Campaign 2016: The Dumb Season Starts Early

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.

Hillary vs. Elizabeth Warren is the Media's Latest Campaign-Trail Godzilla Movie

Thanks in part to a Beltway gossip network that loves chattering about the Clintons and just can't wait until 2016, and thanks in part to a punditocracy that is perennially covering the same story, regardless of year (i.e. the next presidential election), the groundwork is already being laid for the moronic typecasting that always goes on at the outset of the Big Race.

The ball got rolling this week with a massive feature in the New Republic. Written by Noam Scheiber, it's about the potential threat to presumptive 2016 favorite Hillary Clinton ("Congressional Republicans have spent months investigating [Hillary] like she already resides in the White House," writes Scheiber) posed by a would-be "populist" candidacy of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Scheiber's basic point is that voters are really pissed about the economy and the behavior of big banks, and that Hillary, who along with her husband have been serial gobblers of Wall Street money and finance-industry water-carriers since before House of Pain released "Jump Around," may in 2016 have something to fear from Warren, a candidate who has built a career pointing out what total assholes the Clintons' chief financial backers are.

Warren, Scheiber writes, is so far out of the political mainstream on the finance issue that she was once willing to submarine a Banking Committee hearing by violating longstanding Beltway decorum – an unwritten rule in which members of Congress may "rant and rave at length, but generally abstain from humiliating appointees, especially from their own party."

The reference here was to the YouTube-famous moment when Warren "humiliated" the heads of regulatory agencies like the OCC and the Fed by simply asking them about the last time they took on any of the world's biggest financial institutions (hint: none of them could remember).

Scheiber went on to list a series of recent political developments suggesting a candidate with ties to Wall Street may face unexpected difficulty. He noted former Chase executive Bill Daley's resignation from the Illinois governor's race, the stillborn attempt to put the reptilian bank-whore Larry Summers in charge of the Fed, and Bill de Blasio's victory here in New York's mayoral race.

All of these stories, Scheiber writes, highlight the way in which "Hillary Clinton's weaknesses so perfectly align with the passions of the moment."

This piece instantly inspired a slew of pooh-poohing editorials, including a weirdly insulting and premature Slate rebuttal ("The media is dreaming of a contest that's just not there," an eye-rolling David Weigel scoffed) and a correspondingly dismissive blog yesterday in the New York Times by the Gray Lady's cardboard conservative, Ross Douthat.

While the Times and Slate seemed to be on the opposite side of the New Republic, arguing that a potential Warren candidacy is nothing for the Clinton machine to worry about (unlike Obama, Warren won't have the black vote to save her, Weigel and Douthat cheerfully remind us!), in point of fact all three articles mostly communicate exactly the same messages. The authors really only disagree on the question of whether a "populist" candidacy can win in primary season.

The shocker New Republic answer to that troubling question is "maybe yes," while the other writers deliver a more establishment-soothing "no." But the key is the language they all use to describe both politicians. It's three years out from Election Day, and already we're neck-deep in the kind of campaign-trail media shorthanding that often decides races before they even start.

All three pieces describe Hillary as the frontrunner – Scheiber calls her an "inevitable candidate," Douthat calls her the "presumptive frontrunner" and Weigel not only calls her the "likeliest winner" but says it's so true that "everyone's a little bored by that." All three call Warren an "insurgent," a word that has obvious and ridiculous connotations.

Most annoyingly, all three use the term "populist" with varying degrees of derisiveness, describing public anger on the finance issue as "maniacal," based on "passions" and an impractical starting point for a candidate looking for an angle to capture a national election – "I just don't see the opening," scoffs Douthat.

Weigel went so far as to say that voters who are seeking a populist alternative for president should wake up from their impractical, "dreamy" aspirations and get over making a presidential race a "test kitchen for policy change."

Put any political writer, myself included, on the stand, and we'll all confess: We have to do this stuff. In smaller and smaller editorial spaces and shorter and shorter TV and radio hits, we have to use shorthand to sell political stories.

And selling is exactly what's going on. The presidential election, after all, is just an enormously lucrative reality show for the commercial media, and no reality show flies if you can't identify the characters and their roles in a 30-second commercial – the hysterical pageant mom, the duck-call patriarch, the ambition-mad Kardashian mom raising her kids by text, in the recovery room after her latest neck tuck.

It's the same here. Political writers over the decades have developed a whole specialized vocabulary to quickly contextualize politicians in sound-bite form. Ideological geography is just left-right, a single horizontal line apparently representing our whole universe of beliefs, but people buy it. Then, in a nod to sports coverage, we shorthand the political standings by talking about "presumptive frontrunners," "fringe candidates" and "insurgents."

The latest linguistic fad is to describe a candidate as being prone to making "populist appeals," a concept nearly as nuts as that ostensible single horizontal line of all possible beliefs. Only in the Beltway do they have to come up with a special term to describe the inexplicable (to them)  phenomenon of a politician who advocates for his actual constituents, instead of just whoring along the usual career track like everyone else.

In the past, all of this shortcutting and caricaturing always favored incumbents and establishment politicians. Historically, media audiences reacted more favorably to the candidate described as a round unthreatening blob of status quo, someone who was "nuanced" rather than "pointed," "warm" instead of "angry," someone who is a "pragmatist" or a "technocrat" or a "centrist" rather than an "insurgent" or, now, a "populist."

