One thing that’s been interesting to watch in this nomination battle is how normally cool-headed journalists have become increasingly exasperated by the Clinton campaign’s tactics. Jonathan Chait, a New Republic writer, wrote a column last week called “Go Already!” and subtitled, “Hillary Clinton, fratricidal maniac.” Then he talked on video about wanting to throw in the towel out of frustration with the campaign’s shameless lying:
Yesterday morning I was almost at the point where I just decided I was just going to stop following the campaign at all. It was when Clinton came out and said that Obama can’t run a positive campaign, he’s just attacking Clinton, he has no positive message at all…When they just hold three fingers in front of your face and say it’s two, there’s just nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can respond to that, I just feel like, you know, what do I do at this point? I mean, I just want to go and just hide under my bed. I just don’t even know how to respond to that kind of brazen rewriting of the historical record…
Today, it’s James Fallows’ turn. Fallows, like Chait, isn’t normally given to rants or polemics, but he seems to have lost patience as well, set off by an NPR Morning Edition interview with Clinton by Steve Inskeep:
As mentioned earlier, I don’t recall Bill Clinton knee-capping his Democratic opponents in the 1992 campaign by saying that the Republican opponent, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, was better qualified for office than they were. This of course was Hillary Clinton’s charge against Obama a week or so ago.
And I do not recall Bill Clinton saying anything as flatly insulting to the intelligence as Hillary Clinton’s statement about the Michigan primary during her interview yesterday with Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Flatly false from Bill Clinton? Sure: “I did not have…” But flatly insulting to the intelligence, in the fashion of an old press briefing by Scott McClellan when defending Scooter Libby or Alberto Gonzales? No. And that is what Hillary Clinton did yesterday — to the plain incredulity of the normally calm-sounding Inskeep, who kept asking things like, “But how could the primary have been ‘fair’ if Barack Obama’s name was not on the ballot?”
Listen to the clip to hear for yourself, if you haven’t already done so — but it came down to a “how stupid does she think we are?’ argument that it was Obama’s own fault that he obeyed the party’s rules (as other candidates did) and took his name off the unauthorized Michigan ballot. “We all had a choice as to whether or not to participate,” she told Inskeep. “Most people took their names off the ballot, but I didn’t. And that was a wise decision, because Michigan is key to our electoral victory in the fall.”
As Fallows suggests with the references to McClellan, Libby, and Gonzales, the Bush Administration pioneered this technique. Little lies, exaggerations, or flip-flops will be picked apart by New York Times reporters and by Tim Russert on Meet the Press, but big lies — lies so implausible that they amount to a denial of basic reality — completely disarm the press, partly because newspaper and TV reporters who are constrained by norms of “objectivity” are extremely reluctant to call someone a liar. As Paul Krugman used to regularly point out before he became stricken with Obamaphobia,
the mainstream media are fanatically determined to seem evenhanded. One of the great jokes of American politics is the insistence by conservatives that the media have a liberal bias. The truth is that reporters have failed to call Mr. Bush to account on even the most outrageous misstatements, presumably for fear that they might be accused of partisanship. If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ”Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” After all, the earth isn’t perfectly spherical.
Where I disagree with Fallows is when he says this is a “ham-handed” and “clumsy” tactic. He doesn’t quite say that he thinks Clinton’s tactic will fail, but he seems to imply that it’s stupid:
My point is not really the merits of this argument. It is the Clinton-v-Clinton contrast. Am I right in remembering that in his prime, Bill Clinton didn’t — or didn’t have to — do things quite this bluntly and ham-handedly? Are we seeing a demonstration during the campaign of a talent gap in basic political skill between the two members of the household? One reason not to think so is that Bill Clinton is presumably involved in these very strategies, which seem so much clumsier than he was in 1992. Another is that he himself has struck same of the same off-notes this year.
Where has be been for the past 7 years? If we have learned anything from Bush years, it is that an effective way to deal with reporters is to diminish them by challenging them to call you a liar. If they won’t, then you win because your narrative gets treated as if it is a plausible description of the world. If they will, then you can complain, as Bush and Clinton both do, about being treated unfairly by the media. It’s a win-win situation for the politician, and all serious journalists like Chait and Fallows can do is sputter and gasp.
I don’t know if Clinton’s current strategy will earn her the nomination, but if it doesn’t, I think it will be because she didn’t implement it soon enough, not because it’s ineffective.