Thursday Review looks at the distinct possibility that vice-President Joe Biden will run for President, and that he might receive at least a tacit nod from his current boss, Barack Obama. With the Clinton campaign in defensive mode, is this Biden’s opportunity at last? Read more on our Politics Page by following this link.
By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published February 12, 2014) Democratic strategists want to keep the road to 2016 free of obstructions, diversions and, if possible traffic cones. So far they have had good luck in managing just such a feat.
Such is not the case for the GOP, where lane closures and other interruptions to the traffic flow have disrupted what Republican leaders had hoped would be a more orderly procession. Once, less than 60 days ago, some polls showed New Jersey governor Chris Christie in a dead heat—or holding his own—against presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. No other Republican had enjoyed that clout.
And though Christie continues to fight back against the latest round of charges (those non-specific allegations from former Port Authority administrator David Wildstein that the governor knows a lot more than he has told reporters), the New Jersey governor has seen his standing in national polls take a mild hit lately, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that his presidential chances for 2016 are in serious jeopardy.
Despite Christie’s defenders rightfully pointing out that there is no smoking gun, the combined weight of the allegations grows week, and may ultimately make the issue of what the governor approved (the time-honored question “what did he know and when did he know it?”) irrelevant. If Christie’s presumed presidential bid falters, the GOP must begin its search for the next savior.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is coy about the next few years, and when pressed on the subject she has continued to day that it is too early to think about another run for the presidency. And as anyone who knows anything about national politics will tell you, that means yes, in fact, she is running—flat out, full steam ahead. Otherwise the answer would come back “no.”
Clinton enjoys a pre-cycle level of approval that is the envy of many presidential hopefuls, past and present. Recent polls by CNN show her leading Democrats as the party’s first choice by 70% or better. Polls conducted by the Washington Post/ABC News in late January showed her pulling 73% of Democrats, with Vice-President Joe Biden trailing with only 12%. Clinton has few, if any, serious rivals.
After rumors swirled around for several days last week and over the weekend, current Secretary of State John Kerry sought to put the chatter of his own potential presidential bid to rest.
“I’m out of politics,” Kerry, now 70s, told CNN, “I have no plans whatsoever.” Kerry ran for president in 2004, but was defeated by President George W. Bush. He had served in the United States Senate for 28 years before being tapped to replace the retiring Clinton for the top post at State.
Vice-president Joe Biden has also had his name, unofficially, in circulation as a potential candidate in 2016. Many analysts say that he is unlikely to challenge Clinton once she makes her candidacy official, which could come as early as next year. But Biden is understandably reluctant to close the door completely, and for some Democratic strategists, that hedge may be useful—especially if problems swirling around the tragic Ben Ghazi episode continue to plague Clinton. Or, in the unlikely event that Clinton simply decides not to run.
For Democrats, Biden is a good fallback option: lots of name recognition, no major baggage from his years serving as Obama’s number two guy, and a better-than-average track record of choosing sides craftily and smartly when it comes to the sweeping social changes which have occurred over the last four to five years (same-sex marriage, immigration). Biden’s occasional misfires and gaffes, which have always been a part of who he is as a politician, present no problem that cannot be overcome with humor and grace (though who can say what misfires might ensue over the next year or so). And Biden is a formidable, cool debater.
Biden also earns the automatic inheritance of a small piece of Obama’s veneer and graces, much in the same way that George H.W. Bush got his own get-out-of-jail-free card when he ascended in the winter of the Ronald Reagan years. Bush absorbed a bit of Reagan’s Teflon; Biden gets a bit of Obama’s popularity.
In short: Joe Biden becomes the Democratic Party’s default position if Hillary Clinton chooses retirement.
But the downside is that Biden is not Obama. Nor is he Hillary Clinton, or even Al Gore, for that matter. Biden may inherit some good will for being Obama’s VP, but he still lacks charisma and style. How soon we forget 2008: those debates in which Biden found himself stuck in the third tier, alongside Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, and behind even Bill Richardson and John Edwards. When viewed in that context, Biden shrinks.
Furthermore, Biden may seem like a good second choice to many Democrats, but he inflates instantly into an object of target practice for the GOP. On issues like gun control, you can bet on Republicans will pounce. And GOP tacticians may find the gaffe-prone, malapropistic Biden easy fodder for negative sound bites.
