RACE CARDS! Was Bill Clinton playing a card? We dont know—but the press corps sure has been: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JANUARY 28, 2008
POLLING THE PRIMARIES: One quick point about Saturdays primary: The election results differed massively from the pre-election polling. But then, this also happened in New Hampshires Democratic primary, and in the 2000 New Hampshire primary on the Republican side. Translation: For various reasons, its 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 lets restate the basic point, speaking slowly so journos can follow: Its often hard to poll a primary. It wouldnt be a terrible thing to remember this in the next month.
POST-RATIONAL CULTURE: Robert Reich is a former Rhodes Scholar, but youd 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:
Theres more, and if youre into self-punishment, youll click here and read the whole thing.
Whats wrong with Reichs 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 didnt 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 Mondays Dem debate; she expressly said that she wasnt 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 Fridays 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:
Maybe E. J. is really that dumb—or perhaps he was just being Clintonesque here. But to be honest, that radio ad didnt necessarily imply what he said—and, as Hillary Clinton had stressed Monday night, it just flat-out didnt 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:
Its as weve 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 Saturdays primary. Nor were Obamas remarks a big deal—though Clinton was relentlessly trashed for similar trivia all through the autumn. (Kindergarten, anyone? How about those drivers 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 wasnt true. This helps frame the critical question well 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, wed be inclined to favor Hillary Clinton over Obama as the best person to be the next president. But this isnt a rational world, and Bill Clintons 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, wed be careful before we reached such a punishing judgment. Although were not sure that it matters, given the dumbness of Clintons remark.
Lets 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:
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 campaigns 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 Clintons 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:
For Glenn, the Clinton campaigns anonymous branding of Obama reinforced the notion that Bill Clinton really was playing a race card. We think Bill Clintons statement was at best deeply stupid. But we also think Glenn may be judging too fast about that anonymous branding. Heres 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:
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:
Rule of thumb, from long observation: Well suggest that readers should be wary when they see anonymous, highly-truncated quotes. And lets say it again: When strategists do say colorful things, youll likely see their full statement.
Did Clinton strategists brand Obama? Wed be slow to make that assessment, based on that one AP passage. Were troubled and annoyed by what Bill Clinton said. But because we agree with Glenns initial statement—because we understand the press corps role in generating this past months racial discussion—were 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. (Theres nothing evil about this.) This leads us to Kevin Drums judgment. Heres what Kevin said—and well even take up his challenge:
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? Well take the Drum Challenge, pretending it might have been something else:
First, we simply dont 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 hes doing so clumsily. And by the way: Every journalist from here to Moscow has been saying, for the past seven months, that South Carolinas 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? Well offer several reasons:
First: Bill Clintons statement was, at best, stupidly artless. Intentionally so? We cant tell you (more below).
Second, and wondrously obvious: Bill Clintons 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 Clintons 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 doesnt mention that fact. But just as a basic point of caution, well 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 Clintons comment least favorably.
Did Bill Clinton try to play a race card? We dont 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, wed be slow to judge Bill Clintons 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 Clintons statement? We saw one thing that hasnt been mentioned; we saw a person who loathes the press corps, for reasons he cant 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 cant shut his yap when one of the people he hates approaches—who doesnt know that he simply has to say, Obama ran a great campaign, and now its on the next state. (This is the same guy who, in a non-racial context, said that he didnt inhale. It was true—but he shouldnt 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; its our societys 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. Its 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. Thats especially when were dealing with topics where emotion is so strong—and in this case, so justified.) Its 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.) Its amazingly easy to play that card—and its unattractive and deeply unhelpful when these remarkably moral white liberals make such a point of so doing.
Here at THE HOWLER, we dont 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 hasnt 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 dont know—but if not, hes getting inexcusably angry and stupid. And this sixteen-year brawl, which does involve the press, may have gone past the point of return.
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 wed said:
Can you see the way they fight, suggesting that we just cant be serious? But then, ancient regimes always see it that way! Incomparably, we dashed off our reply:
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: Dont 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!
Dont worry—it wont be! With lightning speed, we penned a two-pronged reply. Paragraph 2 is what matters:
Thats 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 philosophys number-one star!