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Daily Howler: Was Bill Clinton playing a card? We don't know--but the press corps sure has been
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RACE CARDS! Was Bill Clinton playing a card? We don’t know—but the press corps sure has been: // link // print // previous // next //

POLLING THE PRIMARIES: One quick point about Saturday’s primary: The election results differed massively from the pre-election polling. But then, this also happened in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, and in the 2000 New Hampshire primary on the Republican side. Translation: For various reasons, it’s hard to poll primaries. (Turn-out rates are hard to predict, to cite just one problem.) But only in New Hampshire 2008 did the press corps scream and yell about the deeply-troubling polling “error”—and when they did, they played the race card, as they have aggressively done all through the past month. (More below.) As always, Chris Matthews was most reprehensible, disgracefully saying that “ten to fifteen percent” of New Hampshire Democrats had “lied” to pollsters for racial reasons. But the press corps’ racial spinning was widespread and as always, it was quite incoherent.

The reason for the press corps’ conduct was fairly obvious; they were intervening in the Dem primary process again, as they aggressively did in Campaign 2000 and (arguably) in Campaign 04. But let’s restate the basic point, speaking slowly so journos can follow: It’s often hard to poll a primary. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing to remember this in the next month.

POST-RATIONAL CULTURE: Robert Reich is a former Rhodes Scholar, but you’d never know it during primary season. He played the fool during Campaign 2000's primaries; this past week, he was at it again, more out of sadness than anger:

REICH (1/24/08): I write this more out of sadness than anger. Bill Clinton’s ill-tempered and ill-founded attacks on Barack Obama are doing no credit to the former President, his legacy, or his wife’s campaign. Nor are they helping the Democratic party...Meanwhile, the attack ads being run in South Carolina by the Clinton camp which quote Obama as saying Republicans had all the ideas under Reagan, is disingenuous.

There’s more, and if you’re into self-punishment, you’ll click here and read the whole thing.

What’s wrong with Reich’s highlighted statement? (His post was widely cited last week.) Just this: As we noted last week—as any Rhodes Scholar could see for himself—the “attack ad” in question didn’t “quote Obama saying that Republicans had all the ideas under Reagan.” It quoted Obama saying that the GOP was the “party of ideas” during the past ten to fifteen years. (As anyone with a calendar knows, that was the Age of Gingrich, not Reagan.) Indeed, Hillary Clinton made a large point of this distinction during last Monday’s Dem debate; she expressly said that she wasn’t criticizing Obama for his Reagan statement. But so what? Reich, who is a former Rhodes Scholar, simply recited the tale he preferred. The “attack ad” in question said nothing about Reagan—until Reich, typing more in sorrow than anger, told us that the Clinton campaign was being “disingenuous” again.

Reich, of course, was hardly alone in this particular sleight-of-hand. In last Friday’s column, E. J. Dionne played the same silly game—engaged in the same reinvention. Dionne was a bit more careful than Reich; most of his column was technically accurate. But eventually, he did get on script:

DIONNE (1/25/08): [W]ith both Clintons on record saying kind things about Reagan, why go after Obama on the point? Honestly: If Obama is a Reaganite, then I am a salamander.

Yet there was Hillary Clinton’s campaign, beginning to run a radio ad Wednesday implying that Obama bought into such ideas as "refusing to raise the minimum wage." Come on, guys. Fortunately, she pulled the ad yesterday...

Maybe E. J. is really that dumb—or perhaps he was just being “Clintonesque” here. But to be honest, that radio ad didn’t necessarily “imply” what he said—and, as Hillary Clinton had stressed Monday night, it just flat-out didn’t refer to what Obama had said about Reagan. But so what? By the end of the week, all pundits were scripted on this point. Even our pal Clarence Page rattled off the same script on (groan) The Chris Matthews Show:

MATTHEWS (1/27/08): But Clarence, quote: “Hillary Clinton will do anything to win.” That's pretty strong stuff.

PAGE: Right, and that comes in direct response to her earlier ad, which she took down after two days, which was accusing Obama of being a Reaganite.

MATTHEWS: A Reaganite!

It’s as we’ve said for the past ten years: Absolutely nothing stops these people from reciting the scripts they prefer.

