The Uses of Silence

There are jobs for which there is no career path at all. There’s no college major for such jobs and they’re not taught in trade schools – one just falls into them, like being a location manager out here in Hollywood. One starts as a location scout, flying all over the world looking for just the right spot for the alien planet in this movie or the dark and moody European café in that other movie, or just the right castle or just the right beach. Hang around. Take a few pictures. Check out the sight-lines. That’s a slick gig, and move up to location manager and you get to deal with the permitting process. Perhaps you pay a few bribes, covered by the studio, or if the locals are eager, you accept a few bribes – little expensive gifts you get to keep yourself. That’s pretty cool, but no one knows how you get there from here. Perhaps one just falls into such jobs. Or you know someone. Talentless family members of major Hollywood families do need some sort of job, something to do with their time. Send them off to look around. Someone has to do it.

It’s the same with campaign advisors to political candidates. The job is to keep the candidate from saying anything too stupid each day – with this crowd don’t say this, and with this other crowd be sure to mention that very thing, several times. There are hot-button issues, and sometimes it’s best not to say anything at all. Don’t take questions. That always leads to trouble, because you have to answer them. The press will be angry – Steve Schmidt found that out when he kept Sarah Palin under wraps in the early part of the 2008 campaign, for good reason – but let them be angry. Sarah Palin was doing just fine before that Charlie Gibson interview and the one with Katie Couric. Steve Schmidt had been right all along – and he was a college dropout who was bad at math. He sort of fell into his career as a “campaign strategist” – he had a good feel for why people vote as they do, and when. He ran with it.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategist in 2008 was Mark Penn – a respected pollster and political scientist and a family friend. In 1994 they asked him to help her husband recover from his party’s massive losses during that year’s midterm elections, and his advice was to move to the center – talk about stepping-up law enforcement and balancing the budget and all the Republican stuff. Be more Republican than they are. Beat them at their own game.

That worked and he was now on the inside:

Penn served as pollster to President Clinton for six years. During that time, he became one of the president’s most prominent and influential advisers. In 2000, the Washington Post concluded in a news analysis that no pollster had ever become “so thoroughly integrated into the policymaking operation” of a presidential administration as had Penn.

Of course Hillary would turn to him, and in 2008 he proposed the same thing, but after she lost the Iowa caucus thing to Barack Obama everyone knew something was wrong. Penn stepped down that April – everyone but Hillary thought he was an asshole, and no one else wanted to be more Republican than the Republicans, and his nasty personal attacks on Obama only made things worse for Hillary.

It had been the same with Dick Morris:

Morris first worked with Bill and Hillary Clinton during Bill Clinton’s successful 1978 bid for Governor of Arkansas. Morris did not have a role in Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, which instead was headed by David Wilhelm, James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and Paul Begala. After the 1994 mid-term election, in which Republicans took control of both houses of the United States Congress and gained considerable power in the states, Clinton once again sought Morris’ help to prepare for the 1996 Presidential election. It was Morris who proposed a strategy that is now referred to as triangulation, in which Clinton would appeal to a diverse group of voters by distancing himself from both the Democratic and Republican parties. From the early months of 1995 to August 1996, Morris was a principal architect of the Clinton-Gore re-election strategy.

On August 29, 1996, Morris resigned from the Clinton campaign after tabloid reports stated that he had been involved with a prostitute…

Oh well. Now he’s a frequent guest on Fox News, sneering at Hillary and the Democrats, and there was this:

As of November 5, the day before the 2012 presidential election, Morris predicted on his website and in an article in The Hill that the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, would win the Presidency in a landslide “approaching the magnitude of Obama’s against McCain.” Specifically, he stated that Romney would win 325 electoral votes and that Obama would win 213. He explained the logic behind his prediction in a video posted at his website. He made this prediction in the face of an overwhelming consensus among expert pollsters leading up to election night that Obama would win at least the Electoral College and likely the popular vote. Morris wrote on his website, “On Sunday, we changed our clocks. On Tuesday, we’ll change our president.” With regard to his prognostications, Morris announced on Fox and Friends two days before the election that after the election “either I’m gonna have to go through a big reckoning, or they [the mainstream pollsters] are.” Jon Stewart mocked the idea on The Daily Show, calling Dick Morris the “King of Wrong Mountain” and claiming that pundits live in a “reckoning-free zone.” Morris was the least accurate major pundit in predicting the 2012 presidential election.

