CNN anchor and New York Daily News columnist S.E. Cupp was cursed with bad timing this week as she launched attacks on Hillary Clinton's time as secretary of state. Pointing to current events surrounding Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Cupp wrote, "a new front is brewing that may bring Clinton's strategic judgment more directly into question: Russia." She added that if Clinton "thinks she's going to get off the hook for it, she's sadly mistaken." According to Cupp, the Russian troop movements demonstrate that Clinton's 2009 effort to reset U.S. relations with that nation were a failure that will damage any potential 2016 presidential run.
Why the bad timing?
The day before Cupp's column appeared detailing Clinton's would-be secretary of state "baggage," Pew Research published a poll showing a strong majority of Americans (67 percent) applaud Clinton's time as secretary of state. And when asked to identify the biggest positive of her long public career, the top response was Clinton's time as secretary. (Also, clear majorities of Americans peg her as being "tough," "honest," and "likable.")
So what Cupp sees as diplomatic "baggage," lots of Americans see it as part of Clinton's crowning accomplishment.
Cupp is hardly alone. Politico's Clinton beat writer, Maggie Haberman wrote that the Ukraine conflict "is another instance in which Clinton is tethered to the administration's decisions heading into 2016." Clinton is "tethered" to her time as secretary of state, Politico noted ominously, while a vast majority of Americans applaud Clinton's time as secretary of state. (And yes, the Pew poll was conducted after Russia invaded Ukraine.)
As the crisis in the Ukraine continues to play out, parts of the D.C. media's All News Is Bad News For Hillary brigade have rallied around the idea that even though Clinton is no longer secretary of state, the current conflict in Ukraine could damage her presidential aspiration because she used to be secretary of state.
More importantly, the Ukraine analysis is the exact opposite of the Beltway pundits' pronouncement last year as they praised current chief diplomat John Kerry after he reached an interim agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear program. The media formula was simple: Good news that transpired after Clinton left the State Department was not her doing and she deserved no credit. Her efforts to build a sanctions regime that drove Iran to the bargaining table were ignored.
But apparently, the Ukraine crisis is her doing and she deserves the blame even though she left the administration last year. In other words, if Hillary runs for president all the things that didn't happen under her guidance at State will hurt her chances. And if she runs, all the things that happened while she wasn't at State will also hurt her. Under this rubric, all developments in international relations, whether good or bad for the United States, are bad news for Hillary Clinton.
Talk about a lose-lose for Hillary. And talk about trolling for bad news.
Fox News commentators have been rushing in to blame President Obama for the Russian military's excursion into Ukraine. It's because of Obama's "weakness" that Vladamir Putin has seized the military initiative, announced Sarah Palin.
The crisis proves Obama's guilty of misunderstanding the Russians and not being "interested in American national security affairs," according to John Bolton. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Fox viewers Obama "left a vacuum that Putin is filling," and Steve Doocy complained the president hasn't done "much" to solve the situation.
Also, Obama needs to get a "backbone" and he's "lost moral authority." All this while Fox has marveled over Putin's prowess as a true "leader," and swooned his supposed physical superiority over Obama.
Please note that in August 2008, during President Bush's final months in office, a strikingly similar scenario played out when Russian forces invaded the former Soviet state of Georgia. At the time, the Bush White House sounded an awful lot like today's Obama White House. From Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, now a Fox host:
"The United States supports Georgia's territorial integrity. We call for an immediate ceasefire. We urge all parties Georgians, south Ossetians, Russians to deescalate the tensions and to avoid conflict. We are work on mediation efforts and to secure a ceasefire, and we are urging the parties to restart their dialogue."
Yet unlike today, the Putin-led excursion in 2008 completely failed to spark the panicked rhetoric that's become Fox News' trademark since Russian troops crossed over into Ukraine last week. Notably absent from the 2008 Georgia coverage was relentless finger pointing and blaming the White House for the extreme actions of a foreign leader thousands of miles away. There was also none of the Putin cheerleading that we hear on Fox News today.
