Friday, February 15, 2008

Paul Krugman & Greg Sargent call for a moratorium on Clinton Derangement Syndrome

Earlier this week Paul Krugman wrote a cogent and pugnacious column pointing out that it is stupid and self-defeating for Democrats to buy into the "Clinton Rules" of punditry and political chatter that have become an established part of the political landscape over the past decade and a half--that is, peculiar rules for talking about the Clintons that allow and encourage unrestrained bias, denigration by innuendo, fabricated pseudo-scandals, and emotional venting in the guise of critical analysis.

Aside from the fact that this phenomenon has misleading and destructive effects in its own right, recent history also shows that once the "Clinton Rules" became established and taken for granted, they were fairly readily transferred to other Democratic candidates like Al Gore and John Kerry. The assumption that they won't and can't be extended to Barack Obama in turn may prove to be wishful thinking ... so those among Obama's supporters who are too willing to capitulate to CDS, or who have been seduced into it themselves, are playing a dangerous and self-deluding game.

For the record, I should add that I think there are a few slightly overstated formulations in Krugman's piece. But overall what he says is right and important. Even if you happen to support Barack Obama for President (or, for that matter, John McCain), what Krugman says is still right an important, in my humble opinion. I advise everyone to read Krugman's column in full and come to their own conclusions.

=> Greg Sargent, whose commentary on the campaign and on reporting about it (in his Horse's Mouth blog at TPM) has been exceptionally sensible and informative, picked up on Krugman's column and usefully elaborated the point (see below). If Sargent sounds a bit exasperated in this post ... well, he should be exasperated, and so should the rest of us.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Another reality check: Sargent also recommends a piece by Clive Crook in The Atlantic that "addresses the Billary race-card allegations with a great deal of much-needed common sense." It does, so that's worth reading too.

The title of Crook's piece zeroes right in on the key point: "How the press played the race card". Or, as Crook spells it out explicitly, "I think the press played the race card, not the Clintons." This is basically right, though it can't be blamed entirely on the press. That the press spent weeks obsessing about this wildly overstated (or, in some cases, purely imaginary) "racialization" of the campaign was due mostly to laziness, habit, superficiality, and the dynamics of groupthink (along with the fact that playing to CDS was the path of least resistance). It was not the result of a conspiracy, and it didn't always stem from conscious anti-Clinton malevolence, either. But its effects have been poisonous nevertheless.
The Horse's Mouth:
A blog about the reporting of politics - and the politics of reporting

February 11, 2008
By Greg Sargent

Krugman, His Op-ed Colleagues, And The "Clinton Rules" Of Punditry

Paul Krugman keeps saying what (most) others won't say -- today he points out the bizarre degree to which it's become completely acceptable for pundits to state as outright fact that the Clintons are operating purely from evil motives:

What’s particularly saddening is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the application of “Clinton rules” — the term a number of observers use for the way pundits and some news organizations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent.
The key word there is "proof," and Krugman is exactly right. But which pundits is he talking about here? Well, he could very easily be talking about his fellow Times columnists. As Kevin Drum notes, Frank Rich had a surprisingly unhinged column yesterday in which he asserted as fact a nefarious plot on the part of the Clintons to "scare off white voters":
But once black voters met Mr. Obama and started to gravitate toward him, Bill Clinton and the campaign’s other surrogates stopped caring about what African-Americans thought. In an effort to scare off white voters, Mr. Obama was ghettoized as a cocaine user (by the chief Clinton strategist, Mark Penn, among others), “the black candidate” (as Clinton strategists told the Associated Press) and Jesse Jackson redux (by Mr. Clinton himself).
Here you see the "Clinton rules" reigning supreme. Putting aside Rich's seeming claim to mind-reading skills -- the Clintons "stopped caring" what blacks thought? -- the three episodes alluded to simply aren't conclusive in the way Rich claims.

Penn did bring up the word "cocaine," but only after the host of the show had spent literally minutes talking about Obama's drug use. The "black candidate" reference was made by anonymous strategists, and the quote alluded to was almost laughably inconclusive. And the Jesse Jackson comment had multiple interpretations.

But Rich strings these all together and concludes that they prove a grand plot by the Clintons to "ghettoize" Obama. Nor is Rich the only Times columnist to throw around such charges with abandon; Bob Herbert has played this ugly game, too.

I want to be as clear as I can about this. It's conceivable that the Clintons had hatched such a grand scheme. The Clintons are hardball political players who leave nothing to chance. But the evidence, as it stands now, simply doesn't support such an elaborate and conspiratorial reading. Something approaching conclusive evidence should be required before such enormously controversial allegations are tossed around.

But here's the real point: When it comes to the Clintons, many pundits have simply stopped requiring themselves to adhere to the most basic evidentiary standards. It has become acceptable, even normal, to say whatever the hell you want about the Clintons, and if you insist on anything approaching real evidence, you're just a party-pooper. The "Clinton rules" governing punditry about them are that there are no rules. Yep -- Krugman was talking about his own colleagues.

Update: Over at The Atlantic, Clive Crook addresses the Billary race-card allegations with a great deal of much-needed common sense.