Where do they find such people, and what accounts for their long careers? Some do just fine – David Wilhelm, James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and Paul Begala, for example, and David Axelrod for Obama – Steve Schmidt was dealt a bad hand and did what he could – but others just have no feel for it. They make it up as they go along. Being a campaign advisor – the daily stuff – or being a campaign strategist – working on the general idea – are those kinds of jobs for which there is no formal training. It’s matter of convincing yourself of what ought to work. Sometimes it does.

Hillary Clinton, however, may have learned a thing to two. Silence is always good. Slate’s Josh Voorhees explains that:

Since officially kicking off her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has answered somewhere between eight to 13 questions from reporters, depending on how generous we’re willing to be with our definition of the word answered. Her most specific response, for instance, came more than a month ago: “We have a plan for my plan,” Clinton said after being asked about the details of her campaign finance reform agenda, which a month later remains more of a vague promise than a concrete proposal. In the past three weeks, meanwhile, the runaway Democratic frontrunner hasn’t bothered to so much as dodge a single question from a reporter, let alone answer one.

Clinton’s stonewalling initially sparked an existential crisis among the national press corps, many of whom were reduced to literally running after her caravan in Iowa. But in the weeks since, the political press has turned noticeably hostile in the face of her silence. Outlets like the National Journal, NPR, and NBC News are keeping their own tallies of the paltry number of reporter-asked questions Clinton has fielded. The New York Times, which is running a reoccurring feature listing the questions its reporters would ask Clinton if they had the chance, summed up the general mood on Monday morning with a blog post wryly headlined, “Today in Politics: Hillary Clinton’s Busy Week Presents More Opportunities for No Questions.” Local editorial boards, meanwhile, have begun making the implicit criticism explicit. “If she can’t handle a tough question from a journalist,” asked the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “how can she handle the duties of the highest office in the land?”

This is a risky strategy, even if she’s no Sarah Palin, but Voorhees sees the logic:

Clinton simply has no reason to veer from her campaign’s carefully written script. In the absence of a serious primary challenger, Clinton would risk more than she stands to gain by fielding questions about her family foundation’s cozy relationship with its donors while she was secretary of state, or reliving her Iraq war vote when she was a U.S. senator. A candidate who plays the media game well can generate plenty of buzz to fuel an upstart campaign – think John McCain’s Straight Talk Express in 2000 – but the equation isn’t the same for establishment candidates like Clinton. She doesn’t want more attention from reporters; she wants less. And the media’s growing frustrations notwithstanding, denying reporters the chance to ask her questions is the best way to make that happen. Every story about Clinton avoiding questions is a story that isn’t about how she mishandled one.

It’s a plan:

Clinton could easily wait until the fall – if not longer – before stepping out on the political high wire. A slip then would still give her plenty of time to catch her balance before the general election. In the meantime, the longer she stays safely on the ground, the greater the chance that when she does inevitably stumble there will be fewer Democrats willing to give her a push – and even more desperate to catch her. It might leave her a little rusty come the general election. But as Clinton learned in 2008, she can’t win a general election if she doesn’t win the primary first.

It’s unclear who is advising her, but this might work, and Paul Waldman adds this perspective:

Hillary Clinton doesn’t like the media, and they don’t like her. Both have legitimate reasons for feeling as they do, but there’s no getting around that simple fact. Clinton’s grievances go back two and a half decades, and what has reporters agitated at the moment is that Clinton is making it difficult for them to do their jobs, by not talking much to the them or providing the steady stream of public events out of which they can write stories. …

But if Clinton is overly concerned about their feelings, it’s hard to tell. Instead, she’s acting as though she isn’t afraid of the press at all.

There’s a reason for that:

We’re in the midst of the second media revolution Bill and Hillary Clinton have lived through, both of which changed how politicians relate to reporters. In the first one, which occurred in the 1990s, the media universe expanded and became more partisan, as conservative talk radio became a major force and cable news emerged to cover politics around the clock (Fox News was founded in 1996, in time for the Lewinsky scandal). The incumbent news organizations found themselves pressured by the right, bullied into covering stories they might have paid little attention to and forced to accelerate their news-gathering. Talk radio and cable were perfect for taking allegations against the president – legitimate or otherwise – and forcing them onto the agenda of the “old media” outlets, where they gained legitimacy and shaped the events of the day.

But despite all the scandal fodder his administration (and his private life, and his past) provided, Bill Clinton managed to not only survive but leave office with approval ratings in the 60s.

Fifteen years later, Hillary Clinton is running for president in the midst of another media revolution, one that not only pressures mainstream news organizations and the reporters who populate them, but makes those reporters feel threatened and even marginalized.