Historically, readers were quite susceptible to the myriad labels that reporters stuck on politicians, telling audiences whether or not that candidate was a legitimate contender or not. And once you got tagged with the wrong label, it was usually fatal to a campaign – just ask Ron Paul or Howard Dean.

This time around, though, campaign reporters may be surprised to discover that this very typecasting language now mostly just pisses off your more alert and attentive media consumer, and could ultimately send the public running, 28 Days Later-style, to vote in a rage against whoever looks and sounds most like the media's favorite "legitimate contender."

I have no idea if Warren will run, or if she'd win if she did. She has my vote, but that's beside the point. What's interesting right now is how consistently offensive the media's analysis of her "populist" approach has been.

Washington leaders and the pundits they hang out with have been living for so long in a world where elected officials don't make decisions based upon what's right for the public that they now automatically assume that any politician who does is either up to something, or has some kind of deep-seated character flaw/mental defect.

Even Scheiber, in that New Republic piece that was mostly favorable to Warren, a piece that ultimately conceded that Warren's Ombudsman-like approach to politics was no crowd-riling shtick, but the work of a politician who was merely "relentlessly, perhaps ruthlessly, maybe even a bit messianically, focused on advancing her policy agenda" – even he couldn't help repeating his sources' Beltway mantra on this score. From his piece:

The gripe that Warren is maniacally image-obsessed has dogged her for almost as long as she's been in Washington . . .

Sorry to interrupt, but here's a translation: The genuinely image-obsessed pols who Scheiber's sources work for are jealous of the press attention the public lavishes on Warren, and have considered her a pain in the ass from the moment she arrived in Washington.

Infuriatingly, those same pols would receive exactly the same levels of attention and public adulation if they could just find a way to do their jobs for even 24 consecutive hours without being shameless pig-sellouts. But that's just too big a mystery for these morons to solve – so much better to whine, off the record, through one's press flacks, about what an image-obsessed "maniac" Elizabeth Warren is. And people wonder why Americans hate Washington.

Anyway, Scheiber goes on:

During her days running oversight on the bank bailout, Treasury aides became convinced that Warren's questions served little purpose other than to raise her profile, and that they had the effect of inciting a populist mob against policies that were unavoidable . . .

Right. Because wondering aloud why the Treasury Department granted a special tax exemption to AIG worth $17 billion, money the executives of this bailed-out company that nearly destroyed the world economy got to swallow whole in totally undeserved profits, that was of no real relevance to the hundreds of millions of Americans who A) didn't get a special tax break increasing their after-tax nut by 900 percent and B) had already paid tens of billions of dollars in taxes to bail out this same company.

No, Warren was just asking about the tax break to make herself look good, and to incite public anger against this "unavoidable" multi-billion-dollar handout to some of the world's biggest jackasses – people like AIG CEO Robert Benmosche, the man who would later say that public criticism of bailouts was as bad as lynch mobs in the old south.

Lastly:

There is no doubt that Warren takes a special interest in her public profile. According to a former aide, one of Warren's greatest frustrations after arriving at the consumer agency was that the White House insisted on vetting all her media appearances . . . "She's engaged in videos, e-mails, everything," says an aide. "She plays an integral role in the content we send out."

Still, the story of Warren's rise to prominence is much more complicated than one of unbridled narcissism.

In fairness to Scheiber, he goes on to take issue with these characterizations of Warren, but this the kind of thing that comes with the "populist" tag: accusations of maniacal self-promotion, narcissism (not just narcissism, but unbridled narcissism!) and cynical manipulation. "Populism" is never portrayed as a byproduct of sincere public service. It's almost always attached to implications of some sort of weird psychological agenda.

What's interesting is that you will often see political writers excuse candidates for indulging in populist rhetoric, provided that such rhetoric is clearly insincere. Douthat did this very thing in his piece:

The Clintonian connections to the Democratic money class notwithstanding, I don't see Hillary having any trouble pivoting leftward a bit on financial issues if a challenger seemed to be getting any traction. (Her donors would forgive her such a pivot because, well, they would assume that it was just empty pandering — in the same way that plenty of big donors managed to ignore Obama's NAFTA posturing in 2008 or Mitt Romney's China-bashing in 2012.)

There was another part of Douthat's piece that is crazily typical of campaign coverage:

Yes, Warren's anti-Wall Street performances have made her an online star, and yes, there's a lot of (justifiable, bipartisan) angst about the financial sector and the banks and "too big to fail" and all the rest. But the policy specifics on FinReg are much more complicated, and thus more easily-obfuscated, than the issue that helped give Obama his opening six years ago — the "yes or no" question of whether a given Democratic politician voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

This is a classic example of you might call a "Sure, she's right, but . . ." story. About a million of these hit the wires every day in election season. Nothing irritates political pundits more than politicians who think telling the public the truth is enough to win elections. Don't they know you have to win the "Candidate you most want to have a beer with?" contest first? That you've gotta clear the all-important "likeability" hurdle?

Sure, Too Big To Fail is a disaster, and the world's biggest banks apparently have been engaged in a massive anticapitalist conspiracy to rig all prices in all markets, but Where's The Beef? (Beltway election addicts love asking "Where's the Beef?")

Again, I like Elizabeth Warren, and I'd love to see her in the White House, but this isn't about that. It's just frustrating that we're three years out from the next election, and this nonsense is already starting. Do we have to play this game every time? Can't we ever let these elections happen without reporters telling us ahead of time who's supposed to win?

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