Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

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Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are the class of the Democratic field

I’m in Toronto at a conference, so I missed the first hour of Wednesday’s debate and the first half-hour of Thursday’s. This is impressionistic, and what seems obvious this morning may look wrong in a day or two. But I thought Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren established themselves as the class of the Democratic field, while Joe Biden seriously wounded himself in his “states’ rights” exchange over desegregation with Harris.

I’ve thought for a while that a Harris-Warren or Warren-Harris ticket might be the Democrats’ best bet, but I’ve been frustrated with Harris’ fuzzy I’ll-have-to-look-into-that responses. On Thursday, she was prepared, offering compelling personal stories about herself and others in response to questions that could have prompted wonky responses.

As for the rest, Cory Booker and Julián Castro elevated their candidacies. Pete Buttigieg was poised and articulate, as he always is. And there at least a dozen candidates I hope we never see again.

The format, needless to say, was absurd. A series of much smaller debates, 20-minute one-on-ones — anything but two-hour shoutfests among 10 candidates with Chuck Todd constantly interrupting because they weren’t complying with his idiotic demands for one-word answers.

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New Hampshire may fuel media talk of Bloomberg, Biden

Michael Bloomberg in 2010 with possible future running mate. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Michael Bloomberg in 2010 with possible future running mate. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s a little after 11 p.m. With the all-important question of whether Jeb Bush will finish third or fourth in New Hampshire still unanswered, allow me to anticipate two names we’re going to be hearing in the days ahead: Michael Bloomberg. And Joe Biden.

In fact, it’s already started. And the results of the first-in-the-nation primary guarantee that it’s only going to intensify.

Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, is the more plausible of the two names given that he’s letting it be known he’s considering an independent run. The New Hampshire results make it more likely, not less, that he’ll keep gearing up for a possible campaign.

Consider what the Democrats did to themselves. Everyone was expecting Bernie Sanders to beat Hillary Clinton. But he handed her such an unexpectedly crushing defeat that she can’t help but emerge as a damaged candidate. She’s still likely to win the nomination as the campaign moves on to states with substantial African-American populations. But she’s looking more vulnerable than ever in November, provided the Republicans manage to choose a nominee who is recognizably of the human species.

Oops. Donald Trump also won big tonight. Although he fell considerably short of a majority, he got about 35 percent of the vote, far ahead of second-place finisher John Kasich. The Iowa winner, Ted Cruz, an extremist much loathed within his own party, was running third, just ahead of Bush. Marco Rubio, who seemed to be emerging as a contender until his circuit board malfunctioned at last Saturday’s debate, faded to fifth.

So the Democrats are stuck with a diminished Hillary Clinton or, less likely, a 74-year-old left-winger who—if conventional wisdom means anything at all anymore—probably could not win a general election. And Trump, detested by a majority of the public, may be on a glide path to the Republican nomination.

Of course, the conventional wisdom also holds that an independent can’t be elected president. But if the Democrats and the Republicans both nominate candidates who are unacceptable to the broad middle of the electorate that decides elections (and yes, I realize that the broad middle is a lot smaller than it used to be), then surely there is an opening for someone like Bloomberg, a moderate with a reputation for competence. Yes, he’s dour, uncharismatic, and has a well-deserved reputation for nanny-statism. But it’s precisely those non-scary qualities that could make him a viable alternative.

And the media are stoking a Bloomberg run. The veteran media critic Jack Shafer wrote for Politico earlier today that “as Bloomberg works his way through the editorial food chain and breaks through the primary election news, I’m certain reporters will be setting themselves on fire to convince their editors to assign them to Bloomberg.”

Count me as someone who thinks Bloomberg might actually be able to defeat Sanders and Trump, if that’s what it comes to.

Which brings me to a Biden candidacy, a far less likely possibility. Unlike Bloomberg, Biden has declared pretty definitively that he wouldn’t enter the race. It’s also too late logistically for him to enter the Democratic primaries.

But Biden would make some theoretical sense if the race between Clinton and Sanders ends in a muddle, or if the email controversy in which Clinton is embroiled leads to legal trouble. In either case, so this line of thinking goes, the Democratic National Convention might turn to a respected non-candidate like Biden as the nominee.