That’s their problem, not hers:

Look what has happened since she began running. We’ve already had a couple of supposed scandals – her State Department emails and the Clinton Foundation’s donors – which were given blanket coverage in the mainstream media. And how have Clinton’s fortunes been affected? Barely at all. She’s still leading all her potential general election opponents by eight or nine points.

Don’t forget, in ordinary circumstances, reporters love scandal. Scandal is exciting, it’s dramatic, and at its best it’s full of juicy revelations, scrambling politicians, and uncertain outcomes. Clinton scandals, on the other hand, have gotten awfully boring. Some accusation emerges, we learn that Bill or Hillary (or both) did something questionable, Republicans cry that it’s worse than Watergate, the Clintons are less than forthcoming with information, and in the end it turns out to have been a tempest in a teapot. Go through it over and over and it ceases to be interesting, for both reporters and the public.

But Waldman thinks that there’s something else going on here:

While I don’t have any direct evidence for this, I suspect that to at least some degree reporters share conservatives’ frustration that all the Clinton scandals and mini-scandals and pseudo-scandals haven’t taken them down. In a way it’s an affront to the power of the press. When we splash headline after headline about allegations of misbehavior across our papers, when we devote hour after hour on television to the fact that “questions are being raised,” well that’s supposed to make an impact. It’s supposed to drive the politician in question to the depths of ignominy. It’s not supposed to leave them in exactly the same position as they were when it started.

Unlike the last media revolution, the current one may work in Hillary Clinton’s favor. She seems to understand that a snarky article in the New York Times is not going to hurt her, not when she’s already so well-known and there are so many other sources of information competing for voters’ attention. She can reach those voters through local news, through YouTube, through Twitter, through Facebook, and through a hundred other channels. And without a strong primary challenge, she has all the time she wants. If she doesn’t feel like taking reporters’ questions for a couple of weeks at a stretch, she doesn’t have to.

And one thing does lead to another:

All that, of course, will make the reporters covering her even more perturbed. They’re professionals, but they’re also human beings whose feelings, worries, and resentments inevitably leak through into their work. They already know Clinton is suspicious of them, and they don’t like it when they get shunted to the back of the room, unable to ask what they hope will be tough questions, while Clinton makes dull small-talk with another group of Iowans.

Everything she’s doing communicates to them that they aren’t as important as they once were. It’s bound to get them angry and make them like her even less than they already do, which could make their coverage even harsher. And though like any politician she’d rather have friendlier coverage, at this point it looks like a bargain she’s more than willing to make.

But there is the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza:

The role of the media is to show voters who these [candidates] are, really, and to explain how these people would govern the country if elected. Like the media or not, that’s a very important role – and one that is essential to a functioning democracy.

In response, there’s James Vega at the Democratic Strategist:

Other mainstream commentators and journalists took essentially similar stances. They were the noble defenders of American democracy; Hillary was the cynical politician who was refusing to follow the rules.

Progressive commentators responded with fierce and entirely justified expressions of contempt for this sanctimonious posturing. They pointed out that for many years the Washington establishment press had been obsessed with trivial, horse-race coverage, had continually sought “gotcha” moments instead of substance, had ignored important policy questions and had focused on finding superficial “flip-flops” while ignoring the growth of genuinely pernicious views. Many progressive commentators noted the long and grotesque history of articles about scandals regarding the Clintons that turned out to be totally devoid of content (e.g. Whitewater, Vince Foster’s “murder,” Benghazi) and the equally pathetic way the D.C. press had repeated and legitimized a variety of clinically delusional charges against President Obama – charges they knew perfectly well were nonsense.

There’s a systemic problem here:

The problem with the mainstream D.C. press is not simply that they are obsessed with seeking scandals and “gotcha” moments. It is that for all practical purposes many have become salesmen for a clearly and unambiguously partisan anti-Democratic narrative. This fact has significant implications for Democratic political strategy.

This is not to say that the group of mainstream commentators in question says exactly the same thing as Fox News and the overtly pro-GOP press. Quite the contrary, the distinct role these commentators are playing in the American partisan ideological debate is leveraging their pretense of neutrality in order to minimize and conceal the massive extremist trend within the GOP. Their method is to continually insist upon a false equivalency between the two parties.