Presumably, none of this has much to do with the outcome of Saturday’s primary. Nor were Obama’s remarks a big deal—though Clinton was relentlessly trashed for similar trivia all through the autumn. (“Kindergarten,” anyone? How about those driver’s licenses—or that apocryphal “twenty-year plan?”) But the reinvention of that radio ad does help define a serious problem: You live in a post-Enlightenment world. Robert Reich is a former Rhodes Scholar—but more in sorrow than in anger, he told you something that just wasn’t true. This helps frame the critical question we’ll be asking in our controversial “Philosopher Fridays” series: When will our great logicians descend from their aeries and help us, down here on the plain?

RACE CARDS: In our view, Bill Clinton did a very dumb thing when he made that “Jesse Jackson” remark. Indeed, the incident made us think that Dems might be better off trying to start anew with Obama. In a rational world, we’d be inclined to favor Hillary Clinton over Obama as the best person to be the next president. But this isn’t a rational world, and Bill Clinton’s conduct got so clumsy this week that the scales began to tip as we considered out upcoming vote.

That said, was Bill Clinton “playing the race card” when he made this ballyhooed statement? Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Drum have both judged that he was. For ourselves, we’d be careful before we reached such a punishing judgment. Although we’re not sure that it matters, given the dumbness of Clinton’s remark.

Let’s start with Glenn, whose street-fighting ways are hugely admired here at THE HOWLER. We agree with the things he said as he started his post on this subject:

GREENWALD (1/27/08): I've thought most of the criticisms of the Clintons' campaign, including the role played by Bill, have been overblown. Given the standard level of campaign rhetoric, and particularly considering the bile that will be launched towards Obama from the currently pro-Obama right-wing noise machine if he's the nominee, most of the "controversial" comments have been rather mild, standard election fare, generating interest primarily because it was coming from the Clintons.

Beyond that, it seemed most of the efforts to inject dramatic racial conflict into the contest were media-driven rather than an intentional Clinton strategy.

We agree with both highlighted statements. Indeed, both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have noted the way the press corps has rushed to pimp this campaign’s racial angles; your press corps loves pimping race, and hates the Clintons, and the resulting brew has been noxious. (Ten to fifteen percent of Dems lied about race: Chris Matthews.) Somehow, the term “fairy tale” took on a racial aspect, and in this gruesome Washington Post “news report,” Bill Clinton’s use of the term “hit job” also took on racial meaning. Until this past weekend, “it seemed most of the efforts to inject dramatic racial conflict into the contest were media-driven,” Glenn says—and we largely agree. (Many pols and private citizens also played a role.) But we think Glenn may have judged a bit too quickly when his view changed this weekend:

GREENWALD: But the last few days have changed my view on those matters substantially. The Clintons' strategy has become increasingly trashy, even ugly, and yesterday's remarks by Bill Clinton—in which he pointedly compared Obama’s candidacy to Jesse Jackson’s—and thus implicitly (though clearly) dismissed South Carolina as a state where the "black candidate" wins, followed up by the Clinton campaign’s anonymous branding of Obama as "the black candidate"—reeked of desperation.

For Glenn, the Clinton campaign’s “anonymous branding of Obama” reinforced the notion that Bill Clinton really was playing a race card. We think Bill Clinton’s statement was at best deeply stupid. But we also think Glenn may be judging too fast about that “anonymous branding.” Here’s why:

Un-oh! In our view, the word ”anonymous” should be troubling—and so should the truncated, three-word quotation which Glenn includes in his statement. Regarding this matter, Glenn links to Josh Marshall, who in turn links to this AP report, written by David Espo. Here is the rather brief passage in question—the passage which supposedly shows that “anonymous branding” as it takes place:

ESPO (1/26/08): Clinton campaign strategists denied any intentional effort to stir the racial debate. But they said they believe the fallout has had the effect of branding Obama as "the black candidate," a tag that could hurt him outside the South.

Warning! That passage names no names—and it involves a sharply truncated, three-word “quotation.” Quick rule of thumb: If those alleged strategists had said something provocative, their full statement would likely appear, just exactly as they said it—not this heavily paraphrased version. Do we still fail to understand how easy it is to produce such copy? In the real world, the passage we have quoted above could derive from this exchange:

AP REPORTER: So, do you think that Obama has somehow been branded as “the black candidate” by the events of South Carolina, in the minds of future voters? Do you think he’ll be hurt outside the South by all the fighting that went on here this week?

