Debate does little to stop Bernie’s media-fueled momentum

Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.
Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There are few story lines the media love more than “Clinton is in trouble.” Just saying it out loud brings back warm, gauzy memories of Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, and Whitewater, of Benghazi and private email servers.

So I suspect there was almost nothing that could have happened at Sunday night’s Democratic debate to change the narrative that Bernie Sanders is surging and Hillary Clinton is hanging on for dear life.

None responded to the moment more predictably than Glenn Thrush of Politicowho opens by writing that Clinton’s attacks on Sanders “reinforced his characterization of her as an establishment politician so desperate she’d say anything to win,” and that the Vermont senator represents “an existential threat” to her candidacy.

The Washington Post’s lead story on the debate, by Anne Gearan and Philip Rucker, offers a calmer version of the same idea, with phrases such as “she sought to puncture Sanders’s insurgent appeal and regain her footing after a difficult stretch” and a reference to “the newly potent threat Sanders poses to Clinton in her second White House run.” For good measure, the Post’s Chris Cillizza pronounces Bernie a winner and Hillary a loser.

In fact, those of us who watched—and it’s not likely there were many of us given that it took place in the middle of a holiday weekend—saw nothing all that dramatic.

Sanders, as usual, shouted and did a decent job of getting his points across. Clinton, as usual, was in command of the issues, though there’s no doubt she went after Sanders far more than in the previous three debates. Martin O’Malley, as usual, was there.

My own sense was that this was Clinton’s weakest performance, but still generally fine. I thought her worst moment was her closing remarks about sending a campaign aide to Flint, Michigan, to look into the drinking-water crisis. Why didn’t she go there herself? But I’ve seen plenty of commentary to the contrary. For instance, Paul Volpe and Quynhanh Do of The New York Times call it “her best moment of the night.”

But because the prospective voters who did not watch are going to depend on the media to tell them what happened, the takeaway is going to be that Clinton failed to stop Sanders’s momentum. That’s not wrong, just simplistic.

On the issues, I thought Clinton bested Sanders on guns, health care, and foreign policy, whereas Sanders was better on Wall Street and campaign-finance reform.

Clinton’s argument against Sanders’s newly released health-care proposal, which calls for a single-payer system that would eliminate private insurance (see Jonathan Cohn at The Huffington Post for details), isn’t really fair.

No, Sanders would not scrap the Affordable Care Act. But even liberal Democrats inclined to support single-payer are sure to recall what a horrendous slog it was to get the ACA passed. My guess is they’re disinclined to go back for another round.

“If Democrats couldn’t pass single-payer with a Senate supermajority, how would Sanders do it with a Republican House and, at best, a narrow Senate edge?” asks David A. Graham at The Atlantic. “She [Clinton] knows the limitations of health-care politics better than almost anyone.”

Though it might not have been immediately evident, Sanders may have seriously wounded himself with his answers on foreign policy. Despite offering some unconvincing caveats, he sounded like he’s all but ready to emulate Ronald Reagan and send a cake to the Iranian mullahs. Twice Sanders said the United States should work with Iran, to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power and to defeat ISIS. Let’s roll the tape:

But I think in terms of our priorities in the region, our first priority must be the destruction of ISIS. Our second priority must be getting rid of Assad, through some political settlement, working with Iran, working with Russia.

But the immediate task is to bring all interests together who want to destroy ISIS, including Russia, including Iran, including our Muslim allies to make that the major priority.

I have to agree with Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, who says of Sanders that “it’s blindingly apparent that not only does he not understand foreign policy and national security, he simply doesn’t care to know more.”

NBC News moderators Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell did a good job of keeping things on track and covering a wide range of issues. But when Mitchell pressed Sanders on whether he would support tax increases, I would have liked to see a disclosure that she’s married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

And, finally, some counterintuitive polling wisdom from Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver. His analysis of multiple polls shows that Clinton has an 81 percent chance of winning the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and a 57 percent chance of winning the New Hampshire primary (where, as this Real Clear Politics compilation shows, Sanders is widely believed to be ahead) on February 9.

If Clinton takes both Iowa and New Hampshire, the race for the Democratic nomination will be over.

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Live-blogging the second Democratic presidential debate

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10:57. That was so weird. The candidates remained on stage while Major Garrett reported on audience reaction to several key moments. O’Malley was giving a thumb’s-up to the crowd when Garrett said his slam at Trump got a big response.

10:56. And so it ends. Clinton began her campaign revival with the first debate. I suspect tonight will be seen as a minor setback. She wasn’t bad, but she was hardly dominant. Sanders was as good on the details as she was, and came across as more principled — and, needless to say, more passionate.

O’Malley isn’t terrible, but by comparison he comes across as less experienced and kind of wooden.

10:50. It finally occurred to me what O’Malley reminds me of: an official response to a State of the Union address. That’s not a compliment.