But who is out there beyond Clinton and Biden? Al Gore is not likely to emerge from his semi-retirement—nor would he necessarily be welcomed by all Democrats. John Edwards’ once-promising track as an energetic, Bobby Kennedy-style progressive has been derailed. Neither Nancy Pelosi nor Harry Reid is viewed as presidential material, nor have they allowed any talk of a candidacy to gain traction.
Some progressives within the party, still stinging from what they view as a lukewarm embrace of a larger, wider liberal agenda by the Obama administration (see “Obama’s Progressive Deficit”; Thursday Review), seek new fertile ground in Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, by far the most progressive of the high-profile Democrats currently under discussion. Warren, who defeated the popular Republican Scott Brown in 2012, is unapologetic about her populist and progressive bona fides. For Democrats whose heart and souls are decidedly left-of-center, Warren fills the bill nicely—even better, a few might argue, than a calculating pragmatist like Hillary Clinton.
Warren, a former Harvard professor and a skilled debater, would easily rally the party’s progressive base and generate excitement.
But there are downsides: she has little experience (a similar complaint was made against the young Senator Barack Obama in 2007-2008), and her populist agenda and sometimes shrill talk might become an easy target for Republicans. Warren’s words can be eerily similar to the speeches of Frank Church, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy—a compliment perhaps to Warren and her staff, but a gentle warning that GOP candidates will make easy sport of a “1970’s style socialist radical from Harvard.”
For decades the name Cuomo has loomed out there at the edges of serious political talk. From the mid-80s through the mid-90s, it was Mario Cuomo, a New York governor who frequently flirted with his presidential ambitions. These days the talk is instead centered around Andrew Cuomo, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and currently the popular governor of the Empire State, and seen—like Biden—as a good fallback position in a race without Clinton. Cuomo’s strengths are substantial: high name recognition; a good track record as governor of a large and diverse state; and, indeed, the state of New York, which carries a hefty reward in the Electoral College. In the electoral arithmetic, Cuomo can be expected to easily carry a cluster of other northeastern states, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
But Cuomo, the old school pragmatist and careful conciliator, does not draw much enthusiasm from the progressive wing of the party. Save for his support of same-sex marriage rights in New York, many of the same Democrats who are excited about the name Elizabeth Warren are lukewarm when the talk turns to Cuomo. Also, polls do not show Cuomo scoring well against theoretical match-ups against names like Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan or Rand Paul.
The list often stops there, with those names: Clinton, Biden, Warren and Cuomo. But after a few more cocktails the loosened lips around the dinner table or the bar might produce the names of three other governors: Patrick Deval of Massachusetts; Brian Schweitzer of Montana; and John Hickenlooper of Colorado. All three were given prominent speech slots at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012. Of the three, Deval is obviously the best, most energetic speaker, but Schweitzer seems the most intriguing for his robust, western cut and his rugged political narrative (though Montana carries only slight electoral weight).
None of the three have much impact in national polls, and they score poorly in name-recognition—though one can reasonable argue that Barack Obama had little traction in national polling when he first entered the fray in mid-2007.
So for Democrats, Hillary Clinton remains the only person in the top tier, in a class by herself and without any serious challengers. It’s very difficult to imagine any scenario in which a candidate from the aforementioned list could make the same sort of come-from-behind run that Barack Obama accomplished in 2008.
And with the widest pre-primary polling lead seen in decades, that makes Clinton just about inevitable. Which is almost the same thing that was said about her candidacy back throughout 2006 and 2007.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Bridge to Nowhere; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 1, 2014.
No Business Like Show Business (Except Politics); R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 18, 2013.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published Saturday, February 1, 2014) Bridges have a beginning, middle, and an end—with a lot of access ramps and lanes to shepherd the traffic in, or to divert it away. And sometimes, there are obstacles.
So it is with some of the great political love affairs of the past generations. Gary Hart was once held in such high esteem by the progressives and reformers within the Democratic Party (especially after Walter Mondale’s crushing defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984) that Hart’s ascendancy to the nomination was regarded as a fait accompli. It did not happen. More recently, in the election cycle of 2011 and 2012, Herman Cain was so popular with GOP conservatives and Tea Partiers that his brief, meteoric rise seemed to upend the Republican procession and disrupt the status quo of both parties. But Cain crashed.