ALLEGED, UNNAMED CLINTON STRATEGIST: It’s possible. Yes, he might be hurt by all this stuff, in some states.

Rule of thumb, from long observation: We’ll suggest that readers should be wary when they see anonymous, highly-truncated “quotes.” And let’s say it again: When strategists do say colorful things, you’ll likely see their full statement.

Did “Clinton strategists brand Obama?” We’d be slow to make that assessment, based on that one AP passage. We’re troubled and annoyed by what Bill Clinton said. But because we agree with Glenn’s initial statement—because we understand the press corps’ role in generating this past month’s racial discussion—we’re slow to assume that the AP report tells us much at all.

And yes, campaigns and strategists do talk about race—and about racial voting. (There’s nothing evil about this.) This leads us to Kevin Drum’s judgment. Here’s what Kevin said—and we’ll even take up his challenge:

DRUM (1/27/08): [N]one of my views about this race have really changed. I think Hillary is still likely to win the nomination. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I suspect she's also more electable than Obama. And Obama's continued unwillingness to defend progressive policies on explicitly progressive grounds still bothers me.

But that said, enough's enough. I don't like dog whistle racial appeals when Republicans do it, and I don't like it when Bill Clinton does it. (And unlike Hillary's MLK/LBJ remark, which was idiotically mischaracterized, don't even try to pretend that this was an innocent remark. We're not children here.) Yes, Obama has to be able to handle this kind of sewage, and yes, this will almost certainly be forgiven and forgotten among Democrats by November. But it's not November yet, is it? My primary is a week from Tuesday, and I'm not feeling very disposed to reward this kind of behavior. At this point, it's looking a lot more likely that I'm going to vote for Obama.

Like Kevin, we too are more likely to vote for Obama because of what Bill Clinton said. But was it a “dog whistle racial appeal?” We’ll take the Drum Challenge, “pretending” it might have been something else:

First, we simply don’t know what Clinton intended. We do, however, know this:

Campaigns routinely “explain away” their defeats—and journalists do the same thing, all the time. When Huckabee won in Iowa, for example, every journalist from here to Saigon rushed to explain the outcome, noting that 40 percent of the Republican electorate in Iowa was evangelical. In this instance, Bill Clinton is “explaining away” a defeat in the same manner—although at best he’s doing so clumsily. And by the way: Every journalist from here to Moscow has been saying, for the past seven months, that South Carolina’s high percentage of African-American voters made it a state Obama needed—a state in which he held a theoretical advantage. This has been a very standard analysis. Every big pundit has said it. Every big pundit has applied this standard of analysis.

Why was it suddenly wrong when Bill Clinton “explained away” a defeat, offering a type of analysis which is elsewhere so typical? We’ll offer several reasons:

First: Bill Clinton’s statement was, at best, stupidly artless. Intentionally so? We can’t tell you (more below).

Second, and wondrously obvious: Bill Clinton’s statement was judged to be wrong because the press hates Bill Clinton. As Kevin partially notes, there had been a fair amount of “idiotic (racial) mischaracterization” in the press corps before Bill Clinton’s remark. (Glenn suggests something like this too.) And guess what? Those “idiotic mischaracterizations” were formed, in large part, because the press corps hates the Clintons! Kevin is a bit too polite on matters like this, and so he doesn’t mention that fact. But just as a basic point of caution, we’ll note that the journalists who ran with that “idiotic mischaracterization” about Hillary Clinton are the same people who are now urging us to construe Bill Clinton’s comment least favorably.

Did Bill Clinton try to play a “race card?” We don’t know. We do know that the mainstream press corps has been playing their own race cards quite aggressively—for example, Bob Herbert in this pitiful column, and Darryl Fears in this “news report.” We all say we think that race is important, and we all pretend to revere Dr. King—but there is no topic where so many people will run so fast to condemn their neighbors in so many ways (as Dr. King never would). For that reason, we’d be slow to judge Bill Clinton’s intent—although his performance has gotten so foolish that it makes us much more likely to vote for Obama.

