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Sweet column: Clinton allies hit Obama on present votes. Durbin rebuts.

CHICAGO–The Clinton campaign stepped up its criticism of White House hopeful Barack Obama for nearly 130 “present” votes he took in the state senate — seeking to dilute his leadership claims — while Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Obama was using strategy “widely accepted” in Springfield.

Three lawmakers backing Hillary Rodham Clinton — Rep. Stephanie Tubb Jones (D-Ohio), Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) — said in a conference call Thursday organized by the Clinton campaign that a string of “present” votes Obama cast while an Illinois lawmaker showed Obama avoided tough stands.

“Yes or no should be an easy answer,” said Tubb Jones. “He took what many of us in public life would say is the easy way out,” said Weiner.

Durbin, a former parliamentarian for the Illinois State Senate, said the Clinton allies were not familiar with how things worked in Illinois. “Voting present was a widely accepted legislative strategy used to champion progressive causes, or to ward off legislation that was unfinished or unconstitutional,” Durbin said in a statement issued by the Obama campaign.

A front-page story in the Thursday New York Times detailing Obama’s “present” voting history triggered the renewed attack. Earlier this month, Clinton said, “A president can’t vote ‘present.’ A president can’t pick and choose which challenges he or she will face,” focusing on nine roll calls where Obama voted “present” on abortion and gun-control measures.

On the abortion-related roll calls, Obama voted “present” not to duck taking a stand but to help provide political cover to lawmakers who did not hold a “safe” seat like he did, under an arrangement worked out with the registered lobbyist for the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, Pam Sutherland. On the presidential campaign trail, one of Obama’s biggest applause lines comes when he says he would limit the influence lobbyists would have in an Obama administration.

The New York Times analysis found at least 36 times when Obama was either the only state senator or part of a small group to vote “present” and 50 “present” votes that seemed to be part of a Democratic strategy. The Obama team noted he cast some 4,000 votes.

Obama’s “present” votes were used against him when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, in one of the few negative hits aimed at him in that contest. Every one of Obama’s 2004 Democratic opponents who did opposition research were aware of the “present” votes. Clinton, however, is hoping to use them more effectively by bringing the issue up a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus vote and, as Thursday demonstrated, having “validators” repeat the message, leveraging the New York Times article.