In each case, partisan euphoria was replaced with harsh reality: politicians are not saviors, but flawed mortals, though we still have the tendency to want to elevate some political figures to sainthood.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been, by some accounts, the most talked about potential savior the Republican Party has had in some years, and the GOP’s de facto front runner. Given a top speaking slot at the GOP convention in Tampa in 2012, and more recently chosen to lead the Republican Governor’s Association, he shares the top tier of presidential hopefuls with a small handful of well-known names: Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal. But Chris Christie’s name is the one most often considered at the top of that short list.
Now, that position of preeminence appears to be challenged by what has become, surely, the biggest challenge to Christie’s political reputation as tough-talking and blunt, but an honest broker and a man of the people.
David Wildstein, an administrator for the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey, now claims that he has written proof that the governor was aware of a deliberate campaign of lane closures which caused massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge back in September. The four-day long vehicular gridlock was the apparent result of political payback, retribution against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not publicly back Christie during the governor’s re-election campaign.
Wildstein, who resigned from the Port Authority a few months ago, has previously said that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. Wildstein’s former boss at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, has also said the lane closures were part of a long-term study, though the Port Authority has stated that there was no official clearance for any such study. Wildstein and Baroni were both known to be Christie allies.
But in December, text messages and emails revealed what appeared to be a pattern of cooperation between top members of the governor’s staff and some employees of the Port Authority, and the bridge scandal quickly became front page news across the country. Then, in what some regarded as a “piling on” by Democrats eager to puncture the governor’s presidential prospects, things got worse for Christie, very fast.
There were accusations that the governor misused Hurricane Sandy funds to create slick television ads touting a return to normalcy for business and tourism. Though the ads were technically an appropriate use of the money under federal guidelines, they were regarded by some critics as little more than political ads designed to boost his re-election chances, and others complained that the ads—at the least—were simply wasteful spending in a state still beset with problems of reconstruction and repair. At worst, the television spots were political ads. A production company with a higher bid than others had been selected, and its scripts all called for the governor and his family to make appearances in the ads. Scripts prepared by the other film and video companies competing for the contract did not feature the governor.
Then, days later, there were more accusations of bullying and threats of withholding funds, most notably from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. Zimmer said that she was approached by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and told, in essence, that her ability to receive Sandy relief funds would be contingent upon her support of a major redevelopment project worth billions backed by investors with close ties to the governor. And despite Guadagno’s denials that any such threat was issued, Zimmer says the proof could be found in her own journal entries from that same day.
The governor held an epic two-hour long press conference as the entire nation watched, and during that appearance he denied any wrongdoing, claiming he had been blindsided by the events. He was apologetic and contrite. Most regarded his explanations as sincere. In his State of the State address days later (in what have been the most watched state speech in American history), he briefly touched on the scandals, but said that New Jersey needs to move forward.
Was it possible that the governor was truly betrayed by vindictive staffers for whom perhaps the wrong top-down standard of leadership had been set? Without a smoking gun, Christie could still survive. Maybe.
By last week most reporters and analysts suggested ominously that the entire mess had reached a precarious tipping point—one more surprise, and the governor’s political path to the presidency would end abruptly.
Now Wildstein tosses a new, potentially lethal stink bomb into the mix.
Through his attorney, the former Port Authority official says that Chris Christie’s seemingly sincere mea culpa to that packed room of reporters can be disputed by way of documents—as yet unseen and undisclosed—which prove the governor was aware of the political retribution (though the letter does not specifically mention the bridge fiasco). If true, and if Wildstein’s new evidence demonstrates a direct link between the lane closures on the G.W. Bridge and the governor, Christie’s political future could be limited. In fact, some in New Jersey are already calling for his resignation.
Christie’s defenders are quick to point out that Wildstein is seeking a plea bargain with the investigators who are circling ever more closely to the core of the case. Wildstein is also demanding that the Port Authority pay for his legal defense. And like other aspects of this unfolding political drama, some observers question why Wildstein has waited until now to claim to be in possession of evidence which investigators say he should have made available six weeks ago. (There were similar questions raised when Hoboken’s mayor Zimmer waited nine months to reveal the alleged quid pro quo on Sandy relief funds).
