Friday, May 09, 2008

The Democratic primary race and the fog of press coverage

Is Nixon's "Southern Strategy" haunting the Clinton campaign?

I've been trying during the primary season to recognize my own preferences - Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan, Clinton's national health insurance plan - and also try to look as critically as possible at media coverage on all the Democratic candidates. Because the coverage on issues like Obama's very scary (in the minds of Big Pundits and the GOP) black pastor, for instance, was and is atrocious.

But the hostility of the press corps toward the Clintons is also downright pathological. It continues to be so to this day. And from all appearances will remain so as long either of the Clintons is still drawing breath. Even though Obama is almost sure to be the nominee, the whack-job press coverage of Clinton's campaign just continues the herd mentality of the Establishment press of pimping the most ludicrous "scripts" about Democrats.

When I try to step back from the day-to-day news on the campaign, I still think that the delegate counts are close enough to a majority for Obama that unless he gets caught on film making a secret pact with "100 Years War" McCain to keep the Iraq War going until the end of time, he'll get the nomination.

But he hasn't reached the magic number yet. So even though Clinton is a long shot, she's very much a live possibility. And I for one admire her tenaciousness. I have confidence in Obama's abilities to be a good President. I also have confidence that with either Obama or Clinton, the public and the Party base are going to have to keep fighting for a full withdrawal from Iraq and for a decent health-insurance plan with either of them in the White House. That's just the way politics works. Even with a President who wants to do the right thing, those who support the right thing have to bring enough pressure to make them do it. And with both the Iraq War and health insurance, powerful, visible, well-funded lobbies will press hard to prevent them from doing the right thing.

I have basically zero hope that the following will play a role in the fall campaign. But the war in Afghanistan is qualitatively as much of a disaster as the Iraq War. It's just that the US and NATO haven't invested nearly the same level of troops presence and dollars, and that disaster is overshadowed by the Mesopotamian one. But for a variety of foreign policy reasons, the US needs to disengage from direct combat in Afghanistan. Whatever golden chances may have existed in 2001 to avoid the end result that the Soviet Union found in Afghanistan have long since melted away.

It will be a miracle of considerable value if the next administration can get the US troops out of Iraq, stave off the most catastrophic consequences of a post-withdrawal collapse of Iraq (although that is probably more in the hands of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey than the US) and get a decent national health-insurance plan finally enacted. It would be a monumental tragedy to see a Democratic administration and a Democratic majority wrecked by the Afghanistan War. Because there aren't things in politics that I would feel nearly 100% sure about. But one of those few is my confidence that the "postpartisanship" for which Obama and many of his supporters hope will not materialize over either the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. The day after a Democratic candidate is elected, the media and the GOP will go to work trying to blame every problem that occurs in both places of the shortcomings of the new President.

But back to the real existing campaign. I can still manage to watch David Brooks and Mark Shields on the Friday PBS Newshour without much rending of clothing or gnashing of teeth. But 4 1/2 years of blogging and five years-plus of the Iraq War has really made me much more intensely aware of the appalling state of TV journalism especially. Yes, even the PBS version, although we can still call most of what the Newshour does "journalism" without abusing the word excessively.

Their latest outing (Shields and Brooks Examine Impact of Epic Contest 05/09/08)produced what to me were some real groaners. Here's highbrow Republican hack Brooks, asked if the Democratic campaign is essentially over:

In everybody's mind but Hillary Clinton's, it seems. And I really think there's been a psychological change in the party. They've decided the nominating process is over. It was very exciting, it lasted for a while, but it's over.

And the audience is leaving the theater. And they're looking forward to the general election.

But I think, in Camp Clinton, there's really been no sign of that. They're tenacious. And she's saying, "I'm going to keep running until this is over."

And as we saw in that clip today and in the children's health hospital, she's running the same kind of campaign. It's not a graceful, gradual, "I'm a good person, I've got good ideas." It's, "Me versus him, me versus him. I've got the hard-working people, which is her new phrase for her supporter." I guess he has the less hard-working.

She's running a tough campaign, but the audience isn't there watching her anymore.
Except, you know, for the people who are still voting for her. The Daily Howler is constantly reminding us that when Big Pundits use words like "everybody", "they've decided", "they're looking forward to the general election", they are normally not using "everybody" and "they" in the usual sense that most English-speakers do. When Big Pundits say "everybody" or "they" has a certain view, what it often means is that the Establishment press thinks such a thing. Or wants such a thing to be true. Glenn Greenwald often busts pundits like Brooks (who's one of the worst offenders with this, it seems) for making statement like that without reference to current polling data showing clearly that what "they" or "everybody" thinks is plainly not what the Big Pundit is claiming. Such is our press corps. (And this is quality TV!)

