by Eric Boehlert
History continues to unfold on many levels as the protracted Democratic Party primary race marches on, featuring the first woman and the first African-American with a real shot at winning the White House.
Here’s another first: the press’s unique push to get a competitive White House hopeful to drop out of the race. It’s unprecedented.
Looking back through modern U.S. campaigns, there’s simply no media model for so many members of the press to try to drive a competitive candidate from the field while the primary season is still unfolding.
Until this election cycle, journalists simply did not consider it to be their job to tell a contender when he or she should stop campaigning. That was always dictated by how much money the campaign still had in the bank, how many votes the candidate was still getting, and what very senior members of the candidate’s own party were advising.
In this case, Howard Dean, the head of the Democratic National Committee, said he was “dumbfounded” by public demands for Clinton to drop out last month. (He now wants one of the candidates to quit after the final June 3 primary.) Yet lots of pundits have suggested that in a neck-and-neck campaign in which neither candidate will likely secure the nomination based on pledged delegates, Sen. Hillary Clinton must drop out before all the states have had a chance to vote.
I realize the political debate surrounding the extended Democratic campaign remains a hot one, with people holding passionate opinions about the delegate math involved and what the consequences for the Democratic Party could be. I’m not weighing in on that debate. I’m focusing on how journalists have behaved during this campaign.
And the fact is, the media’s get-out-now push is unparalleled. Strong second-place candidates such as Ronald Reagan (1976), Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, and Jerry Brown, all of whom campaigned through the entire primary season, and most of whom took their fights all the way to their party’s nominating conventions, were never tagged by the press and told to go home.
“Clinton is being held to a different standard than virtually any other candidate in history,” wrote Steven Stark in the Boston Phoenix. “When Clinton is simply doing what everyone else has always done, she’s constantly attacked as an obsessed and crazed egomaniac, bent on self-aggrandizement at the expense of her party.”
Indeed, even after Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary convincingly last week, she awoke the next morning to read an angry New York Times editorial, “beseeching her to get the hell out of the race,” as Howard Kurtz put it at washingtonpost.com. On the Times opinion page that day same, Maureen Dowd actually turned to Dr. Seuss rhymes to make her point: “The time is now. Just go. … I don’t care how.”
And across town at the New York Daily News, a bitter Mike Lupica was steamed over the fact that Clinton “won’t quit” the race.
Weeks earlier, New York magazine fretted about which senior Democrats would be able to “step in” and “usher Clinton from the race.” Or if Clinton, obsessed with her own “long-range self-aggrandizement,” would finally figure it out herself.
Meanwhile, Slate.com’s snarky Hillary Deathwatch was created to document, day-by-day, the demise of her campaign, complete with a damsel-in-distress cartoon drawing of Clinton atop a sinking ship.
That represented just a fraction of the often offensive get-out-now proclamations that have become a staple of this campaign.
No longer content to be observers of the campaign, journalists now see themselves as active players in the unfolding drama, and they show no hesitation trying to dictate the basics of the contest, like who should run and who should quit. It’s as if journalists are auditioning for the role of the old party bosses.
It’s a new brand of political commentary that leaves some veteran journalists perplexed. “The idea that it’s your job to tell candidates when to get out, and really trying to control the whole process — putting it in the hands of the journalists or the reporters or the columnists — I find that to be new and different,” Haynes Johnson told me last week. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Johnson has covered more than a dozen presidential campaigns and is currently working on a book about the unfolding 2008 contest.
Johnson says he was astonished to read some early calls in March from the media for Clinton to get out of the race. He was stunned by “the pomposity and the arrogance of it.”
Indeed, a very strange leap has been made this year by lots of media commentators who argue against Clinton’s candidacy. Rather than simply detailing her deficiencies and accentuating the strengths of her opponent, which political observers have done for generations, time and again we saw pundits take the unprecedented step of announcing not only that voters should not support Clinton, but that she should also quit. She should stop competing.
More often than not, the analysis ends up resembling poorly argued temper tantrums. For instance, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait has written three essays about why Clinton must abandon her race for the White House, each increasingly petulant in tone. (We learned the “rationalizations” for Clinton’s “kamikaze campaign” are “wretched.”) Last month Chait wrote that Clinton’s chance of winning the Democratic nomination this year were closer to Ralph Nader’s than they were Barack Obama’s or John McCain’s. It’s a reasonable comparison, if you ignore the nearly 1,600 delegates Clinton has amassed, compared with Nader’s zero.
Chait also compared Clinton to former presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden, suggesting that if Biden could figure out when it was time to quit the race, why can’t she?
Searching for candidates who did the right thing and went “gentle into that good night,” Chait compared Clinton, whose campaign has secured nearly 14 million votes, to Biden, whose campaign ended abruptly in January after he received roughly 2,000 votes in the Iowa caucuses. That’s who Clinton is supposed to emulate when ending her campaign run.