Among Republicans, Christie has his defenders and his detractors. His advocates suggest that there is credible evidence that the entire affair is an organized hatchet job, pointing out that the only person to gain long term advantage from the mess is potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner for Democrats. Indeed, some polls have shown the New Jersey governor as the only Republican able to best the Senator in theoretical match-ups for 2016. Former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani has suggested that because of that polling parity between the two top candidates, the whole brouhaha has been engineered by Democratic strategists as a way to derail any threat to Clinton.
But a few in the GOP see that affair as being about as well-timed as it could be: either the governor is shown to be innocent of any direct connection to the various charges, including Wildstein’s recent allegations, in which Christie walks away, perhaps stronger for the ordeal (especially if it is shown that Democrats engineered a witch-hunt); or, Chris Christie goes down now, early, before his political collapse damages the Republican primary and debate narrative beginning, presumably, 15 or 16 months from now. Some in the GOP suggest that a Christie meltdown in, say, late 2015, would spell disaster for a party seeking to find its way back from its poor performance in November 2012. One independent friend said that for Republicans it would “be like watching the Hindenburg collapse in flames in Lakehurst, N.J.”
In the meantime New Jersey takes a break from the scandal and enjoys a long weekend of Super Bowl activity. On Monday the business of politics returns, and with it, more potential bombshells in what has become known, too easily, as Bridgegate.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Photo composite above by Alan Clanton; Chris Christie photo and Republican National Convention photo, Alan Clanton for Thursday Review.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published January 29, 2014) For those who missed it, or for those who chose to watch something else on television (for North Americans, the Weather Channel was certainly a worthy distraction considering the conditions wrought by Polar Vortex III), President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union speech to Congress and the nation.
His address lasted roughly 65 minutes and covered the gamut of what he hopes to accomplish over the next two years of his presidency.
Widely considered by most analysts as eloquent, far-reaching and “feisty” (CBS and NBC both used the “F” adjective, something meant to convey an attitude of delivery just short of “combative”), the President for the first time in many years gave a speech that contained mostly domestic policy, with very little time spent on international relations, terrorism or war.
And as has been the pattern for several years now, dating back to the last couple of State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, the room was notably divided. There were scant occasions when the president received anything more than polite applause from the Republican members present, and when the Democrats in the room were in standing ovation mode, their GOP comrades sat in smiling silence, or, at the best, engaged in grudging “air” applause.
In fact, the longest stretch of applause came when the president recognized the astonishing sacrifice made by war hero Cory Remsburg. Remsburg, who was injured badly by an improvised explosive device and has struggled through a slow recovery process, received a ninety second standing ovation from nearly everyone present. It was a rare moment of genuine unity in a room prone to divisiveness and gridlock.
In all, the President (by my count) was interrupted by applause roughly 75 times, and received ovations at least 20 times. Predictably, those ovations were mostly the work of Democrats in the room.
But there was an undercurrent of energy to Obama’s address that seemed both genuine, if not a bit desperate.
The President sought last night to jumpstart his second term, and he labelled 2014 “a year of action.” In the last four months, he has watched as his job approval ratings have fallen across a broad spectrum of polling, and these declines have been the most severe of his presidency. Even some of the president’s most loyal advocates have acknowledged that there have been problems: a sluggish economy, falling wages, a disastrous roll-out of his health care program, and—perhaps most ominously—another set of poll numbers showing that Americans, regardless of their politics and their economic circumstances, feel pessimistic about their future. Not merely uncertain, but gloomy.
Thus the emphasis, both by the president, and in the GOP’s response, on crucial domestic issues: jobs, economic growth, opportunity, government spending and health care.
At the core of the debate in the news cycles leading up to Tuesday’s speech was the president’s newfound determination to act—unilaterally, if necessary—on certain policy issues. Seeking to simply bypass a gridlocked Congress, he plans to act on his own on a short list of priorities. Some Republicans expressed deep skepticism, and others offered that the president is simply seeking to bypass the U.S. Constitution. The president’s defenders and spokespersons declared that Obama must act according to his values and his instincts, and that he cannot wait on a deeply divided Congress to climb aboard.
This sets the stage for more heavy combat in Washington, and many observers expect the GOP to make much of the issue of a president engaged in lawmaking by decree or fiat.
