The Audacity of Hype
How Mrs. Clinton and Obama fell for their own good press.

The American Spectator, March 2008

I am writing this column in mid-January, about a week after the New Hampshire primary. By the time you read it, most likely either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will have clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. Whoever the nominee is can learn something from the missteps both made before their early losses--errors that resulted from overconfidence, fed by friendly liberal media.

That wasn't the way Mrs. Clinton saw it in the wake of her third-place Iowa trouncing. Two days after the caucuses and three days before the New Hampshire primary, the New York Times reported that she, along with her lesser half, was blaming the media for her defeat:

Advisers said that both Clintons had miscalculated the endurance and depth of what they called "the Obama phenomenon." They both believed that, in the final months of 2007, more voters would question whether Mr. Obama was ready to be president and more reporters would pick apart his political record and personal character. Now anger inside the campaign at the news media has hardened; Mr. Clinton, in particular, believes reporters will be complicit if Mr. Obama becomes the nominee and loses to a Republican.
That last comment is certainly revealing. It suggests that Mr. Clinton thinks the job of journalists is to help elect Democrats. It's reminiscent of Al Gore's 2002 New York Observer interview in which the former vice president characterized conservative-friendly news outlets (Fox News Channel, the Washington Times) and conservative commentators (Rush Limbaugh) as a "fifth column"--as if journalists owed their loyalty to the political left or the Democratic Party.

As for Mrs. Clinton's Iowa perils, however, it seems clear that the problem was that journalists friendly to the campaign made the same mistake she did--namely, overestimating her "inevitability" and underestimating Obama's vote-getting ability. A telling example was an early Associated Press dispatch on the Iowa results, which suggested that the seriousness of her defeat had not yet sunk in:

Obama, 46 and a first-term senator from Illinois, scored his victory on a message of change in Washington. Nearly complete returns showed him gaining 37 percent support from Iowans. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina appeared headed for second place, relegating Clinton, the former first lady, to a close third. . . .

[Republican Mike] Huckabee's triumph was more robust than Obama's. He was winning 34 percent support, compared to 25 percent for [Mitt] Romney. Former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. John McCain battled for third place. . . .

The Democratic race was as close as the Republican contest was not.

It was hard to see how the AP could justify its characterization of the Democratic race as far closer than the Republican one. Obama's 37 percent put him eight points ahead of Edwards, a margin only slightly narrower than the nine points by which Huckabee prevailed over Romney. The battle for second place was closer among the Democrats--Edwards edged out Mrs. Clinton by only a fraction of a point--but only because the battle for third place was closer among the Republicans (Thompson and McCain each had about 13 percent).

But quickly the press pivoted. Just as Mrs. Clinton had been inevitable before Iowa, before New Hampshire Obama became unstoppable. Call it the audacity of hype. "There is no getting around it, this man who emerged triumphant from the Iowa caucuses is something unusual in American politics," declared the New York Times. "With the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, Obama is riding a very big wave, spreading consternation and bewilderment through the ranks of Clinton supporters here struggling to make sense of what is unfolding before them," said the Washington Post. And those were the news stories.

NBC anchorman Brian Williams, appearing on MSNBC while polls were open in New Hampshire, acknowledged a colleague's enthusiasm--and came close to admitting his own--for Obama:

I interviewed Lee Cowan, our reporter who covers Obama, while we were out yesterday and posted the interview on the Web. Lee says it's hard to stay objective covering this guy. Courageous for Lee to say, to be honest. The e-mail flood started out: we caught you guys, we never did trust you. That kind of thing. I think it is a very interesting dynamic. I saw middle-aged women just throw their arms around Barack Obama, kiss him hard on the cheek and say, you know, I'm with you, good luck. And I think he feels it, too.
So, did Mrs. Clinton have a point after all? There's no doubt that many in the media jumped on the Obama bandwagon after he won Iowa. But the New Hampshire results belie the idea that he benefited from having the press in his corner.

In fact, it is quite possible that this was his undoing in the Granite State. Some observers, including columnist Charles Krauthammer and former White House aide Karl Rove, argued that a crucial moment came in a New Hampshire debate two days after Iowa. As Rove described it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

WMUR TV's Scott Spradling asked why voters were "hesitating on the likeability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more." Mrs. Clinton's self-deprecating response--"Well, that hurts my feelings"--was followed by a playful "But I'll try to go on."

You couldn't help but smile. It reminded Democrats what they occasionally like about her. Then Mr. Obama followed with a needless and dismissive, "You're likable enough, Hillary."

Her remarks helped wash away the memory of her angry replies to attacks at the debate's start. His trash talking was an unattractive carryover from his days playing pickup basketball at Harvard, and capped a mediocre night.

It seemed as if Obama, believing the press's encomia, thought he had the nomination sewn up and just got cocky. As a result, he came off both unchivalrous and immature. No wonder Mrs. Clinton did especially well among older women in New Hampshire.

In the aftermath of New Hampshire, reporters and pundits, having erroneously overestimated both Mrs. Clinton and Obama, were notably more circumspect in predicting what comes next. (Disclosure: I am among those who first thought Mrs. Clinton inevitable and then thought Obama unstoppable.) But this should be a cautionary tale for the nominee as she or he prepares to face the Republicans.

I have long argued that John Kerry fell into the same trap in 2004 as Mrs. Clinton and Obama did this January. Friendly reporters uncritically reinforced the Massachusetts Democrat's portrayal of himself as a war hero, leaving him unprepared for the serious scrutiny he would face in the summer and fall over his history of slandering fellow Vietnam veterans back in the 1970s.

Then again, unlike Obama, Kerry really was the inevitable nominee once he won Iowa, since rivals Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt had destroyed each other there. This year either Mrs. Clinton or Obama may be a stronger candidate by virtue of having survived adversity early in the process. Even so, the nominee would be well advised to view all good press with a modicum of cynicism.

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