Monday, May 23, 2016

The Press Buckles Up for Six Months of Backseat Driving

As former Jeb Bush advisor Tim Miller recently revealed, among the unwelcome challenges faced by the modern presidential campaign is the relentless proffering of advice by top financial donors, who take the opportunity presented by personal access to the candidate or senior staff to promote their own theories on how best to win votes:

We could have probably had 19 full-time staffers dedicated just to the donor advice. . . . Donors had a lot of thoughts about [the candidate's] cable TV look. Donors are obsessed with cable TV. The most feedback we got was with regards to cable TV: Why aren’t you on enough? When you are on? Why is he not wearing a suit coat rather than a sweater? Can he get a new suit coat jacket?’

In some walks of life, professional expertise is given a modicum of deference; few airline passengers think that they know better than the pilot how to fly the plane, while most patients trust their dentist to fill a cavity correctly without the need for them to weigh in on the subject. Not so in politics. No record of previous experience or success is sufficient to insulate either politicians or their staff from the passing opinions of others, even if they are as ridiculous as the belief that entire elections can turn on the candidate's choice of suit coats.

Aside from wealthy supporters who are accustomed on a daily basis to being treated as if every utterance is sacred wisdom, a particularly rich vein of unsolicited input is supplied by journalists and pundits—especially if a candidate is trailing or falling short of his or her expected performance in the polls. Politicians also vary in the extent to which they are credited with political smarts by reporters and commentators, and those deemed less savvy are more likely to be the recipients of frequent second-guessing.

It's safe to say that very few members of the national media, whether liberal, conservative, or in between, are supporters of Donald Trump's campaign. In fact, many view him as a uniquely unqualified and destructive potential president. To these analysts, it is therefore critical to the health of the nation that Hillary Clinton defeat Trump in November. 

But Clinton is not particularly well-liked by the press in her own right, and her acumen as a candidate is routinely given little respect. Conditions are thus ripe for members of the media to spend the upcoming campaign picking over every strategic and tactical choice made by Clinton or her advisors, not only questioning the political wisdom of each decision but also suggesting that Clinton bears grave moral responsibility for keeping alive the possibility of a Trump presidency.

This behavioral tendency is already visible. On May 9, the New York Times ran a story about a series of anti-Trump attacks made via Twitter by Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. One might think that it would be unadulterated good news for the Clinton campaign that a well-known liberal Democratic senator popular with Bernie Sanders supporters (and formally neutral in the Democratic primary race) was leading a rhetorical charge against Trump, laying the groundwork for a united partisan front behind Clinton in the general election. But to Maggie Haberman, a reporter with the Times who contributed to the story, Warren's offensive was actually important because she was "maybe signaling she doesn't think HRC is doing [a] bang up job [attacking] Trump" herself. Thus an article about Warren's successful engagement with Trump to Clinton's potential benefit (which contained no direct evidence in its text supporting Haberman's suggestion that Warren was in fact unhappy with Clinton or her campaign) became one more supposed indication of Clinton's own political limitations.

In the same vein, a May 6 press release produced by the Democratic National Committee that referred to Trump as "Dangerous Donald" drew an unusual amount of attention among journalists. Receiving boilerplate press releases is presumably an unremarkable daily occurrence for political reporters and is rarely worthy of comment. This time, however, members of the media acted as if the Clinton campaign had settled on its primary anti-Trump message for the entirety of the election season, collectively judging said strategy to be hopelessly lame—which therefore represented an unacceptable case of political malpractice in the face of the Trump threat. Anti-Trump (and anti-Clinton) conservative David Frum sketched out a Trump victory scenario for the Atlantic which suggested that the Clinton campaign might be so incompetent as to drive significant shares of Obama-supporting racial minorities, ideological moderates, and college-educated whites into Trump's corner—a prediction that seems fanciful given current evidence about these groups' opinions of Trump but nonetheless was taken seriously by some analysts. (Trump has a chance of winning, of course, but not because he is likely to attract a large percentage of the Latino vote.)

Expect this dynamic to hold for the remainder of the presidential race. Any indication of a rise in the polls for Trump will inspire a frenzy of media analysis about what Clinton is doing wrong—even if she remains in the lead and a favorite to win in November—while a widening of Clinton's popular margin will be interpreted as reflecting Trump's weaknesses rather than the political effectiveness of the Democratic opposition. The chief strategic decisions made by Clinton and her advisors may not always be correct, but they will be based on opinion surveys, focus groups, and other forms of data employed by modern campaign professionals—yet they will be subjected to routine second-guessing by media analysts who lack confidence that Clinton will defeat Trump on the basis of superior political skill.