o what happens if a campaign tries “disqualification” as a tactic?
Hillary Clinton and the Clinton campaign hinted and hinted and hinted that Bernie Sanders is not qualified to be president, but they may never have actually said it. No matter. Some news media believed them, took the hints for facts, and reported that Hillary said Bernie was not qualified. In response, Bernie openly and loudly said Hillary is not qualified to be president. New York media predators had a grand time chewing on all this raw meat. And that was just last week.
The week began predictably enough with Bernie Sanders winning the Wisconsin Democratic primary on April 5 by 13 points, still leaving Hillary Clinton with a lead of 250 in pledged delegates. The only county she won in Wisconsin was Milwaukee, a Republican stronghold and Scott Walker’s base. But the overall reality of the race for the Democratic nomination for president hadn’t changed much: Clinton would go on to win unless Sanders could score a series of strong victories in the remaining states, especially in New York, Pennsylvania, and California.
As the “home state” for Sanders by birth and Clinton by current residence, New York’s April 19 primary is critical for both candidates. Neither can easily afford to lose New York. Sanders must win just to maintain his long odds of eventual success. But Clinton must win or risk a calamitous domino effect as a result of being rejected by the state that elected her senator in 2000 and 2006, and chose her over Barack Obama in 2008.
New York Times just makes it up to help Hillary
On April 6, the day after Wisconsin, media weirdness surfaced in a page one story in The New York Times. After reporting that Ted Cruz has “soundly defeated” Donald Trump, the story went on to this inexcusably false and biased second paragraph:
On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in a much closer contest.
Really, N.Y. Times? Bernie won by a 13.5 point margin, Cruz by 13.1. Bernie won with 567,936 votes, Cruz with 531,129 votes. Bernie’s margin of victory was 135,169 votes, Cruz won by 145,759 votes. It’s one thing for the Times to let its bias show by minimizing Hillary’s loss, albeit that’s sleazy. It’s just dishonest (can you believe it was a mistake?) to write a flatly false report. No wonder the print version has been scrubbed online.
That same day, April 6, a media meme started gaining traction: that Bernie had botched an April 1 interview with the clearly-hostile editorial board of the New York Daily News, one of America’s grand old sleazy, money-losing tabloids, owned by billionaire Morton Zuckerman, a longtime Democrat and supporter of Israel, who also owns and edits U.S. News & World Report. The Daily News published the interview transcript on April 4. The Clinton campaign emailed the transcript to its supporters and others on April 5. CNN reported: “The campaign’s deputy communications director, Christina Reynolds, argued that Sanders is unqualified, sending a full transcript of a New York Daily News editorial board interview of Sanders.” The media pile-on was swift, merciless, and shallow, as led by the Washington Post, another billionaire-owned paper with inherent conflict of interest.
Hillary campaign dictates, New York media uncritically repeat
One of the loudest criticisms was taken directly from the Hillary campaign’s Reynolds, who wrote: “even on his signature issue of breaking up the banks, he’s unable to answer basic questions about how he’d go about doing it….” Multiple reporters duly parroted that Sanders didn’t know for sure if the Fed had that power now, or would need new legislation. The Fed has the power now, according to Hillary. So which is more important, Sanders opposing banks that extort favors from the government by being “too big to fail” – or Sanders not knowing the mechanics to implement his proposal, which any competent presidential advisor could tell him? In other words, the Daily News and the mostly mindless media herd went for the gotcha question, rather than any Sanders principles, from the same interview:
Let me be very clear, all right? I believe that we can and should move to what Pope Francis calls a moral economy.
Then there’s the “qualification” issue, which also emanated from the Clinton campaign, after which much of the media went after Bernie for it. The question of who is qualified to be president is settled first by the Constitution, then by voters. The Constitution, Article II, requires that a president be a natural born citizen, be 35 years old or more, and have lived in the U.S. for 14 years. That’s it. The vast majority of Americans are constitutionally qualified to be president. The rest is argument and perception. And substance.
The Hillary campaign moved cleverly on the qualification issue, not only raising it through the Daily News transcript, but also raising it as a question of Democratic Party loyalty. As CNN reported it on April 6: “Hillary Clinton’s campaign is taking new steps to try and disqualify Bernie Sanders in the eyes of Democratic voters….” In a Politico story headlined “Hillary Clinton has had enough of Bernie Sanders,” at the end of a long interview, Hillary responds with sly evisceration to a question about Bernie being a Democrat:
… he’s a relatively new Democrat, and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one. He’s running as one. So I don’t know quite how to characterize him. I’ll leave that to him. But I know there’s a big difference between Democrats and Republicans, and I know that Senator Sanders spends a lot of time attacking my husband, attacking President Obama, you know, calling President Obama weak and disappointing, and actually making a move in 2012 to recruit somebody to run a primary against him. I rarely hear him say anything negative about George W. Bush, who I think wrecked our economy, just not to put too fine a point on it.