In fact, some of the Fox commentators currently stoking the flames of "crisis" were rather non-judgmental when Russian tanks moved into Georgia. "I don't think the Russians are reckless," Charles Krauthammer announced on August 8, 2008, as Russian fleets advanced into the Black Sea and Russian jets launched raids targeting government buildings in Georgia. "What they are doing here is reasserting control of this province. And when it's done, which will probably happen in a couple days, the firing will crease."
Three days later, Krauthammer insisted there was nothing for the United States to do as the crisis escalated: "Well, obviously it's beyond our control. The Russians are advancing. There is nothing that will stop them. We are not going to go to war over Georgia." Krauthammer's Fox colleague Jeff Birnbaum, agreed: "Because Georgia is not part of NATO, there's really no danger the United States or Europe will get in involved in what is really a civil war almost between--within this small part of Georgia."
Fox News' message to America then? Just relax. There's nothing the U.S. can do about Russia invading its sovereign neighbor and it will all be over soon.
Maureen Dowd wants to feel young again.
Already looking ahead to the 2016 presidential campaign, the New York Times columnist wrote on Sunday that elections are supposed to make you feel "young and excited." But Dowd fretted that that's just not possible if Hillary Clinton is one of the nominees.
Dowd insisted it was the prospect of a Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush battle that drove her to distraction: "The looming prospect of another Clinton-Bush race makes us feel fatigued," she wrote. But as the column made clear, it was Hillary who caused the pundit the most grief, especially the prospect of "dredging up memories of a presidency that was eight years of turbulence."
It's a familiar press refrain. The Los Angeles Times recently wondered if "lingering fatigue from the serial melodramas of Bill Clinton's administration" would hurt Hillary's possible presidential chances. And The New Yorker's 's Jill Lepore suggested documents recently released by the Clinton presidential library would reignite old "concerns" about Hillary's "unethical" behavior.
Please note the pundit-voter disconnect.
"Democrats appear overwhelmingly eager for a Clinton candidacy," as the New York Times noted last week in an piece analyzing the results of a new poll. But D.C. pundits and Beltway media insiders are another story. Unconcerned with the desires of voters who traditionally pick leaders based on who they think will make America a safe and prosperous place to live, pundits fret more about "fatigue," as if would-be candidates are stars on a long-running television series.
The irony is that if anyone's creating Clinton fatigue this year, it's the same journalists who claim she's already played out. For the week of February 10-16, the three all-news cable channels aired more than 400 minutes of Hillary coverage, according to Mediaite. And here's a sampling of the Times' recent Clinton coverage from just a recent three-day window:
So yes, I can see why some journalists are complaining about fatigue. The odd part? They're the ones firmly committed to relentlessly covering someone who hasn't announced whether she'll run for president, and for an election that won't be held for more than 900 days. Journalists are complaining about a Beltway ailment that they alone can cure: Stop acting like there's a presidential election in three months.
Clinton Fatigue, heal thyself.
It may be the shortest month of the year, but the right wing packed February's 28 calendar days with two notable, and bigoted, defeats.
Between campaigning with Ted Nugent in the wake of the conservative columnist and National Rifle Association board member denouncing President Obama as a "communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel," and a Republican-led efforts in mostly red state houses to protect religiously-motivated business owners who refuse service to gay customers, conservatives vigorously volunteered for duty to fight their favorite cultural wars this month. Except these are battles they have already fought and lost. Over and over again.
Obama's an historic monster ripping liberties away from citizens and deliberately driving the country into ruin? He's a "piece of shit" "gangster" surrounded by Nazis, as professional name-caller Nugent insists? Voters have already rejected that dark premise, twice, easily propelling Obama to two electoral landslide victories.
Gays don't deserve the everyday rights and protections as fellow Americans because they might infringe on Christians' "religious freedom"? As openly gay athletes are cheered while breaking down new barriers, as activists string together a prodigious record of court victories in favor of marriage equality, and with poll after poll showing a deepening acceptance of gay Americans, particularly among young voters, the foolhardy attempt to unleash new discrimination ended as a resounding failure in Arizona this month.