But even analysts inclined to support the president observed that his speech was notably short on specifics, and vague on those occasions when he might have been able to easily offer details. His much-ballyhooed action on the minimum wage, for example, which was initially reported in much of the media as a general increase, in fact is only designed to increase wages of federal contractors—certain types of federal contractors—and only those who will be hired after about March 1. And though the wage increase is meant to be the first salvo in a plan to raise the federally-mandated minimum wage for all workers, some economists and political observers were skeptical that his $10.10 executive action would have much effect on the larger economy.
Much of the president’s speech focused on the economy and jobs. Though he was able to point toward the good numbers, such as a general decrease in unemployment, he notably demurred on the issue most troubling to many business analysts and economists—underemployment, people working part-time jobs just to survive, a prevalence of extremely low wage jobs, and the millions of Americans whose unemployment benefits have run out and therefore are no longer “counted” in the monthly statistics. In this area, Americans seem the most gloomy according to several recent polls.
In these areas especially, the president stressed his willingness to proceed by executive action. But in these very same arenas we can expect Republican resistance.
Nevertheless, the White House plans to get aggressive with its plan to roll out unilateral presidential action on a number of initiatives. And even his supporters acknowledge that his inability to find consensus and sway Congress has led him to this position of acting alone. Further, the President has lost some support even among liberals and progressives, once his strongest backers. Obama’s conciliatory approach meant that progressives, over time, were dissatisfied with his cozy relationship with Wall Street and big bankers, his deferential approach to the detainee program at Guantanamo, his flip-flop on what he had originally planned to be a fast withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, his expanded use of drones in the war on terror, and his seemingly easy embrace of the NSA’s surveillance program of data collection. (See Obama’s Progressive Deficit; Thursday Review, January 27, 2014).
Among the specific things the president requested: an extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which the president hopes will continue to provide tax relief for Americans who fall in the below-middle-income range. Some Republicans agree with this plan, since it may create a favorable path toward their own opposition of a federally-mandated wage increase.
The president also touched upon his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
“Because of this law,” he said, “no American can ever again be dropped, or denied coverage, for a pre-existing condition like asthma, back pain or cancer. No woman can ever be charged more simply because she’s a woman. And we did all of this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare payments flat, and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.”
But Republicans were notably unmoved by the president’s remarks on health care. During the weekend and in the run-up days before the speech, GOP leaders made it clear that they still regard Obamacare as unacceptable, another indication of the divisions in Washington. Furthermore, some analysts pointed out that Obama’s claims regarding Medicare costs and prescription prices are inaccurate: some components of those costs have actually increased during that period.
The President also briefly touched on Iran and its nuclear program, an issue, which for some, is of immediate international concern. Stressing that diplomacy and negotiation must be given a fair chance at success, and pointing to the delicacy of the current negotiations, Obama deferred on the question of sanctions or of a potential future in which military options may be used.
Many in Congress, including some Democrats, are concerned that diplomatic delays may simply enable Iran to proceed in secret with its nuclear program, while simultaneously granting the Islamic state a reprieve form the harshest of sanctions.
And among the other domestic areas in which the president declared his willingness to go-it-alone: the permitting processes for major public works processes, such as highways, bridges, waterways, tunnels and other infrastructure projects and upgrades. Obama sees fast-tracking those large scale projects as essential to put thousands of people back to work, especially in construction. But some analysts at the state level suggest that the problem is not permitting but money, and until Congress approves the funds many of the major projects will continue to languish.
The White House plans to refine and sharpen the central message of a president who sees no alternative but to act alone on several major initiatives.
The GOP responses were tactful but blunt: the president does not have the authority to act on many of his economic proposals without approval from Congress.
Related Thursday Review articles:
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R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor
Sunday, August 18, 2013: Almost exactly four months ago I wrote in these very pages that “Americans love their sequels.” I was making a comparison between the motion picture sequel—now an entrenched part of the Hollywood business model—and the political rematch, now seemingly also standard fare.
I referred to what is known in politics as the “BCD” phenomenon: Americans born after 1957, those who reached voting age by 1976, had never known a presidential election that did not include the name of a Bush, a Clinton or a Dole…not until 2008. That hiatus from BCD was short-lived.
The irony of my admittedly strained analogy between movie retreads and political reruns is that along the increasingly blurry boundary between show business, Hollywood and electronic news (some might argue that that boundary has been nonexistent for years now) the strange and the surreal become commonplace. Entertainment and music types weigh-in on any issue large or small, Hollywood stars can—and frequently do—run for public office, and octogenarian actors appear at political conventions without an approved script. But that’s the nature of show business. Or politics. Well, maybe both.