Hillary also found time on April 6 to imply that Bernie was indirectly responsible for the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook. The NRA gives Bernie a D-minus rating.
Hillary smiles and nods and affirms the calumny without saying it
Another key part of Hillary’s media attack was her appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on April 6, where host Joe Scarborough asked Hillary no hard questions. Instead, for whatever reason, Scarborough pursued the Hillary-inspired trope of whether Sanders is qualified to be president: “… do you believe this morning that Bernie Sanders is qualified and ready to be president of the United States?” Hillary ducked the question, slyly saying, “I think the [Daily News] interview raised a lot of really serious questions….” She did not add that that was why her campaign circulated the interview, while raising the qualifications question.
Twice more Scarborough asked a version of the same question, and each time Clinton evaded a direct answer. In effect she validated the question by letting it go unchallenged. She never came close to saying it was a bogus question in constitutional terms, but that politically it seemed to be playing pretty well. And it gives lazy reporters the chance to say Hillary never said it (as at The Wall Street Journal), without facing the reality that she gave it credibility by treating is as a reasonable question.
Subtlety is scorned by popular journalism, which means that accuracy takes a beating sometimes, too. Reporting on Hillary’s tease on Morning Joe, the Washington Post story began: “Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Wednesday questioned whether her rival in the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), is qualified to be president.” That’s not true, but it’s true enough. And the Post doubled down on the deceit with this headline:
“Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president”
At a rally in Philadelphia on the night of April 6, Bernie responded to the attacks of the day, including the question of his being qualified. His response makes it seem clear that he believed that Hillary’s attack was as the Post had represented it. Bernie said, referring to Hillary:
She has been saying lately that she thinks that I am not qualified to be president. Well, let me, let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton: I don’t believe that she is qualified, if she is, through her super-PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds.
I don’t think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super-PAC.
I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq.
I don’t think you are qualified if you have supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement which has cost us millions of decent paying jobs.
I don’t think you are qualified if you’ve supported the Panama free trade agreement, something I very strongly opposed and, which as all of you know, has allowed corporations and wealthy all over the world people to avoid paying their taxes to their countries.
Even though Bernie was responding to a claim Hillary had only implied (apparently), his response was strong and direct. Each of his qualifications is substantive and is rooted in the reality of actions Hillary has actually taken. Bernie’s challenge is cogent, precise, and substantive, unlike Hillary’s clever comments about Bernie not doing his homework or not knowing the easily-discovered details of Dodd-Frank. Bernie defended his attack as a defense against what Hillary threw at him. For a moment it looked like the Democratic primary was about to turn into a blood-letting to the last candidate standing.
The showdown that became a letdown, but the substance remains
The race is closing, the question is how fast. In May 2015, Hillary Clinton led Bernie Sanders in one poll by 40 points in New York state. In February 2016 her lead was still over 20 points. Current polling shows her with a 10-12 point lead in New York. (She leads by 6-18 points in Pennsylvania, down from 27 in late March, and by 6-14 in California, down from 40 a year ago, with lower numbers in post-Wisconsin polling.) With this trend, it’s no surprise the Hillary campaign tried a tactic to eliminate Bernie. It may have come as a surprise that Bernie responded with such force and directness. Hillary’s gambit may have been spinning out of control.
Scott Walker tweeted: “For once I agree with Bernie Sanders: Hillary Clinton is not qualified to be President.”
Then Bill Clinton came to the rescue by hectoring Black Lives Matter activists as if they were just Sister Souljahs. And he revealed a curious version of democracy, not unlike Hillary’s response to other Black Lives Matter activists: “When somebody wont hush and listen to you, that ain’t democracy. They’re afraid of the truth….”
Paul Krugman of the Times came to the rescue with a squealy column worthy of the Daily News, in which he ignores conflict of interest and dismisses Bernie’s critique of Hillary’s qualifications as a “rant” and points to non-specific, ad hominem “petulant self-righteousness.”
And the Pope came to the rescue with an invitation to Bernie to speak to a Vatican conference about the “moral economy.” Bernie’s trip to Rome will follow the April 14 debate between him and Hillary, but ahead of the April 19 primary, an unorthodox and unpredictable hiatus in a typical campaign.
For all the week’s sturm und drang, on Friday morning, April 8, it all suddenly de-escalated as Hillary assured Bernie he was qualified to be president, and Bernie assured Hillary she was qualified to be president. They both agree that either would be better than any Republican. All that looks and sounds like party unity. So is Bernie now a Democrat? Are we closer to serious argument over substance?
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.