Vega, of course, has an axe to grind, but points to the latest issue of The American Prospect where Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson remind us of something:

Despite the evidence of increasing Republican extremism, elite discourse – in journalism, academia, and foundations – resists the notion that Republicans are primarily responsible for polarization and deadlock. To argue that one party is more to blame than another for political dysfunction is seen as evidence of bias, not to mention bad manners. Foundations will fund nonpartisan vote drives; they will not fund efforts to shame right-wing Republicans for crippling governance. Academics worry about seeming biased when the truly biased perspective is the one that treats the parties as equally extreme. And while Fox News takes an avowedly partisan line, most of the media world retreats into self-defeating denials of the truth that stares them in the face.

Consider what happened in 2013 when Mann and Ornstein, who had probably been the most quoted observers of Congress during the previous two decades, issued their well-documented critique, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.” The book emphasized the responsibility of the GOP for government dysfunction. After it came out, the authors were not quoted in the press or invited to the public affairs shows on which they had regularly appeared. As Mann explained, “I can no longer be a source in a news story in The Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now think I’ve made the case for the Democrats and therefore I’ll have to be balanced with a Republican.”

Balance is one thing when you are talking about ideological differences; it is dangerous when you are talking about basic facts of American political life. In too many crucial venues, the mainstream media’s desire to maintain the appearance of neutrality trumps the real need for truth-telling. The inevitable complexity of the governing process further increases the temptation to offer narratives that do not help more casual observers of our politics to determine accountability. This isn’t just bad journalism; it’s a green light for extremism.

Vega:

Democrats should prepare themselves for the uncomfortable fact that in the coming months the mainstream press will become increasingly and stridently anti-Clinton. So long as she does not play by their rules they will describe her as “remote,” “fake,” “robotic”, “inauthentic” “scripted”, “cynical” “manipulative”, “dishonest” and “insincere”. Her Republican opponent, whether it is Bush, Walker, Rubio, or any of the other contenders will then be described in contrast as much more “real” “down to earth” “authentic” “open” “honest” and “sincere.” Fueled by their wounded vanity and the very real threat to their influence, the mainstream commentators will create a narrative that continually frames the 2016 election in precisely this way.

Democrats must be prepared to fight back.

What, and continue the endless bickering about who the real extremists are, the dangerous madmen who should never have power, while the press, to be fair, or to seem to be fair, will always say both sides have become extreme? Who needs that? Hillary Clinton doesn’t. There’s no point in playing that game, in playing into their hands, on their terms. Clinton may actually have it right. Don’t get suckered in. Don’t play the game. Silence has its uses. She made the right choice.

See, anyone can be a campaign advisor. Now the trick is to become a location scout and be paid to fly off to the Loire Valley to choose the right chateau for that next movie, and get paid for it. It sure beats politics.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Uses of Silence

  1. Rick says:

    I would guess that that guy, James Vega, in the “Democratic Strategist”, is more of a Democratic strategist than he is a journalist, and really does seem to have an axe to grind. Not that he doesn’t make some good points, his role in the process seems to have more to do with getting Democrats elected than getting the public informed, which helps explain a disdain for the press he seems to share with Hillary.

    One of his good points is that political journalists spend too much time on the horserace and not enough on policies. One reason for this, I think, is that it’s apparently easier to talk about who’s up and down and why, which is often empirical and largely incontrovertible, than it is to discuss the way things ought to be done in the country, which gets you into a level of complex expertise that no reporter is confident he has, and which opens him up to accusations of taking sides.

    I, for one, think they should take more chances in this, since if we don’t hear about policy disputes from the press, we’re stuck with having to turn to the likes of John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

    I also suspect that the political press laments the demise of the actual scandal as much as anyone. And I think you can, once again, thank the Republicans and their toadies in the conservative media for playing the boy who cried wolf, constantly flooding the market with bogus charges of this or that, cheapening the value of real scandals so much so that, were a real one to come along, everyone would dismiss it out of hand. Mainstream media has changed over the years; not only is it not as exciting as it used to be, it’s no longer very useful.

    And while I must say I don’t cotton to this constant image on my TV screen of Hillary, strutting from venue to venue like the Queen of Hearts, with that permanent Botoxed-in bug-eyed look of pleasant surprise on her face, radiating that air of 2008-like inevitability, the truth is I’m not sure there’s much I really care to hear her say at this point, and can certainly understand the utility to her campaign of keeping her mouth sewn shut.

    But at some point in the year to come, that’s going to get very old, and she’s going to have to sit down and tell some journalist or other what she really thinks about the world, and let the chips fall where they may.

    But, of course, that’s not likely to happen until it’s way the hell too late for any of us Democrats to change our vote.

    Rick

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