For the record, what did we see when we saw Bill Clinton’s statement? We saw one thing that hasn’t been mentioned; we saw a person who loathes the press corps, for reasons he can’t really afford to explain. (Indeed, even in his deeply racist “fairy tale” comment, he was complaining about the press corps. You may not know that—because any such comment is, by law, quickly and completely disappeared.) Beyond that, we saw a guy who can’t shut his yap when one of the people he hates approaches—who doesn’t know that he simply has to say, “Obama ran a great campaign, and now it’s on the next state.” (This is the same guy who, in a non-racial context, said that he didn’t inhale. It was true—but he shouldn’t have said it.) But we also saw someone explaining away a defeat—something that is widely done and permitted in all other contexts.

Of course, race is different from all other contexts; it’s our society’s great, unutterable sin, an historical atrocity so vast and astounding that few normal words pertain. The rules are therefore different for race—but we should try to avoid stampedes, especially when a loathsome press corps is urging us to stage one. It’s understandable—if undesirable—if African-Americans sometimes hear whistles which may or may not be there—in “fairy tale,” for example. (Human beings, of every description, do such things all the time. That’s especially when we’re dealing with topics where emotion is so strong—and in this case, so justified.) It’s less appealing when lazy white “liberals” rush to jump on the pile. (We do not, in any way, refer to Glenn or Kevin.) But our youngest “liberals” are very eager to convince the world—perhaps, to convince themselves—about their own racial good intentions. Some of these people will find dog whistles in every locution; a recent post at a liberal journal was simply astounding in this regard, made more so by the comments. (“Fog” is a racist term too.) It’s amazingly easy to play that “card”—and it’s unattractive and deeply unhelpful when these remarkably moral white “liberals” make such a point of so doing.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know if the Clinton campaign has been playing a race card. Nor would we assume that Bill Clinton was blowing a whistle when he said “Jesse Jackson.” We do know this: The conduct of the mainstream press corps has been appalling in this regard—and Bill Clinton seems extremely angry at them, as he has been for a good many years. (For the most part, good liberals who are scorning him now ran away from most of those dog-fights.) If his recent comment was made in good faith, it was just amazingly stupid—although, as a basic point of analysis, comments like his were surely being made by “strategists” of all three Democratic campaigns. And guess what, people? Huckabee hasn’t won another state after that first big win in Iowa. The explanation, of course, is all those evangelicals—the ones whom every pundit mentioned. Indeed: As pundits have noted a boat-load of times, Pat Robertson also won that state, back in 1980.

Was Bill Clinton playing a race card? We don’t know—but if not, he’s getting inexcusably angry and stupid. And this sixteen-year brawl, which does involve the press, may have gone past the point of return.

Special report: Philosopher Fridays!

COMING FRIDAY: A first “brush with greatness.” (Fall semester, 1965.)

SPECIAL MONDAY EDITION: In just one week, “Philosopher Fridays” has become the most controversial feature found anywhere on the web. Indeed, within hours of our inaugural posting (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/11/08), defenders of the “ancient order” rushed to condemn what we’d said:

E-MAIL: I just started reading the daily howler on the advice (closer to insistence) of a friend who said it is the most important political blog.

[Obligatory words of praise]

However, this new bit (I'll assume it's comedy for your sake) is neither entertaining nor informative. The butchering of Wittgenstein, akin to a high schooler’s quoting of Nietzsche, is rather poor sophistry. If you want to trash (or refuse to acknowledge) metaphysics why not try Derrida and gang, of course deconstruction might be post-hip these days—I can never keep up with the fashions. From now on I'm going to try to be civil and to point, but I fear I am talking more to a persona than a man.

SOMERBY (1/18/08): “Over the ages, philosophy has offered valuable guidance on profound questions of truth, beauty and existence?" Really? That isn't the conclusion we drew from our incomparable career as a philosophy major, in which we learned (to simplify Wittgenstein just a tad) that western philosophy is largely comprised of statements which may be incoherent or meaningless.


SOMERBY(1/18/08): “In our view, of course, almost all ‘philosophical writing’—especially that which deals with ‘the nature of consciousness’—is painful to read, poorly thought out, shoddy, inept and disastrous."