Let’s be clear: Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for President. Her campaign began 15 minutes after Barack Obama took his second Oath of Office this past January. Some might argue that her campaign never ended from 2007-2008. Though she has been cagey and non-committal in public and in recent interviews, she has a formidable campaign team already in place and actively making calls to the right people.
And though there are other Democrats and Republicans in the early stages of testing the presidential waters, Hillary Clinton—alone among them—stands as the presumed front-runner: a predictable rerun, perhaps. Besides, even after her long, bruising primary and caucus battle with Obama, which ended a little over five years ago, it was widely assumed she would remain in the arena. And in the wide wake created following the 2012 elections, there are few Democrats willing to challenge the presumption of a Clinton candidacy in 2016. Even vice-president Joe Biden, who is unwilling to close the door completely on his own prospects, seems pre-shrunk when compared to Clinton.
That means the script for the sequel is back on the table, polished and ready for production, with at least one GOP heavyweight willing to step into the role of contender—former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Talk about a Hollywood reboot. That’s the nature of show business.
Still, we just can’t seem to leave the graves of Paddy Chayefsky and Marshall McLuhan alone. And right now, a nasty, stagey, scenery-chewing brawl has ensued over the entertainment value of Clinton’s legacy and her de facto candidacy.
On Friday, August 16, after weeks of heated discussion and public debate, the Republican National Committee agreed to ban both NBC and CNN from participation in debates or forums between GOP candidates in the run-up to the 2016 elections. The vote was unanimous. Why the ouster of thr two revered news networks? Because both CNN and NBC are in production on their own major documentaries (NBC’s film is a docudrama to be aired as a mini-series) regarding the life of Hillary Clinton, and both film projects are believed to be—at least to many conservatives—little more than big-budget marketing devices crafted to establish Clinton’s candidacy as inevitable and the next big thing.
In its statement, the RNC said that the projects were a “thinly-veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election.” Other Republican strategists and media watchers say, at the least, both networks should agree to offer equal time for similar documentary programs which explore the lives of potential GOP candidates.
CNN was quick to respond, stating for the record that its documentary was still in production and that the GOP’s criticisms were unfounded, and surely premature. “The project is in the very early stages of development,” said the CNN statement, “months from completion with most of the reporting and the interviewing still to be done. Therefore speculation about the final program is just that. We encourage all interested parties to wait until the program premieres before judgments are made about it. Unfortunately, the RNC was not willing to do that.”
CNN’s response itself is a thinly-disguised attempt, perhaps, to convey what some suspect: that the CNN project might in fact be more unflinching and critical than some in the GOP expect—after all, how can a news organization seriously tell the story of Hillary Clinton while completely sanitizing the dark chapters and removing all the warts.
But NBC’s relationship to the political situation is more complex. Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, is among several top NBC chiefs who openly supported Clinton in 2008, both with cash and through their powerful connections within the entertainment business. Greenblatt also supported Obama in 2012. Though the entertainment division of NBC is wholly separate from NBC News, at least in principle, both fall under the large umbrella of parent company Comcast, which also owns Universal. This means that NBC’s mini-series may experience an even deeper penetration into TV markets and individual homes than the CNN documentary, and may therefore have a bigger impact on voters.
So, for some within the GOP who believe that both programs may be relatively fair in terms of their portrayal of Clinton—meaning the projects will surely include the unflattering episodes from the life of Hillary Clinton—the NBC mini-series, especially, raises enormous concerns over equal time and fairness. But to those who voted at the RNC meeting last week, the implications of Greenblatt’s close political ties to Clinton and to Obama mean that the docudrama will be anything but fair.
A few political watchers and media analysts have pointed out that the GOP brass has wanted to get to this point anyway. The long, arduous debate season of 2011 and 2012—though seen as initially advantageous to Republicans seeking to test and sharpen their messages of attack as they approached their showdown with Obama—soon proved to be a largely damaging process for the GOP, and especially front-runner Romney. Those dozens of debates were watched by millions, and each was then endlessly analyzed on cable news forums and blogs for weeks. What had been viewed as a positive proving-ground for the top tier-candidates quickly turned sour, and since last November, Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus has said repeatedly that the negativity and self-immolation inflicted deep, perhaps irreparable damage to the party’s image going into the fall.
