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Rove’s New Game: Split Warren & Clinton

A disingenuous Karl Rove-produced ad looks to hit Hillary with the (doctored) words of Elizabeth Warren. But why isn’t the latter speaking up?

02.25.15 10:15 AM ET

So now, America’s most overrated political consultant has decided that the foundation that has handed out free AIDS medications to millions of Africans and done far more in a few years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world than the Republican Party has in its entire history is Hillary Clinton’s great Achilles’ heel. I’ll admit that time might prove Karl Rove right, although I don’t really think so. More on that later.

But one thing Rove has accomplished with his new web ad that uses Elizabeth Warren’s words to attack Clinton is to show us that Warren, while she may not be running for president, is definitely out to maximize her leverage over the presumptive nominee. Here’s the story.

The ad, in case you’ve missed it, shows both Clintons posed for photos with various be-keffiyehed petro-garchs with flash cards announcing that the Clintons’ foundation has accepted millions from “foreign governments.” This is not illegal, and if the governments in question had been Iceland and Lichtenstein, the ad wouldn’t even exist. But they were the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, a “prominent backer of Hamas,” which has given the foundation “potentially millions.” Uh…potentially?

But here’s where the ad gets cute. There is a voice-over, a woman’s voice, which warns that “the power of well-funded special interests tilts our democracy away from the people and toward the powerful.” That voice, of course, is Warren’s. Boom!

The ad wants to make the viewer think that Warren was inveighing against the Clintons when she spoke. But Warren was not, when she said those words, thinking about the Clinton foundation taking oil money at all. In fact, the ad cobbles together Warren quotes from different occasions. For example, the line I quoted above was taken from a September 2013 at an event of the Constitutional Accountability Center about the dangers of Citizens United and other Roberts Court decisions (here’s a video of that; the line comes at 11:28). In other words, she was lambasting the people Rove loves—two of whom, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, he helped elevate to the Court.

And get this. The full quote as Warren spoke it isn’t quite what you get in the ad. The full quote goes: “The power of well-funded special interests to blanket our politics with aggregate contributions tilts our democracy away from the people and toward the powerful.” Doesn’t sound to me much like a denunciation of nonprofit cup-rattling, even on the Clintons’ operatic scale.

In another of the ad’s sound bites, Warren cries out that “action is required to defend our great democracy against those who would see it perverted into one more rigged game where the rich and the powerful always win.” Did she wake up enraged that morning that the Clintons were perverting our democracy by funneling Saudi dollars into childhood nutrition programs? Not quite. She was on the floor of the Senate in September 2014 speaking in support of a constitutional amendment that would give Congress and states the authority to regulate campaign finance.

So it’s typical Rovian dishonesty. Nothing new there. Warren was lambasting a system of corruption that Rove supports, indeed lives and breathes, and has done far more than his part to advance.

But here’s an interesting thing. Warren hasn’t denounced this misuse of her words. Why not? I was on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show Monday night with David Axelrod and others talking about this ad, and O’Donnell raised the point of Warren’s silence, and Axelrod said yes, “that’s surprising to me. I would think she would speak out. The last place I’d think she’d wanna be is narrating a Karl Rove Crossroads ad.” You might think that Warren would be anxious to say hey, bub, I wasn’t talking about the Clintons! I was talking about you and your kind!

But she hasn’t. I emailed Warren’s office asking about this and got silence. I emailed Clinton’s office asking if they had asked Warren to issue a statement and got the same silence. So it seems on some level Warren doesn’t mind being used in this manner. She probably figures something like: To the extent that ads like this create pressure that pulls Clinton in the direction of eschewing special interests, she’s all for them. That may increase her leverage over Clinton in the near term. But undoubtedly other Republicans are going to notice her silence, and they’re going to try to drive a wedge between her and Clinton, and she’s not going to be able to stay silent forever.

On the broader question of the foundation: As I said on O’Donnell, sure, the Republicans will hit it hard, and it will remind some voters of some of those Lincoln Bedroom-y aspects of Clintonist politics. And they’ll raise questions about whether all of Bill’s glad-handling and hustling might compromise his wife’s White House in some way. But A, the Clintons can and should counter with the massive amount of good the foundation has done in the world, and B, unless some hot new smoking gun emerges that blossoms into an actual scandal, as opposed to a Fox News Scandal, the foundation is probably a second-tier issue.

A lot of voters can be troubled by something like the Clintons’ fund-raising. But most of them still like old Bill fine and know how he rolls. Elections are about the state of the economy and the alternate futures of the country the two candidates present to voters. Those are both matters the Clintons have always understood better than Rove, whose vision of America’s future was so wobbly that he was predicting a permanent conservative realignment shortly before the bottom fell out of George W. Bush’s presidency. That is reality. He can splice all the dishonest sound bites he wants.