Seth Abramson: Media Support May Have Set Clinton Up to Fail
Bernie Sanders criticizes Donald Trump's remarks on punishment for abortion, and criticizes the media for fixating too much on Trump's distractions and not focusing enough on issues of substance. I cued this up at the "media criticism" part.
by Gaius Publius
I'll have a lot more to say about this terrific piece by Seth Abramson in the Huffington Post in the coming days. The title, "The Democrats Are Flawlessly Executing a 10-Point Plan to Lose the 2016 Presidential Election," is both provocative and accurate, and it's well argued.
But here I want to focus on comments about the media, especially Comcast-owned MSNBC, and the Clinton campaign.
First, there's this, under Abramson's point 3, "Fracture the Democratic Party" (italics in original; my bolding):
3. Fracture the Democratic Party by broadly supporting the Clinton camp’s attempts to smear Bernie Sanders and his supporters.I want to make two points before continuing. First, accusing the other side of doing exactly what you're doing yourself is a tell (I often call it the "180-Tell" or the "Mirror Tell") that's usually associated with Republicans, in particular Rovian Republicans. Watching the Clinton camp do it is ... eye-opening.
Three weeks ago, no one was talking about the Democratic race being “negative.”
Then Bernie Sanders starting winning more Election Day votes than Clinton, started cutting into her delegate lead, and started developing the sort of momentum that could lead to catastrophic electoral results for Clinton in the latter half of the election season. After winning 60% of the delegates in February, Clinton won only 51% of them in March, and is now set to lose the first two votes on April (Wisconsin and Wyoming). The frustration in her camp is palpable, and recently was seen on the face of the candidate herself while reprimanding a Sanders supporter during a public rally.
So the Clinton camp — with the help of the media and cable-news interviews (as well as newspaper editorials) by Party elites — changed the narrative.
Clinton campaign staff put out the conspiracy theory that Sanders was planning (I paraphrase) “a massive negative attack campaign” in New York, based solely on internal polls taken by Sanders to determine which issues New York voters are most interested in hearing the candidates discuss. Clinton supporters Barney Frank and Bakari Sellers [then] accused Sanders of being a “McCarthyite” — comparison to the late Senator Joe McCarthy being one of the most damning slanders in American politics — for noting that oil lobbyists were bundling money for the Clinton campaign and for her super-PAC. [snipped list of examples] They falsely claimed that Sanders hadn’t sufficiently rebuked Donald Trump for his comments about criminalizing abortion.
And on and on.
Every day for the past two weeks the Clinton campaign has attacked the ethics and integrity of Sanders and his campaign, usually by falsely claiming that Sanders — for instance, by broadly and on principle opposing super-PACs and money from lobbyists, no matter who their money goes to — was maliciously doing the same to them.
In short, the Clinton campaign went relentlessly negative and managed to get the national media to accuse the Sanders campaign of doing so — a premise set up by a Clinton campaign memo leaked to the media alleging that Sanders “was about to go negative” in New York. It was Karl-Rovian political philosophy at its very best, and it worked for the Clinton campaign — but not in the way they intended....
Second, note the complicity of the media. I'll add an example that Abramson doesn't. During their famous "evening of town halls," Trump broke news about women being criminally liable for abortions, as noted and bolded above. Rachel Maddow then asked Bernie Sanders if he disagreed with Trump, and he did, vigorously. (Play the clip above from the beginning.)
Then, after he trashes Trump's position, he accuses the media of paying too much attention to Trump (duh), and Maddow seems to defend herself or her profession by wondering if Sanders isn't, in effect, soft on anti-feminism for wanting this coverage more limited. She later followed up with similar remarks (not part of the clip), sounding very much like a Clinton surrogate in doing so (a surrogate is one who repeats the candidate message of the day, whether reasonable or not).
That's one instance of what Abramson means by:
They [Clinton supporters and surrogates] falsely claimed that Sanders hadn’t sufficiently rebuked Donald Trump for his comments about criminalizing abortion.There were many more instances, both from acknowledged surrogates and from the media.
Unintentionally Setting Up Clinton to Fail?
Now to his section on the media itself, which makes a rather original point (emphasis mine):
9. Over-rely on the national media to set the political narrative for the campaign season, further alienating voters who want to vote for a candidate with vision.His point is actually friendly to Clinton, advice that could help her succeed, couched as a warning. By relying on a complicit media, Clinton missed many opportunities to improve herself, to "up her game." Now the campaign is stuck with strategies that can only hurt it with voters, perhaps in the rest of the primary, and certainly in the fall, in the general election.
From the jump, the Clinton campaign should have distanced itself from the whole “super-delegate” component of the presidential election season, as voters rightly see super-delegates as anti-democratic and singularly non-responsive to the Democratic base. Instead, the Clintons reveled in the day-in, day-out media reports that wrongly assigned her super-delegates as part of her delegate count. This rightly infuriated Sanders supporters. Clinton could have said, “Don’t include those delegates because they haven’t voted yet; and besides, I plan to win in the pledged delegate battle” — but she never did.
Clinton used media cover to evade substantial criticism for participating in so few debates, and for the debates that were held being held at such inconvenient — sometimes downright strange — dates and times. ...
Using behind-the-scenes machinations to sweep out of her way any Democratic candidates besides (in addition to Sanders) Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee — three deeply underwhelming individuals — didn’t help, as it made the Democratic bench seem far, far more shallow than it actually is. If you’re wondering why Clinton’s only credible competition is an Independent (Sanders), you really don’t understand how the Clintons do things.
And now Clinton continues to buy the media hype that she’s far more popular than Sanders and beating him handily, even though her campaign has basically been a disaster since March 1st....
And on and on.
The problem is that Clinton had so routinely used favorable media coverage as a crutch that it has weakened — if not stopped in its tracks — her ability to improve as a candidate or raise the profile of the Democratic “brand” more generally. Nor has it prepared her to understand how and why so many Democrats are angry at the media right now, and with a fervor usually reserved for Republican ire about “left-wing bias.”
When the media turns on Clinton in the fall — should she be the nominee — it will be entirely predictable, as the media benefits when a general-election race is as close as possible. And Clinton simply won’t be prepared for it. Nor will the Democrats, who will have done insufficient work setting the terms of the national political discourse for the media, rather than the other way around.
Has the media done the Clinton camp no favor in allowing it to act as it has? Abramson would say yes; as would I.
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