The GOP/Media Complex and The Clinton Rules
In the backing-and-forthing between the Clinton and Obama factions, various epithets and accusations have been hurled. The Obamaites accuse Hillary Clinton of being a phenomenonally unpopular person who will be an easy takedown for John McCain in the fall; the Clintonites, in turn, say that Barack has yet to be attacked as viciously as Hillary has been over the past two decades, and that he’ll fold like a cheap lawn chair when the GOP turns its full arsenal on him.
It turns out that both accusations have a grain of truth in them, but there’s a lot of less-than-true stuff in them as well.
Let’s look at Senator Clinton first. Their initial votes on the war aside, the records of the two Senators are fairly similar in many ways, and both of their records are infinitely better than that of John McCain.
It is true that Senator Clinton has consistently performed worse than Senator Obama in head-to-head matchups against various Republicans, especially Senator McCain, over the past few months, including in the latest Time poll. A recent CNN poll also found that not only does Obama have the overall advantage over McCain, men are more likely to vote for Obama than they are for Clinton.
It is also true that of the four candidates still standing — herself, Obama, McCain and Huckabee — she has the highest negative ratings. In fact, a Gallup poll done in May of last year had her negative ratings numbers three points higher than her positive ratings numbers — and explained that the negative numbers had gone upwards over the course of her campaign. A later Gallup poll in August showed that her negative rating was still two points higher than her positive rating. However, Rasmussen polling in October had her negatives receding and her positives growing. Besides, her husband Bill had a 49 percent negative rating in an August 1995 Pew poll and went on to pound Bob Dole into the dirt the next year. (To be sure, it helped that Dole’s campaign was seriously underfunded compared to President Clinton’s; the Republicans vowed never to let that happen again — which is why George W. Bush steamrollered his primary opposition by raking in over $37 million by July of 1999, nearly a year and a half before the general election and over a year before the nominating convention in September of 2000. This was an unheard-of amount at the time; he wound up spending $193 million in the 2000 elections.)
The Clinton fans pooh-pooh the polls, and point out that Obama has had a relatively easy ride from the press so far — but if he wins the nomination, the easy ride will come to an abrupt and vicious end. The Republicans and their media allies will find a way to apply "The Clinton Rules" to any Democrat and slime even the cleanest persons. Al Gore is the perfect case in point.
As David Brock points out, before Gore was tapped to be Bill Clinton’s running mate he had a squeaky-clean "Boy Scout" image. Gore’s straight-arrow reputation was used in fact to counter the growing Arkansas-Project-fueled perception of sleaze surrounding Bill Clinton, including the "bimbo eruptions" that had already started happening. But then the media went to work against Al Gore, calling him a liar when he wasn’t, attacking him constantly, in a years-long campaign that Bob Somerby dubbed "the War on Gore".
But the media and political landscape that existed in 1992 doesn’t exist now. This blog you’re reading is proof of that.
During most of the 1990s, the Clintons had a tough time fighting back because there literally were no US mass media orgs — aside from the then-Cowles-owned StarTribune, whose publisher didn’t cower in fear every time a Republican raised his or her voice, and who had Tom Hamburger doing stellar work on the political beat — that were willing to debunk the crap being spewed by the Arkansas Project and its willing media servants like Jeff Gerth and Michael Isikoff.
Then the left-liberal presence on the Web finally came of age with Salon, just in time for the Blue Dress phase of CoupGate (aka The Hunting of the President), and which may have helped save Bill Clinton’s presidency. The blogs followed a few years later, and their impact started to be felt soon; Atrios made his blogger bones by pointing out, as Krugman would note, the hypocrisy of the news media going into Faux Ballistic Outrage Mode over Rick Kahn’s speech at the Wellstone event at Williams Arena, and their initial days-long silence over Trent Lott, a little over a month later, telling America during a eulogy for Strom Thurmond that we’d all be better off if Mister Segregationist had beat Truman in ’48. This media silence ended only when lefty bloggers like Atrios made a point of hammering away at this story until Big Media finally took belated notice. As Atrios said at the time, he didn’t expect to succeed as Lott had a history of making blatant appeals to bigotry that never cost him politically because the mainstream press didn’t make a big noise. Not this time.
Now, there’s an active and vibrant lefty web presence, both in blogs and in general websites, even though the left doesn’t get the subsidies and "wingnut welfare" that the righties do. Furthermore, neither Obama nor Clinton will be like Kerry in 2004 and let themselves be slandered. (Though to be fair to Kerry, he’d been advised to keep his mouth shut on the liars attacking him; he apparently wanted to go after them hammer and tongs.) Obama has in fact emulated the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign’s "rapid response" program to counter various attacks on him.
Neither candidate is a shrinking violet; even before entering the White House as First Lady, Hillary Clinton went through the muck of Arkansas politics as a frequent target of her governor husband’s enemies. (Arkansas politics is so nasty that the Clintons had initially been relieved to trade the Governor’s Mansion for the White House, thinking that they’d already seen the worst it was possible to throw at them. Little did they know.) And of course, Barack Obama spent two decades in Chicago-area politics, which isn’t exactly beanbag either. I don’t think either candidate is going to be doing much in the way of pearl-clutching over the next few months.