Priebus and others within the GOP now think that fewer debates will result in fewer damaging confrontations. Hoping to limit the total number of televised debates to between seven and nine, the recent dustups with CNN and NBC give the RNC the tactical opening they needed all along.
Last week the Republican Party organized a massive email campaign titled “The Liberal Media Loves Hillary,” designed to get partisans to take the two networks to task. The cover letter from Priebus asked followers to sign an electronic petition demanding that CNN and NBC drop plans to air the documentaries. “The executives at CNN and NBC would rather promote Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be presidential campaign than remain true to their purposted mission of offering unbiased news coverage.”
That many Republicans suspect the two projects will be tilted in Clinton’s favor comes as no shock. Days earlier, GOP co-chair Sharon Day suggested in an email that the networks will gloss over many of the darkest chapters of the Clinton story, including newly expanded revelations regarding fundraiser and money-bundler Norman Hsu, accused by authorities of multiple counts of fraud, money-laundering and theft. Others have asked (and not just conservatives) if these massive documentaries will make room for the Clinton’s current problems arising from their foundation, which ended the year 2012 with a huge $8 million deficit and a series of new questions about how campaign cash and foundation money’s may have been mishandled, and about the relationship between the Clintons and some of those corporate donors, and the complex web of money pipelines between the various entities.
The Clinton Foundation recently moved into a large suite of offices in (are you ready?) the Time-Life Building near Rockefeller Center, and across the street from (are you ready?) NBC Television Studios. This is an obviously unrelated real estate move, but its irony was already too mouth-watering for some conservatives who see conspiracies and collusion between the Clintons and nearly all media tycoons, up to, and including, the Loch Ness Monster.
It is unclear that either CNN or NBC will be greatly moved by the GOP’s action, though a predictable outcome may be pressure—from stockholders, internal, and external—to at least offer a more carefully vetted and screened editorial process to the two film projects. CNN says it intends to screen its documentary first in select theaters next year before it airs during prime time (and the safe bet is that it will be recycled numerous times throughout the following weeks) sometime in the spring.
On the other hand, NBC’s mini-series will no doubt be heavily promoted, and the current brouhaha serves to enhance media buzz about the program, which raises the specter of the age old paradox: ban an art show and hundreds more will appear just to see that the fuss is all about. In this sense the GOP may lose a few short-term points as millions tune in to watch the mini-series, a measurable percentage if which may have been disinclined toward the “story” before the current controversy reached its boiling point. Comcast and NBC get free publicity.
But the downside for the networks is of course lost viewership when those early debates finally begin, possibly in the late summer of 2015. If the GOP makes good on its plan to reduce the total number of pre-Iowa debate to as few as six or seven, the competitors of NBC and CNN become the winners by default. The CNN debate production formula has become an iconic and reliable fixture for those addicted to the political process (though of little interest to those generally allergic to politics in the first place).
But here’s a hypothetical: what happens if one or more of the Clinton documentaries turns out to be so unflinching that it tells the unvarnished truth? Let the chips fall as they will. Grab the dirty laundry and, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, go the hangout route. NBC’s cozy relationship with the Clinton’s reduces the odds that the network of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw will be the one to present the harsher telling of that story. So that leaves CNN, in my book the more likely news team to deliver something close to truly balanced and unfiltered. Does that mean that at some later point the GOP and CNN shake hands and agree to be friends?
That depends on a lot of factors, and one is that CNN may agree to take a close look at its own editing processes to ensure something akin to fairness. And there is also the legitimate and still non-assessed matter of equal time. Would it be possible to broker an arrangement by which CNN offers up similar airtime for GOP candidates? And if so, how would the two entities manage that template? And which Republican candidates would receive the nod from either their own party or from CNN.
The complexity of those questions makes it unlikely in the current atmosphere that the GOP and the networks will find common ground. In the meantime the GOP may get its strategic wish: fewer live televised debates in the run-up to 2016. Clinton’s team continues to work systematically and diligently to establish the resources and tools needed to proceed with her de facto candidacy.
A huge political sequel is on the horizon for Americans, only this time there will be more commercials and previews while we wait in the theater for the feature presentation to begin.