Cheered on by pockets of the right-wing media, and led by outrage-obsessed Fox News, some conservatives can't admit defeat. They can't move on. They cannot admit the country has turned away from their intolerant preaching about Obama and gays, among others. Fueled by divisiveness, and increasingly unconcerned with public policy or even the remnants of a Republican legislative agenda (remember those?), hardcore conservatives time and again retrench and then unfurl their failed cultural war battle plan. It's a blueprint drawn up by conservative media voices who benefit from the manufactured outrage. For right-wing carnival barkers, these recent controversies equal content. For conservative leaders and Republicans, the controversies equal dead-end excursions.
Writers at National Review have whipped themselves into such an anti-gay fervor recently that they're oblivious to the plainly contradictory points they're trying to make as news of prominent gay athletes and discriminatory anti-gay laws continue to generate headlines this month.
The confused commentary resembles something of a last-ditch effort to salvage a small victory in the right wing's losing culture war over gay rights and marriage equality. Just ten years ago the Republican Party successfully used same-sex marriage as a wedge issue against Democrats in the 2004 campaign. Now, conservatives remain in retreat as public sentiment continues to shift (For the first time, a majority of Ohioans support marriage equality.)
"On this particular issue, the cultural wheel has spun so quickly," noted ESPN's Tony Kornheiser, while discussing the breaking news last week that Jason Collins was signing a contract with the Brooklyn Nets to become the first openly gay player in the NBA.
It was Collins' historic coming out story that helped set off a nasty National Review Online screed by contributing editor Quin Hilyer, who condemned "homosexual chic" and "gay mania" in his February 24 essay. Hilyer complained bitterly about how the "professional Left" is "going bonkers" hyping "active homosexuality (or any one of several exotic variants thereof) as an absolute virtue."
"Enough already with the in-our-faceness from the homosexual activists and their aggressively enthusiastic cheerleaders," Hillyer complained. He was especially angry by the recent press attention University of Missouri star football play Michael Sam received as he stands poised to become the first openly gay NFL player. Hillyer was also upset about "attention-grabbing" Johnny Weir who made headlines and won praise for his astute commentary of Olympic ice-skating for NBC this year.
"The problem isn't homosexuality," Hillyer insisted. "But public sexuality. There was a time, a better time, when the sex lives of strangers were nobody's business," he wrote. "Most Americans assuredly don't much care what other people do."
The message to public gays like Sam and Weir: Tone it down!
But here's the contradiction: While claiming nobody really cares what gays do, Hillyer in the same column, and National Review editors the following day in an unsigned editorial, simultaneously applauded right-wing efforts to pass state-wide laws that discriminate against gays.
It's too soon to tell whether Ted Nugent's noxious career as a conservative pundit reached a tipping point this week, but the moment he called in sick to CNN and backed out of a scheduled interview with Erin Burnett as Republican politicians denounced him might soon be seen as a flash point for the fading rock star and the incendiary brand of hate rhetoric he's been cashing in on for years. It might also be viewed as a key stumbling moment for the conservative media, which have been unable in recent years to establish any sort of guardrails for common decency within the realm of political debate.
Increasingly reliant on bad fringe actors like Nugent to connect with their far, far-right audience, the conservative media have built up Obama-bashing personalities who no longer occupy any corner of the American mainstream. Yet Nugent enjoys deep ties with Republican campaigns all across the country. When those ties receive media scrutiny, they cannot be defended.
National Rifle Association board member Nugent found himself at the center of a campaign controversy this week when he was invited to two public events for Texas Republican Greg Abbott, who is running for governor. Of course Nugent, a former Washington Times columnist who now writes for birther website WND, recently called President Obama a "communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel" and has a long and vivid history of launching vile attacks on women. (He's called Hillary Clinton a "toxic cunt.")