10:46. “We’ve been working you hard. Please take the next few minutes to puff yourself up in any way you like.”

10:40. I realize I said nothing about the candidates’ answers to the Black Lives Matter question. Frankly, the answers struck me as boilerplate, so I didn’t see any need to comment. But yes, I wish they had transcended boilerplate.

10:38. I’d like to see someone talk about the responsibility of private colleges and universities to hold down tuition and fees. That’s a huge part of the equation.

10:28. Sanders says again that he’s sick of hearing about Clinton’s emails, and he blames the media for reports that he’s changed his mind.

10:25. I’m going to be writing this up for WGBHNews.org as soon as the debate is over, so I won’t be able to incorporate any of the pundits’ reactions. But though Clinton has come across as knowledgeable and competent, she’s also been humorless and charmless compared to the last debate. You could say the same of Sanders, of course, but he’s playing a different game. Bernie acolytes won’t want to hear this, but I still think his main interest is in pushing Clinton to the left and influencing the party platform.

I’m also seeing indications on Twitter that the main takeaway for Clinton’s conservative critics is that she wouldn’t agree with moderator John Dickerson that “radical Islam” is our enemy. She was more comfortable talking about “jihadists,” “Islamists” and “extremism,” arguing that invoking “Islam” is too easily misinterpreted as anti-Muslim. Frankly, I’m surprised that Clinton wasn’t better at thinking on her feet. She had to know that she was handing an issue to the right.

10:16. Good to see a Twitter commenter calling out Clinton for wrapping herself in the 9/11 flag when she was challenged on her close relationship with Wall Street.

10:09. We’re now getting the Full Bernie as Sanders goes off on Clinton for her support from Wall Street. It must have stung, because Clinton responds by playing both the gender and the 9/11 cards. As pre-rehearsed as it was, I don’t think it was a good move — it was so transparent.

O’Malley, when finally given a chance to talk, calls Clinton’s Wall Street reform proposal “weak tea” and agrees with Sanders that we need to restore Glass-Steagall financial regulation.

Sanders either just said “The business of Wall Street is fraud” or “flawed.” I’m not sure which, and there’s a huge difference, needless to say.

10:00. It’s refreshing to hear presidential candidates arguing over how high the minimum wage should be rather than how low. As Sanders and O’Malley point out, it’s basic economics that everyone benefits when lower-income workers have more money to spend on goods and services. Sanders and O’Malley want $15 an hour. Clinton takes a nuanced, complicated position — $12 nationwide, but local officials could choose to go higher. But that’s already the case, so it seems like she’s being too cute.

9:50. O’Malley gets some applause for referring to “that immigrant-bashing carnival barker Donald Trump.”

9:45. Clinton wants to improve the Affordable Care Act. Sanders says he supports the ACA, but wants to keep pushing for universal coverage.

9:42. “I’m not as much of a socialist as Eisenhower,” says Sanders, noting that the marginal tax rate was 90 percent under Ike.

9:37. We’re moving on to the financial challenges faced by the middle class. Seems somehow inappropriate, but on with the show.

9:35. Poor O’Malley! The union-sponsored anti-Walmart commercial that just ran mentioned “Hillary, Bernie” and even the Republicans. But not O’Malley.

9:34. Clinton is as good as she was in the previous debate, but Sanders is much better. Interesting that all of them are still willing to take Syrian refugees with the proper screening. Again, the contrast with the Republicans is striking.

9:30. I don’t know why Sanders didn’t want to talk about national security tonight. He’s very good at this — as detailed as Clinton, and with more of an overarching philosophy. He makes a great point about the U.S. military, which has 5,000 nuclear weapons but devotes only 10 percent of its resources to fighting terrorism. “The Cold War is over,” he says.

9:29. It’s interesting to hear all three candidates take care to distinguish between violent jihadists and ordinary Muslims. Clinton even pays tribute to George W. Bush for visiting a mosque in the days after 9/11. Can you imagine what we’d be hearing tonight if the Republicans were debating?

9:23. Clinton and Sanders are having a serious discussion. O’Malley is a distraction.

9:17. Asked if he still believes climate change is our top threat, Sanders not only says “absolutely” but links it to the rise of ISIS. This is very smart. Numerous analysts have linked terrorism to environmental catastrophe, as desperate people fight over increasingly scarce resources. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written about this quite a bit.

Sanders also rightly associates the rise of ISIS with the war in Iraq, which, of course, Clinton voted in favor of. “These regime changes have unintended consequences,” Sanders says. Clinton’s command of the details is impressive, but Sanders is holding his own and then some.

Martin O’Malley comes across as someone who’s feeling his way. Which he is.

9:09. In opening statements, Sanders quickly switches back to his “millionaires and billionaires” rhetoric. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley stay on message in talking about Paris and national security.

9:01. The debate begins with a moment of silence — very brief but appropriate.