You do qualify these statements with “may be” and “almost,” but it seems a rather shallow concession towards your desired end of making philosophy out to be nothing more than hucksters mashing language together until people nod their heads in contrition. We have enough of this these days already, instead of jumping on the bandwagon why don't you actually stand up for something? Truth, Beauty, and Existence (big T or small t, take your pick) is a good start. If people refuse to accept that we can stand on the shared ground of reason then what use is it to run your blog in the first place?

If you want to have a discussion I will participate, otherwise enjoy your routine.

Can you see the way they fight, suggesting that we just can’t be serious? But then, ancient regimes always see it that way! Incomparably, we dashed off our reply:

REPLY: But I am inclined to think that professional "philosophy" tends toward "nothing more than hucksters [your word—it wouldn't be mine] mashing language together until people nod their heads." I take it that you aren't so inclined, which is of course your right.

You ask this: "If people refuse to accept that we can stand on the shared ground of reason then what use is it to run your blog in the first place?" Exactly. Once or twice in the past (perhaps on 1/2), I have noted the way "philosophers" and "logicians" have absented themselves from our actual public discourse—from the need to find ways to help real people reason. Academics from various disciplines intervene in our public disputes on appropriate occasions. But our "philosophers" and "logicians" never do (I gave an example on 1/2). Of course, when one examines the work that issues from their aeries, one suspects they might not have a lot to offer if they did try to help.

For the record, I wouldn't call these people "hucksters." I assume they're working in good faith—that they're well-intentioned.

And yes: Though Wittgenstein formulated very few “theses,” his work does imply the idea that “western philosophy is largely comprised of statements which may be [most likely, are] incoherent or meaningless.”

Please, professors: Don’t blame us for the things others have said!

But then, the academy had already fired back, guns blazing, to our January 2 post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/2/08). In it, we suggested that our greatest “logicians” might spend a little less time with Godel and, instead, might help us solve the problems clogging our public discourse. Many readers wrote to tell us that we had confused “logic” with “logic.” Here is one of the kinder readers who assured us we were wrong on this score. For the record, our long-time readers really know how to make it hurt. Suddenly, we were like Maureen Dowd!

E-MAIL: Bob, I've admired your work for years now.

But, just in the off chance you haven't heard from anyone with a background in mathematical logic, you're treatment of Goldstein—and Godel—bears an excessive similarity to the writings of people like Ms Dowd.

In particular, a "sentence" in first order predicate calculus (to be sloppy but
good enough, just think "mathematics") has a very specific and well defined meaning. And, yes, they're either true or false.

And the realm of mathematical logic has little to do with the current American
political scene.

Regretfully, this is not the best of starts to the new year. I hope it's your low, in fact.

Don’t worry—it won’t be! With lightning speed, we penned a two-pronged reply. Paragraph 2 is what matters:

ANSWER: But she's writing a popular book, not a technical one. "Very specific and technical meanings" may be fine (or not) somewhere else, but not here (unless she explains them). In normal parlance—the parlance of her book—what she said is more or less wrong.

I realize that "the realm of mathematical logic has little to do with the current American political scene." That's the problem—and that's the point I was making. Modern "logicians" are off in their aeries, and it's left to people with little skill to sort through problems of daily logic. Meanwhile, when specialists like Goldstein descend from the clouds, they often have a hard time writing coherently, as can be seen in this book. [This doesn’t mean they don’t know the mathematics.]

That’s the problem! Down here on the teeming plain, our political discourse is hopelessly broken—driven by people like Reich and Dowd. And the people described as “logicians” and “thinkers” never stoop to help us! In our view, the hopeless Medicare debate of 1994-1996 was the crowning example of the past sixteen years. (A very important bungled discussion, it shaped a good deal of our subsequent politics, including the politics in which Gore and Kerry were pre-defined as dissemblers.) But something is badly wrong: when our dumbest people sort out our most crucial disputes, while our brightest, most famous “logicians” and “thinkers” absent themselves in the clouds.

On Friday, an early “brush with greatness” will help us discuss this incomparable point. We freshmen thought he was Worst In Show. But omigod! Within a few years, he was philosophy’s number-one star!