Following waves of condemnations for the association, and a torrent of critical media coverage, with reporters and pundits wondering why a gubernatorial candidate would voluntarily campaign with someone who spouts "insane and racist talk," as CNN's Jake Tapper put it, Abbott claimed he wasn't aware of Nugent history of racist and misogynistic comments. If so, Abbott's campaign staff is utterly incompetent. (The "subhuman mongrel" comment, unearthed last month by Media Matters, was highlighted by a number of outlets at the time, including on MSNBC.)
It's likely Abbott and his staff did know about Nugent's dark rhetoric, since that's all he traffics in. But because that kind of hate speech has become so accepted and even celebrated within the bubble for right-wing media, they failed to see the danger of embracing it.
Fox News remains focused on attacking the idea of raising the minimum wage, a move that would boost incomes for more than 16 million Americans. Ever since President Obama pushed the widely popular initiative to the forefront of his agenda during his State of the Union address last month, Fox commentators have robotically trashed the policy move. And done so from all angles.
They've fretted that raising the minimum rate would mean "higher wages for workers." (That's kind of the whole point.) They've belittled the issue as being unimportant by claiming few people are affected by a national wage increase. (Wrong.) They've derided it as a jobs killer that would doom big business. (Not quite.) And they've dismissed an income boost as nothing more than a "transfer of wealth from some low- income earners to other low-income earners." (Also false. The Congressional Budget Office projects a wage increase would boost net income by $2 billion.)
The attacks have become something a cornerstone to Fox's program in early 2014. This, while Republicans stand firmly opposed to Obama's wage proposal, to the point where it's unlikely to come to a vote, just as Republicans earlier this month filibustered an effort to extend unemployment insurance for U.S. workers.
Here's what's interesting and what helps put into perspective the radical turn that not only Fox News has taken in recent years, but the entire conservative movement in America: In early 2007, after Democrats had gained control of both the House and the Senate, one of their top legislative priorities was passing a bill to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25. The two-plus dollar boost was the first in a decade.
And you know what the collective Fox News reaction was to the prospect of an increased minimum wage in 2007? Nobody seemed that upset. Based on a review of Fox News' nighttime transcripts via Nexis, the issue was mostly dealt with -- when dealt at all -- in news updates as Democratic and Republicans negotiated the Fair Minimum Wage Act's certain approval.
There wasn't endless hand wringing, condemnations, or predictions of economic doom. For instance, in January of 2007, Fox contributor Mara Liasson described passing the minimum wage as "low-hanging fruit" for Democrats since the idea wasn't at all "controversial." (Indeed, 26 Republican House members had previously urged party leaders to schedule a minimum wage vote.)
Fox News viewers have been lectured for years about the looming evils of raising the minimum wage, and how an economic boost for those making the least in America would torpedo the U.S. economy. For those loyalists, these must be confusing times as the latest right-wing media spin on the pay topic has taken a dramatic turn.
With polls showing the vast majority of Americans supporting a boost (including strong support among conservatives), and as state after state implements their own minimum wage increase while President Obama pushes Congress to the same nationally, conservative voices have suddenly adopted a completely new talking point on the topic. And it's this: What's the big deal, hardly anyone would benefit from a minimum wage boost.
That spin isn't accurate (more on that below), but more importantly the about-face thoroughly undercuts what had been a cornerstone conservative claim about the minimum wage and what the dire, far-reaching effects of raising it would be. The new, so-what spin also torpedoes the continued opposition. Because if hardly anyone makes minimum wage, than why the movement-wide opposition to changing it? If so few people earn minimum wage, why demagogue the issue and stand in the way of an increase?
This is what happens when public sentiment bypasses the conservative agenda. Isolated and outnumbered media supporters remain firmly opposed to the initiative, but they're forced to come up with new reasons to explain why. Clearly, the overwhelming public support for raising the minimum wage indicates that the longtime, far-right mantra about how doing so would wreck the economy and kill millions of jobs does not resonate with voters.
