Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why Do Conservative Pundits Insist on Telling Democratic Candidates How to Run for Office?

There is a notion called truth in advertising.  It should be applied to political punditry.  Any time the pundit writes a column about the Presidential election the column should be preceded by first, the pundits own voting preferences and then second, a disclaimer that the pundits preferences may very well influence the analysis that went into writing the column.

I am reacting, in particular, to today's column by Ross Douthat, The Tempting of Bernie Sanders. It makes two fundamental points, both of which I view as suspect.  The first asserts that Hillary Clinton is ethically challenged.  This appears to be conventional wisdom among traditional Republicans, for example consider this piece, also from today's Op-Ed section.   I asked myself, how much of this is actually true and how much of it is Conservatives repeating it over and over again till it seems true.  My prior is that there have been vile lies spread about President Obama since he took office, so this is the nature of the beast.  It goes with the territory of being the Democratic front runner.

Nonetheless, I wanted to know what "reasonable people" think about Mrs. Clinton in this dimension.  (This is not meant as an objective descriptor, but rather is meant to allow my own sense of reasonableness to be brought out.)   So I Googled "Hillary Clinton Ethical Issues" (without the quotes) and found this piece by Stephen Gillers called Hillary Clinton's Ethical Issues.  It is worth reading.  Gillers divides the issue into two parts - the reality and the perception.  On the reality he writes:

But today, as in 1994, criticism of Hillary’s ethics is a reaction to the rise of women in political and professional life. A lot of people still have a problem with powerful women. Hillary’s opponent will exploit that indirectly. As president, we’ll be reminded, Hillary will be able to make decisions that benefit donors to the Clinton Foundation. How can we know she will not? Seeking to influence her, others may pay Bill huge sums to show up and talk. How can we know it won’t work?

If we follow the logic of these rhetorical insinuations, often only one member of a two-career household will be able to occupy high office free of rumor and suspicion. And guess who that will usually be. Criticizing Hillary for practicing her profession in Little Rock implies that all women in two-career marriages are ethically challenged. Criticizing her today because of Bill’s public life is as unfair as it was 20 years ago.

On the perception, Gillers criticizes Clinton for not managing things well.  I think that criticism is fair.  Especially on the email thing, however, since the former Chancellor on my campus, Phyllis Wise, did essentially the same thing and ultimately got burned by it, I consider it an issue about savvy regarding information technology, not about ethics per se.  People will have closed door conversations on sensitive matters.  If they can do it face to face and outside the range of any recording device, then there is no record of the conversation.  The need to get this done quickly sometimes precludes taking the appropriate precautions.  And sometimes asynchronous communication (email) trumps synchronous communication (phone call), especially when all the participants are very busy and juggling many different things.  I wrote a post about this not too long ago, Discussions behind closed doors that aren't really closed.  I stand by the analysis I gave there.

Let me move onto Douthat's second point.  Bernie Sanders has run a campaign where he has taken the high ground - no smearing of Mrs. Clinton whatsoever.  Taking her on about her policy positions is fine.  That's fair game.  Getting into a huff about her "damn emails" is something he has refrained to do, quite the contrary in fact.  This approach has served Sanders well so far.  Douthat argues (in this I found him completely unconvincing) that Sanders needs to change tack.  In Douthat's view, Clinton's views on the issues are inextricably wrapped up in her being bought out by one constituency or another.  In other words, her ethical challenges drive her policy positions.  That being the case, they're fair game and part of the political fight Sanders should wage.

Douthat doesn't mention this, which is partly why I found his piece so galling, but it seems obvious that the clear winner from a Sanders campaign that went negative would be the Republican nominee.  It would give cover to the Republican attack machine to do likewise to Mrs. Clinton.  (Of course, they are doing that now, presuming that she will be the nominee.  They would be even more unrestrained, if Sanders took to following Douthat's advice.)   And if Bernie Sanders secures the Democratic nomination, then going negative during the primaries would open up Sanders to negative campaigning by the Republican attack machine during the election.  They could say - he brought it on himself.  If, however, he continues to campaign as he has been doing, he will maintain the moral high ground.

It is disturbing to me to see a pundit argue that one candidate on the other side is ethically challenged, while another candidate who is not ethically challenged should abandon his position, because that is the only way he can win.  

Since pundits are paid for producing words, we'll probably never see an entirely blank column.  But really, that would have been an improvement over the piece that appeared today. 

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