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Anatomy of a smear [Editorial]

ElectionsBill ClintonExecutive BranchGovernmentChris ChristieJohn Kerry

Nobody brings out the Republican long knives quite like Hillary Clinton does, and this week, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart coined the perfect name for it: "Brainghazi." It's the merging of the umpteenth investigation of Benghazi with the latest slander to be directed her way, the suggestion by Republican strategist Karl Rove that she's suffered brain damage.

Mr. Rove tried to walk back that little smear on Tuesday after a New York Post headline to that effect set the Internet on fire. He told Fox News he never said she had brain damage. But unless the reporter was hearing voices or made up Mr. Rove's remarks at a Los Angeles conference out of whole cloth, his claim that Ms. Clinton had been hospitalized for 30 days (it was actually three) and wore glasses for people with traumatic brain injury (also, apparently not true) amounts to the same thing, only in a cowardly, whisper-campaign manner.

And that wasn't the only Hillary Clinton-related conspiracy/outrage of the past week. Conservative commentators on Fox and elsewhere have been trying to pin the blame for the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls on her, too. That remarkable leap of logic comes from a claim the State Department was slow under her tenure to brand Boko Haram as a terrorist organization — as if that would have made all the difference to Nigeria's internal security. Others have suggested she had some connection to Monica Lewinsky's decision to write about her affair with Bill Clinton in Vanity Fair (don't even try to figure out how such a conspiracy might help her).

In another election, one might refer to this tactic as swiftboating, the use of personal, unfair and dishonest attacks to impugn character, as was done against John Kerry in 2004. It is not a strategy unique to GOP politics, but few have mastered if quite like Mr. Rove. Yet, this isn't 2004, it's 2014 and more than two years away from the next presidential election.

Nobody else in the pool of possible presidential candidates has gotten this kind of full-court press of smear and mud-slinging. Not even New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has been criticized by both tea party types and home state Democrats over the "bridge-gate" incident, has see such a broad campaign of character assassination. At least that investigation is contained to the Garden State and appears to be reality-based.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley can only marvel at the outpouring. In Annapolis, there are probably campaign strategists talking to the aspiring presidential candidate right now about whether to leak a story about possible brain damage from his Celtic rock band days in hopes that Glenn Beck might go wild over it. Or maybe he should start wearing sunglasses with a "Johns Hopkins" label. What's a guy got to do to whip up a little publicity?

It's obvious that the GOP is scared of the popular Ms. Clinton, who looks to have a virtual lock on the 2016 Democratic nomination if she chooses to run, while the Republican Party is likely to end up with a figure who alienates at least part of his own party, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sens. Rand Paul or Marco Rubio or Mr. Christie. The hope seems to be that running a smear campaign against her might either deter her candidacy or weaken it substantially before it even starts.

Yet they don't seem to appreciate that the all-out assault on Ms. Clinton is on the verge of seeming downright comical. Benghazi has been investigated so many times in such a partisan manner — and in sharp contrast to incidents like the 1983 bombing of the Marine compound in Beirut which killed not four people but 241 and resulted mostly in criticisms of military procedure — that the latest investigation just looks like a wild-eyed obsession, not unlike how Republicans like to vote down Obamacare.

It also reinforces the image of Republicans as anti-woman. No man has ever gotten this kind of treatment, not two years away from an election. Health and medical records are a legitimate topic for investigation, but two years in advance with speculation based on made-up facts? That's an especially heinous example of swiftboating.

Perhaps the attacks will backfire and cause people to sympathize with Ms. Clinton, but there's a reason politicians resort to smear campaigns — they tend to be effective, particularly when they come from shadowy operatives, non-profits or other third parties who can offer cover to the candidates who stand to benefit. Politics ain't beanbag, but it's rarely been more ugly.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsBill ClintonExecutive BranchGovernmentChris ChristieJohn Kerry
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