for MyDD

The recent psychological victory of Senator Clinton's campaign in the March 4th primaries forces a strategic and tactical review of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on the part of Senator Obama, his campaign staff and his supporters.  While the underlying delegate advantage has not shifted significantly it would be foolish to assume that the context of the campaign has not undergone a fundamental change which Obama's campaign can only ignore at their peril.

War is merely a continuation of politics.

Carl von Clausewitz - Vom Krieg 1873

To date Obama's campaign has enjoyed unexpected success in gaining the advantage in this contest; novel applications of organisation, fundraising, media management and message have been adroitly synthesised to provide significant victories and a winning position for Senator Obama.  Like the surprising military successes of fluid combined arms operations against static defences or ju jitsu against a conventional fighter the campaign's early successes deftly outmanoeuvred the Clinton campaign and neutralised what had been widely perceived as their insurmountable advantages.  Round one to Obama.

But like all successful advances there comes a time when resistance stiffens and fluid tactics no longer prevail.  Obama's spectacular success has multiplied his enemies and forced him to divert his substantial resources to protect his flanks:

TOLEDO -- So this is what being a front-runner deep in primary season looks like: taking flak on three sides.

Sen. Barack Obama found himself today facing insinuations from Republicans that he lacks patriotism, charges from Hillary Clinton that he is a hypocrite on campaign ethics, and put-downs from Ralph Nader, who in announcing his third-party candidacy this morning dismissed Obama as well-intentioned but in hock to the corporate agenda.

So far, at least, Obama is showing that he can stand his ground and return fire on all fronts.

Alec MacGillis - Newly Engaged in a Three-Front War The Trail, Washington Post 24 Feb 08

In the days leading up to the March 4th primaries Obama's advance came within range of the heavy artillery of her overtly negative attacks, the 'kitchen sink' barrage, and was interdicted by her successful manipulation of the media's fragile, and fickle, sense of their own integrity.  In spite of throwing everything into this critical battle, a sensible gamble on Obama's part, the Clinton campaign had cut their losses and reorganised for a last stand in a traditional, positional defence which successfully blunted what might otherwise have been a knock-out blow with limited collateral damage.  Round two to Hillary.  The Obama campaign has relinquished their momentum but not their resources and it is time for a determined, prepared attack on Hillary's position.

The late, great military tactician Sir Basil Liddel-Hart famously said 'Never check momentum, never resume mere pushing.'  It is time to dismount and winkle the defenders out of their field fortifications by frontal assault, irrespective of casualties on either side.  The ground Hillary has chosen is 'experience' and suitability to be Commander-in-Chief of the United States.  Let's take a look at this well known battlefield and weigh the prospects for a successful offensive against a tenacious but familiar adversary on this terrain.

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Another Bit of Plumbing Flung

Now sooner does Karl Rove make the confident prediction on Fox that there will be some 'mailers coming out tomorrow in Ohio' then, according to Talking Points Memo's Greg Sargent, another bit of domestic plumbing in Hillary's 'kitchen sink' strategy has indeed been flung Obama's way:

Flip side of the mailer over the fold.

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