Our liberal stalwart Mark Shields offered this, uh, alternative view: "I agree with David. I think the race is over. I think it's very tough for Hillary Clinton or any losing candidate to accept that reality, as long as there's any hope, as long as you're still getting crowds."

Now, I'll give Shields some credit. He actually still does make some decent political analysis, although his passion for doing so seems to be diminishing notably the last few years. He's at least been consistently critical of the Iraq War and opposed from the start. Which shows he's more sensible than the standard-issue Big Pundit.

But still, he and Brooks were united in their belief shared by they fellow pundits that Vile Hillary is finished and everybody knows it but her. And, oh yeah, those dumbass Democratic voters who are still voting for her. It's possible to recognize that she's a long shot but still stay cognizant of her real possibilities. And the fact that lots of Democratic are still voting for her.

One of Clinton's current controversies deserves notice. Shields touched on it in a blundering, half-coherent way. Joe Conason doesn't take a back seat to anyone in critical analysis of the completely weird way the Establishment press treats the Clintons. But even he was dismayed - at Hillary Clinton - by one development this past week, her unfortunate statement in a USA Today interview (Clinton makes case for wide appeal by Kathy Kiely and Jill Lawrence 05/08/08):

"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

"There's a pattern emerging here," she said.

Clinton's blunt remarks about race came a day after primaries in Indiana and North Carolina dealt symbolic and mathematical blows to her White House ambitions.
As Conason explains in Was Hillary channeling George Wallace? Salon 05/09/08:

There is indeed a pattern emerging -- and it is a pattern that must dismay everyone who admires the Clintons and has defended them against the charge that they are exploiting racial divisions.

As Sean Wilentz and others have argued, there was no ugly subtext to her innocuous remark about the different roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson in the civil rights crusade, although several prominent Obama supporters promoted that smear. And if Bill Clinton's comparison of Obama and Jesse Jackson was badly timed and clumsy, that too fell within the bounds of acceptable commentary. Indeed, the discussion of ethnic and racial voting preferences is not only fair but unavoidable and utterly mundane in American politics.

But this time she violated the rhetorical rules, no doubt by mistake. It was her offhand reference to "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans" that raises the specter of old Dixie demagogues like Wallace and Lester Maddox. Was she dog-whistling to the voters of Kentucky and West Virginia?

While I still cannot believe she actually intended any such nefarious meaning, she seemed to be equating "hard-working Americans" with "white Americans." Which is precisely what Wallace and his cohort used to do with their drawling refrain about welfare and affirmative action. This is the grating sound of Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, even though Tricky Dick would never quite stoop to saying such things in public. [Ouch!!]

Of course, Nixon enjoyed a more commanding position politically than Clinton must now endure. She has been reduced to extolling her support from hardworking white folks - especially those who have "not completed college" - in an effort to prove that she can build a "broader coalition" in November than Obama. (my emphasis)
Even though Dark Lord Cheney is far nastier than Tricky Dick ever was, comparing a major Dem to Nixon that way is a major-league jab. That phrase, "even though Tricky Dick would never quite stoop to saying such things in public", oh, oh, that one's gotta hurt! Of course, the George Wallace and Lester Maddox references aren't very pleasant, either. It's just that for Dems, Richard Nixon's name has a special place in the historical annals of political villainy.

Yet even with that tough a criticism, Conason goes on to observe:

On the merits of that argument, she could be correct. Despite Obama's appeal to a substantial number of independents and a dwindling number of Republicans, her chances to build an Electoral College majority may well be better than his are, owing to his difficulty in attracting white working-class voters. Yet the chance to make that case where it counts, in the ballot box and the caucus room, expired many weeks ago, when Obama's skillful operatives were organizing circles around the incompetent Clinton team. (my emphasis)
I would say, being a optimist about the Dems despite everything, and being very cynical about the extent to which the Reps have successfully attracted the segregationist vote in all sections of the country, that Obama's weakness among potential Democratic voters, i.e., swing voters who would actually consider voting for a Democratic Presidential candidate, that weakness is not so much a matter of conscious racism of the "I'll never vote for a black man for President" kind. It's part of a broader cultural conservatism that Obama may not be able to overcome in the endgame. John Kerry wasn't able to do so in 2004, either. Obama is going to have to fight the Republicans to get there on some other basis than "postpartisan" wishful thinking.

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