Is this going to happen? Almost certainly not. A brokered convention is a quadrennial fantasy, but it is almost impossible under the modern primary system. Still, if you search Google News for “Biden 2016,” you’ll find that plenty of people are giving the idea some thought.

For my purposes, what matters isn’t what is going to happen. Rather, it’s what you’ll be hearing from the media as the two major parties, suffering from self-inflicted wounds, limp ahead. New Hampshire not only didn’t settle anything. It left us with a race that won’t be settled for some weeks to come.

A new poll shows Clinton slumping. But why?

Hillary Clinton in 2013. Photo (cc) by Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.
Hillary Clinton in 2013. Photo (cc) by Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.

The email controversy has taken such a toll on Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy that it’s dragged her below 50 percent among Democrats, The Washington Post reports. But the new Post-ABC News poll from which that conclusion is drawn shows that other, more mundane factors may have more to do with her sagging numbers.

The poll shows that the percentage of Democratic-leaning voters who say they back Clinton has fallen from 63 percent in mid-July to just 42 percent last week — a 21-point drop. Sounds like trouble, especially when you look at numbers showing that a rising percentage of respondents believe Clinton is untrustworthy.

“Hillary Rodham Clinton has lost significant ground over the past two months, as she has struggled to manage the controversy over her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state,” write the Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement.

But is that the most important explanation for her declining numbers? My guess is no.

First, Bernie Sanders’ support has risen from 14 percent to 24 percent, a phenomenon that strikes me as entirely independent of any concerns about Clinton’s emails. Sanders is experiencing the sort of surge that is not uncommon for the most clearly progressive candidate in the months leading up to the primaries — that is, the candidate who best represents “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Howard Dean once put it. Sanders is actually leading Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to some polls. We’ll see whether it lasts.

Second, a Joe Biden candidacy wasn’t on anyone’s radar in July, yet the vice president attracted 12 percent of respondents anyway. Last week, with Biden looking like he might jump in, he rose to 21 percent, just behind Sanders. Again, I don’t think it makes sense to assume the emails are mainly responsible for Biden’s rise, although I’m sure he looks better to some voters as a result of Clinton’s struggles. Mainly, though, Biden enjoys an enormous reservoir of goodwill. All it took was an indication that he might actually run for his numbers to go up.

And if you remove Biden from the equation, Clinton leads Sanders by a margin of 56 percent to 28 percent. With Biden seemingly signaling to Stephen Colbert that he won’t take the plunge, that seems like a truer picture of the state of the Democratic race.

Clinton may or may not be in trouble with the electorate as a whole, but there’s little indication that Democrats are inclined to reject her.

Best wishes to Joe Biden and his family

I can’t imagine surviving the losses that Joe Biden has suffered. Our thoughts are with him and his family tonight. This speech is from 2012.

At veep debate, reviving a $5 trillion tax-cut argument

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I argue that the vice-presidential debate showed President Obama was right when he accused Mitt Romney of supporting a $5 trillion tax cut that would mainly benefit the wealthy.

Poynter weighs in on the Globe’s lifted editorial

Craig Silverman of Poynter Online weighs in with a smart take on the Boston Globe’s decision not to release the name of the staff member who wrote an unsigned editorial that was lifted almost word for word from WBUR.org.

The original piece, which criticized Vice President Joe Biden’s “put y’all back in chains” comment, was written by Republican political consultant and WBUR contributor Todd Domke. The Globe editorial was the subject of a recent “editor’s note” (which you’ll find at the bottom) in which the paper expressed its “regrets.”

As I wrote on Aug. 24, the editor’s note raised as many questions as it answered, since it did not reveal the identity of the person who wrote it or whether he or she had been disciplined.

Last week, as you may have heard, Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr sent a dispatch to subscribers to his email list claiming he had learned the culprit was Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, and that she had been suspended for two weeks. The email ended up being posted to the Free Republic, a right-wing website.

Oddly, though, that information has not appeared in the Herald, which instead ran a story on the Globe’s decision not to name names. The Herald also criticized Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese for not addressing the issue in the unpaid blog that he writes for the Globe’s Boston.com site.

Also writing about this have been Jim Romenesko and iMediaEthics.

Silverman’s piece is the fullest treatment so far. He quotes editorial-page editor Peter Canellos as saying:

Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions. But our editor’s note should speak for itself. There were similarities in structure and phrasing that shouldn’t have been used without attribution. We take these matters very seriously.

