The two Democratic presidential campaigns traded accusations on Monday that each candidate had lifted language from other politicians, with a Clinton official going so far as to accuse Sen. Barack Obama of plagiarism.
The heated rhetoric came after segments of speeches from Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Devall Patrick were posted back-to-back on YouTube by a "rival campaign." In the clips, both men use nearly identical language when discussing the power of words.
Obama: "Don't tell me words don't matter. 'I have a dream' -- just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' -- just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' -- just words? Just speeches?"
Patrick: "'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' -- just words? Just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' -- just words? 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' Just words? 'I have a dream' -- just words?"
The Obama campaign denied anything nefarious, noting that the two men are friends and political supporters of each other and that the line was, in fact, ad-libbed.
The Clinton camp, however, jumped right on the issue arguing that the use of someone else's language was telling for a candidate who leans so heavily on his oratory. The debate - aided, in part, by a relatively slow news day - culminated in dueling conference calls at 11 am on Monday morning.
"The issue whether or not there is approval is immaterial. The public did not know that the words had come from Gov. Patrick," said Clinton's spokesperson Howard Wolfson. We need a president, added Massachussetts Rep. Jim McGovern who is "not just someone who can copy someone's homework."
Moments later, Wolfson, in a separate interview with Politico, described Obama use of Patrick's earlier speech as "plagiarism."
In response to the charges, the Obama camp took a two-prong approach: downplaying the political significance of the language lifting and making the case that Sen. Hillary Clinton, herself, had borrowed lines from Obama.
"Throughout our history there have been moments where leaders have inspired the country through words," said campaign manager David Plouffe on a conference call with reporters. "We think at the end of the day this is another effort by the Clinton campaign to create distractions." This is, he added, "a curious charge from Sen. Clinton who repeatedly throughout this campaign has used words that Sen. Obama has used."
As evidence, Bill Burton, Obama's press secretary, sent out several memos in which Clinton uttered such Obama catchphrases as: "Yes We Can," and "Fired Up And Ready To Go."
Throughout the back-and-forth a secondary debate raged as to exactly how important the whole episode was.
On one hand, Peter S. Canellos wrote in the Boston Globe, the use of lofty rhetoric - either lifted or original - can create rousing expectations that suffocate a politician.
"Except that when it comes to the actual substance of issues, there's no special agenda attached to the politics of hope. Both Patrick in 2006 and Obama this year have websites full of positions on the issues, but they're not easily distinguishable from those of other Democrats. The issues tend to get lost in the language of hope, perhaps because they sound and feel routine, and don't strike an inspirational chord."
On the other, as Obama noted in a press conference later on Monday, workers in Ohio couldn't care less about one segment in a lengthy speech.
"[Patrick] has occasionally used lines of mine. I have occasionally used some words of his. I know Sen. Clinton has used words of mind as well. I don't think that is something that workers here are concerned about." Obama added that he should have credited Patrick, but said in the end, "I really don't think this is too big of a deal."