Quick note: I realize the press is not alone here and that scores of liberal bloggers have also loudly made the claim that the Clinton should drop out of the race. But there’s a clear difference between the two groups, I think. Lots of liberal bloggers have a strong allegiance to advancing the progressive agenda and feel that to improve the party’s chances in the fall, Clinton should give up. That’s fair game, and that’s part of an internal Democratic Party debate that continues to unfold.
And yes, journalists should report on that internal struggle, quote lots of players, raise all kinds of questions, and commentators should provide in-depth analysis about the ramifications. But what we’re seeing this cycle — and it’s unprecedented — is independent journalists taking it upon themselves to weed the presidential field by demanding one of the remaining candidates simply quit.
And no, this is not part of some larger liberal media conspiracy where the Beltway press is desperate to elect a Democrat and that’s why so many journalists are anxious to get Clinton to quit — because it might help the party’s chances in November. The truth is, as The Daily Howler noted last week, the Beltway media’s love affair with John McCain only grows deeper and more affectionate with each passing day.
This is more about media arrogance and unleashed elitism.
In the past there was always an assumption among journalists that candidates had earned the right to decide when they should quit. Journalists also respected the fact that candidates represented a sizable portion of the primary voting public and that the candidates owed it to their supporters to fight on, that there was a symbolic significance for the candidates — and their supporters — to persevere.
With Clinton, though, the press seems to have almost complete disregard for the 14 million voters who have backed her candidacy, as well as the idea that she is their representative in this race. Instead, they treat her entire campaign as some sort of vanity exercise in which voters do not exist.
And if pundits do acknowledge the Clinton voters, it’s often with baffling ignorance, the way Time‘s Mark Halperin claimed many of Clinton’s supporters would be “relieved” and “even delighted” if she dropped out. Really? Delighted? Halperin offered no proof to back up the peculiar notion.
But again, the point here worth stressing from a journalism perspective is that this is all brand new.
Looking back at history, it’s hard to find evidence of the same media response to Ronald Reagan’s failed 1976 presidential campaign. Taking on President Gerald Ford, Reagan lost more primaries than he won, and Ford won a plurality of the popular vote, but neither man had enough delegates to secure the nomination. So the campaign went to the GOP convention, where Ford prevailed. The bitter battle did nothing to damage Reagan’s reputation (in fact, it did quite the opposite), in part because the media did not collectively suggest the candidate was acting selfishly or irrationally. Instead, Reagan walked away with a reputation as a resilient fighter who stood up for his conservative values.
And what about Sen. Ted Kennedy’s doomed run in 1980? He trailed President Jimmy Carter by more than 750 delegates at the end of the primary season and insisted on fighting all the way to the convention, where he tried to get committed Carter delegates to switch their allegiance. The press did not spend months during the primary season ridiculing Kennedy, in a deeply personal tone, for remaining in the race.
And what about Gary Hart in 1984? He and Walter Mondale split the season’s primaries and caucuses evenly, and neither had the 2,023 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Superdelegates eventually determined the winner. (Sound familiar?) Mondale had many of them locked up even before the campaign season began, so after the final primary between Mondale and Hart was complete, it was obvious that Mondale was going to be the nominee because Hart could not persuade enough superdelegates to change their mind and support him.
When Hart took his crusade all the way to the convention, the media did not form a posse and decide it was their job to get Hart to quit for the good of the party. (And the press certainly didn’t form a posse in March to start pushing Hart out of the race.) Nor did the press collectively suggest that Hart had an oversized ego that had turned him into a political monster.
That new media standard has been created exclusively for Hillary Clinton.
And where were the catcalls in 1988 for Jesse Jackson to ditch his quixotic run before all the primary votes had been tallied? He finished with 1,200 delegates, nearly 1,400 behind Michael Dukakis, yet soldiered on all the way to the convention without having a prayer of winning the nomination. There were few if any media drum sections trying to pound him out of the race.
Or Jerry Brown in 1992? He continued his campaign against Bill Clinton through June despite the fact he tallied fewer than 600 delegates. (By contrast, Hillary Clinton has won approximately 1,600 delegates so far.) Brown’s attacks at the time were far more personal and bruising than anything we’ve seen this cycle. As The New York Times reported on June 2, 1992, Brown “put his party on notice that he intends to carry his politics-is-corrupt, Clinton-is-unelectable message to the Democratic National Convention in New York in July, and beyond.” Brown also told the Times that voting for Clinton was like buying a ticket on the Titanic.
At the time, Clinton was actually polling in third place nationally, behind President George H.W. Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot, so why wasn’t the press in a frenzy demanding that Brown drop out of the race because he was hurting his party’s chances in November?
If you look at Reagan and Kennedy and Hart and Jackson and Brown, those men all ran competitive races. But toward the end of the primary season it was clear most of them had no mathematical chance of winning the nomination. (Reagan was the exception.) Yet none of them was told collectively by the press to go home. Nor were they routinely depicted in the media as being self-absorbed.
Today, Clinton does have a chance to win. Yet she has been told by the press to go home and to get over herself.