So it's time for Plan B.
Rand Paul seems to have cracked the code.
The Kentucky Republican senator and possible 2016 presidential candidate has found a winning formula for staying in the headlines this winter: dredging up decades-old Clinton scandals and talking about Monica Lewinsky. It seems an unlikely script for a politician who supposedly wants to address America's future.
But what Paul has figured out, and sooner than any other potential Republican presidential candidates, is that every time he (indirectly) references Lewinsky and Oval Office sex, television producers start assembling panel discussions and editors quickly assign articles. It's like sending out the Bat Signal inside the Beltway; a transmission that cannot be denied or ignored.
Paul's attacks this week were boosted by the revelation of personal, decades-old correspondences between Hillary Clinton and Diane Blair, a close friend and confidant to the former first lady. With contemporaneous notes and letters that addressed the Lewinsky scandal and other trials from Bill Clinton's two terms, the newly uncovered archives were presented as big political news. They also gave the media an excuse to wade further into Clinton tumult nostalgia.
For Clinton critics, there appears to be no downside to the strategy. Any fear Paul might have had about the press condemning him likely evaporated weeks ago. Instead of scolding Ryan for looking backwards and attacking a female politician for her husband's distant, personal indiscretions, as well as accusing him without evidence of "violence" against women in the workplace, much of the press has celebrated Paul's Lewinsky star turn. According to CNN's Candy Crowley the Kentucky senator is on a "roll lately." Why? Because he called the former president a "sexual predator." (Crowley dubbed the low-blow maneuver "smart politics.")
Points are rarely deducted for taking the low road against the Clintons. For the press, Clinton name-calling passes for political momentum.
News late last week from Speaker of the House John Boehner that comprehensive immigration reform is likely already doomed this year produced a torrent of discussion on the Sunday morning talk shows. All the programs addressed the issue and detailed how internal Republican wrangling within the House continues to make passage impossible. This, despite the fact that last June the Senate easily passed a bipartisan reform bill -- featuring 14 Republicans "yes" votes - that addressed border security, allocated huge sums for enforcement measures for the U.S.-Mexico border, and offered a long path to citizenship for those living here illegally.
The Sunday shows stressed in great detail about how, following Mitt Romney's dreadful showing with Latino voters in 2012, some party leaders vowed to act on reform, only to be met by Tea Party rebels who threatened primary challenges to members of Congress who did. The talking heads addressed Boehner's tortured attempts to steer the legislation to a vote, how far-right insurgents launched an aggressive campaign to undermine the speaker this month, whether 2015 would provide any push for action, and how Boehner last week back peddled yet again and decided to blame Obama for the Republican inability to move forward on the pressing issue. (The GOP pretends Obama won't enforce laws.)
But you know what was never really discussed on the Sunday talk shows this week? The details of immigration reform as a pressing public policy issue. And you know who wasn't among the nearly 30 invited guests who appeared on the talk shows Sunday morning? A single immigration reform expert; none were included in the Sunday morning discussions. And that's the problem. Increasingly, the politics of immigration reform are covered and done so in extraordinary detail -- at the expense of the issue of immigration itself.
Instead of delving deeply into the issue and explaining what reform would mean to the more than 10 million unauthorized workers in America who would be directly affected by being given a chance at citizenship, and how the new immigration laws would help attract new workers from all over the world, the press regularly skims over the specifics and jumps right into the horse race play-by-play.
This appears to be part of a larger, troubling Beltway media trend. As reporters refuse to segue out of campaign coverage, more often we're seeing a permanent political prism used to cover issues of public importance; issues that have very little to do with electoral or partisan politics.
That may be one reason some reporters initially bungled the Congressional Budget Office's report last week and erroneously claimed the CBO predicted that the Affordable Care Act would cause millions to lose their jobs. That was the Republican spin on the CBO report. But too many reporters, immediately stressing the politics of the CBO report instead of the substance, helped echoe the phony spin and botched the story.