8:59. You may have heard that the Bernie Sanders campaign was upset at CBS News’ decision to refocus the debate on national security and foreign policy. Seems strange that someone who wants to be president can’t understand the need to switch gears after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if any of it spills over into the debate itself.

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I’ll be live-blogging the Democratic presidential debate starting at 9 p.m. Please check in — and don’t forget to hit refresh to see new content. As you may know, CBS News has refocused the agenda to concentrate on foreign policy and national security following the terrorist attacks in Paris. There should be a lot to talk about.

The debate’s big losers: CNN and new media platforms

Photo by xx
Photo (cc) by Gregor Smith

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

My view of the winners and losers in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate is pretty much the same as what I’ve seen from other observers. Hillary Clinton won with a strong, polished performance (and was likable enough). Bernie Sanders was uneven but had his moments. And Martin O’Malley emerged as the only real alternative to the two front-runners, as Jim Webb fizzled and Lincoln Chafee popped.

So let me turn instead to the biggest loser of the debate: CNN, which for whatever reason just can’t seem to get its act together. Moderator Anderson Cooper is a smart, authoritative presence, but during the debate he was both too authoritative and too present. He interrupted constantly. Every candidate’s answer, it seemed, played out against a backdrop of Cooper trying to get him or her to stop. Sometimes a strong hand is needed. But politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley instructed us. Let them mix it up.

Far worse was CNN’s weirdly tone-deaf wallowing in racial and gender stereotypes. It was well into the debate before we heard from a black journalist, Don Lemon. So naturally he drew the assignment of asking about the Black Lives Matter movement. As “Beat the Press” contributor Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab tweeted:

Later on, the first question about immigration came from — yes — Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Español. After that, someone on Twitter wondered sardonically if Dana Bash had been designated to ask about abortion rights. Not quite. But Bash did ask Clinton about family leave, which prompted an exchange on the challenges faced by working mothers. Hey, CNN: minority and female journalists are capable of asking about gun control and campaign-finance reform, too.

It was not a great night for new media, whether you’re talking about new new media (Snapchat), old new media (Twitter) or ancient new media (Facebook). Facebook actually co-sponsored the debate, but I couldn’t find anything especially compelling. I did run across one amusing video on CNN’s Facebook page (flagged by local social-media guy Steve Garfield) on a behind-the-scenes look at debate preparations. As it ended, the host, Chris Moody, turned toward the camera and said, “It’s been real. Thanks, Snapchat.” Realizing his mistake, he turned to others and repeated his mistake. “I said Snapchat.” A pause. “Bye, Facebook. Sorry, Facebook.” To quote a famous debate moment: “Oops.

Twitter is still the go-to place for real-time conversation during a news event. But I kept checking a running story on the debate that was posted in Twitter’s brand-new Moments section, and what I found was pretty weak. It was too mainstream; tweets were posted in chronological rather than reverse chronological order; and there was little of the sense of unexpected discovery that draws me to Twitter. As described by Mathew Ingram of Fortune, Moments is supposed to be a curated news experience aimed at users who find “real” Twitter too confusing and time-consuming. Maybe it will catch on, but I just didn’t see much value in it.

As for Snapchat, well, better luck next time? At a recent appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Snapchat’s chief journalist, Peter Hamby, waxed enthusiastic about the Live Stories the mobile-only service posted after the two Republican debates. Maybe we’ll have to wait until Wednesday, but as I write this — around midnight on Tuesday — there’s nothing. And CNN’s Snapchat channel is still devoted entirely to a preview of the debate.

Again, we’ll have to wait for Wednesday. But I could sneak back downstairs and watch post-debate reaction on my old-fashioned TV. Isn’t online media supposed to offer a sense of immediacy that legacy platforms lack?

 

The Post digs into the Clintons’ dubious fundraising ties

I continue to be astonished that Hillary Clinton has no serious opposition for the Democratic presidential nomination. This time eight years ago, Barack Obama was mounting a full-scale challenge. Now, there are occasional noises from the likes of Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, but that’s about it. (Sorry, folks. Elizabeth Warren isn’t running.)

The latest piece of appalling news about the Clintons is a front-page story in today’s Washington Post revealing that the Clinton Foundation, run by her husband, Bill, took in millions of dollars from foreign governments while Hillary was secretary of state. Much of the money, write the Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger, “came from countries with complicated diplomatic, military and financial relationships with the U.S. government, including Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.”

The story is a follow-up to an earlier, equally appalling Post story about the Clinton Foundation’s dubious fundraising.

Caveat: Yes, the foundation’s money goes to good causes like earthquake relief, lowering the cost of drugs used to treat AIDS and HIV, and alleviating climate change. But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that foreign governments seeking to curry favor with the Obama administration funneled money to Bill Clinton in order to receive more favorable treatment from Hillary Clinton.

Exposed! Check out this comment from Bob Gardner: “Not surprised that this story would get traction from an employee of the Koch-funded WGBH.”