So, as expected, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have split the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, sending the race stumbling along to West Virginia (where Clinton should win decisively) this Tuesday, and then beyond. But the big story in the campaign continues to be the whole Reverend Wright affair, which has undoubtedly damaged the Obama effort, despite his impressive showing Tuesday night.
The crucial question is whether the damage is temporary or permanent. And one helpful precedent for Obama comes from an incident 16 years ago that you won’t hear the Clinton campaign mentioning at all: the Gennifer Flowers episode.
For those with short memories, Flowers was the Wright of the ‘92 campaign. She burst on the scene in the period before the New Hampshire primary, holding a press conference and asserting that she had had a long-running affair with then-governor Bill Clinton in Little Rock. Most pundits concluded that the damage to the Clinton campaign was close to terminal. (Disclosure: I was one of them.)
The fallout from the “affair” was enough to send Clinton tumbling out of first place in the run-up to New Hampshire, and Paul Tsongas won the Granite State primary. But in the months ahead, though Flowers resurfaced occasionally, the story faded and Clinton went on to win the Oval Office (and, not coincidentally, face future Flowers-like controversies during his presidency).
Obviously, there are huge differences between a sex scandal and one involving what your preacher happens to say in church. And there are enormous distinctions that can be made between 2008 and 1992. In ’92, a three-way race enabled Clinton to become president while winning only 43 percent of the vote. Furthermore, there’s now a huge cable and Internet universe that relentlessly fans the flames of every controversy. Still, the key for Obama is whether the Wright episode will follow the same course as the Flowers one did in the run-up to November.
Sliced two ways
The election is a mere six months from now, but six months in politics constitutes the proverbial eternity — which is good news for Obama. Plus, the “Feiler faster” thesis, popularized by Slate columnist Mickey Kaus, holds that stories burn themselves out far faster in the Internet age.
But there are two worrisome aspects of this episode that have the potential to continue to spell trouble for Obama. The first, of course, is Wright himself. There may be more tapes of incendiary sermons; he may make more appearances. In his Detroit speech, Wright mentioned that he’s working on a book that, in his words, “will be out later this year.” If it’s before the election (and if he wants to sell any copies, it will be — most likely in October), he will go on a book tour. And the whole controversy will begin again.
Also troubling for the Obama camp, there are many more ways to keep a story like this alive than there were with the Clinton episode. Ultimately, there were only a few people that the media could go to for Flowers stories: the candidate (no luck there), Flowers herself (old news), and maybe a state trooper or two who could have indirectly witnessed something.