Silverman also expresses frustration at the Globe’s response, writing that “the paper won’t name the writer, won’t detail any related discipline, won’t say if they’re reviewing previous work, and won’t call it plagiarism.”

It strikes me that this would have been a one-day story if the Globe had simply announced who did it, whether that person had been disciplined and, if so, what the punishment was. The borrowing from Domke’s piece looks to me more like extreme sloppiness than classic plagiarism.

And yes, I understand that such matters are confidential at most companies. But if this had been a signed column rather than an anonymous editorial, naming the person would have been unavoidable. I don’t see why it should be handled differently simply because the piece did not carry a byline.

Globe acknowledges lifting material from WBUR

The Boston Globe today admitted to “the use of material without attribution” in a recent editorial criticizing Vice President Joe Biden. The Aug. 17 editorial, which took Biden to task for his “put y’all back in chains” comment, tracks closely — very closely — with a commentary by Republican political consultant Todd Domke that was published two days earlier on the website of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

An editor’s note published by the Globe reads as follows:

An Aug. 17 editorial on Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on bank regulations contained some similarities in phrasing and structure to an opinion piece by Todd Domke on WBUR.org. The use of the material without attribution was inconsistent with Globe policies, and the Globe regrets the error.

WBUR reports on the editor’s note here.

Domke’s commentary is longer and better written than the Globe editorial. The problem is that the editorial tracks with Domke virtually paragraph by paragraph, with similar and at times identical language, while offering nothing that Domke didn’t come up with first. Even if it’s not actual plagiarism, Globe editors obviously believed it was close enough to warrant a mea culpa.

Which raises a few questions:

If this were a signed column rather than an unsigned editorial, wouldn’t this be a bigger deal? Wouldn’t we be wondering whether the writer had been or should be disciplined? Does the anonymity of editorial-writing mean less scrutiny than this would otherwise warrant?

And, more important, what are we to make of a partisan political argument written by a Republican contributor to WBUR becoming the official position of the region’s paper of record? The Globe editorial accepted the view that Biden’s comment was somehow racial in nature, even though Biden’s reference to “chains” was arguably a response to House Speaker John Boehner’s promise to “unshackle Wall Street.”*

As former conservative Charles Johnson wrote: “The right wing media are still shrieking about Joe Biden’s ‘chains’ comment, even though not a single one of these demagogues honestly believes there was a racial intent to it.”

Not to beat a dead horse. The Globe acknowledged its misstep. But really.

*Note: What Biden actually said was, “Romney wants to let the — he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put ya’ll back in chains.” It was Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs who later cited Boehner’s remarks.

Fish in a barrel, Michelle Malkin edition

Michelle Malkin fails to do her homework on Joe Biden and his accurate assertion that Louisiana is losing 400 jobs a day.

Joe Biden’s so-called lie

I’m posting some incomplete findings in the hopes that someone else might be able to fill in the blanks.

The right-wing blogosphere is on fire right now with claims that Joe Biden “lied” when he said that Louisiana is losing 400 jobs a day. Biden made his remarks in the course of criticizing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal of more than $90 million in additional unemployment funds. A local newscast in Louisiana, citing the state employment agency, claims that the state actually added jobs in December, the last month for which numbers are available.

Well, now. If you take a visit to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will see that Louisiana’s unemployment rate rose from 3.8 percent in June to 5.9 percent in December. During that time, 45,065 people in Louisiana lost their jobs. That adds up to approximately 250 per day — not 400, I’ll grant you, but a damned high number, and certainly one that contradicts the notion that the state was actually adding jobs. [Actually, yes. Biden was right. See update, below.]

Now it’s nearly March. We know that the recession and unemployment have accelerated over the past two months. I don’t have January and February numbers of Louisiana, but I may just be looking in the wrong places. But I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if an average of 400 people a day have been losing their jobs in Louisiana since the first of the year.

Yes, I realize that the local report I’m linking to claims that Louisiana’s unemployment filings actually declined through mid-January. But remember, that same report says Louisiana gained jobs in December, which is directly contradicted by the federal numbers.

Anybody know where I can get credible preliminary unemployment estimates for January and February?

Update: The answer was staring me right in the face. Steve points out that Louisiana lost an average of 430 jobs a day in December.