On Political Opportunism and Manufactured Controversies

The 2008 presidential campaign is turning out to be the campaign of surrogates and guilt by association. John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many other candidates have had to apologize for and/or distance themselves from some of their supporters who have made provocative, embarrassing, or downright offensive remarks. Some of these transgressions and embarrassments happened on the campaign trail, as was the case with Black Entertainment Television founder and Clinton supporter Bob Johnson who alluded to Barack Obama's past drug use. In other instances, the controversial remarks happened several years in the past, as was the case with Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor.

Some of these remarks are truly outrageous and deserve to be covered by the media. Any politician affiliated with a person who makes such remarks should rightfully be prepared to explain them. However, we appear to have reached a level of hypersensitivity and absurdity in which feigned outrage stems from truly stupid remarks that nobody should really care about, such as former Obama adviser Samantha Power's calling Hillary Clinton a monster. She was subsequently fired after the Clinton campaign pounced on the remarks as crude.

The fallout from these incidents should serve as a fair warning to all candidates that in the first YouTube presidential campaign, all of their words and all of the words of anyone moderately associated with them are fair game. For better or worse, any surrogate who has engaged in the slightest bit of impropriety or who had made an embarrassing remark 10 years ago will be scrutinized carefully.

In the grand scheme of things, these silly stories don't matter much. Now that both nomination races are settled and there are only two candidates to cover instead of ten, journalists have far less material to work with. Naturally, that means every minor transgression, misstatement, contradiction, or embarrassment is going to be scrutinized heavily by the media. This may be good for partisans and political junkies who care about such minutia, but it is ultimately unimportant and provides a great disservice to the broader electorate. Even worse, it seems as if the media are trying to create dustups and controversies on their own just to give politicians something to respond to, no matter how stupid it is, and shape the political dialogue rather than having the candidates shape it themselves.

Exhibit A: One of the media storylines gaining traction is the idea that Barack Obama is having trouble with White voters, and especially White women. The primary results in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky confirmed this. As a result, Obama has had to work a bit harder to appeal to these so-called Reagan Democrats lest he risk losing them to John McCain.

But why is this such big news? Democrats in general tend to do worse among White voters than Republicans do. People of color and immigrants are more likely to view the Democratic Party as friendly and receptive to their interests. So if Barack Obama is having such trouble attracting White voters, why won't the media examine why John McCain is having such trouble with Black voters or evangelical voters? Or is Obama's inability to attract support from one group of voters more significant than McCain's?

An alternative explanation for Obama's troubles is Rush Limbaugh's Operation Chaos in which Republicans were encouraged to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in an attempt to drag out the contest and have Clinton and Obama continue to bloody each other up while McCain sat on the sidelines and conserved his resources. These voters were never going to vote for Obama in November. But they were never going to vote for Clinton either. Now there are polls saying that a significant number of her supporters are considering staying home or voting for McCain. Some of these voters are indeed dejected or angry over Clinton's loss. But surely others don't really care because these voters weren't loyal to Clinton to begin with. Perhaps it is only lending greater credence to Limbaugh and his influence, but the fact that this idea hasn't received greater follow-up coverage is unfortunate.

Exhibit B: Shortly after Obama clinched the nomination, he assembled a team that would be responsible for spearheading his search for a running mate. This happens all the time and is usually of no consequence. However, the leader of this search team, Jim Johnson, had ties to the subprime loan industry and received controversial housing loans.

This was a poor political decision by Obama because it contradicted his message of change, transparency, and decent governance. Republicans, the media, and McCain's campaign pounced on this as an example of "poor judgment," and Johnson soon resigned from the team.

Obama lamented that we had reached the point in our politics where we had to "vet the vetters." He has a point because should he win the election, how will he be able to appoint people to his cabinet and various administrative offices if anyone who has any blemishes or scuff marks from dealing with Washington is automatically disqualified? Almost every politician is tied to a lobbyist, a corporation that has engaged in questionable business practices, or a major donor/fundraiser whose contributions might not be entirely clean. Unless Obama is going to bring in a truckload of outsiders who know nothing about how things actually get done in Washington and have no relationships with anybody in Washington at all, this controversy regarding Johnson is going to come back up over and over again.

And if Jim Johnson is going to be criticized for having ties to the seedy subprime loan industry, should McCain adviser Carly Fiorina not be criticized as well for her business ties to Iran?

Exhibit C: After Jeremiah Wright, Bob Johnson, Jim Johnson, and "monster" comments, everyone should have been put on notice that the spotlight on everyone's surrogates and their surrogates' histories was real.

Despite this, John McCain foolishly scheduled a fundraiser with Texas Republican Clayton Williams, who once said that if women were being raped, "they might as well just lie back and enjoy it." These remarks are obviously offensive and indefensible. However, Williams made these remarks in 1990. So one would think the statue of limitations has run out on these remarks. But in today's political climate, that was not going to happen. Once Democrats and the media found out about this, the outrage forced McCain to cancel the fundraiser.

What were once questions about Obama's "judgment" suddenly became questions about McCain's "judgment." However, the McCain campaign should have learned that if they wanted to attack someone for their surrogates' ties, they were giving free reign for their opponents to attack them for the very same thing. This is why they should not have been surprised when the controversy surrounding Williams blew up in their faces. And now McCain risks giving this story legs by claiming ignorance of these remarks and not returning Williams' campaign contributions. Whatever happened to "repudiate" and "denounce?"

But this is all political wrangling. Lost in all of the noise is the fact that neither politician was directly involved in these transgressions. They were wounded by surrogates and people who were only tangentially related to their campaigns. It is true that you can learn a lot about a person by the company he keeps, but at what point does genuine and legitimate outrage become political opportunism, media hypersensitivity, or a failure of journalism?

Most of these guilt by association stories are certainly not the best use of journalists' time, but that is the sorry state of journalism today. Journalists and politicians are outraged over the wrong things. And perhaps because the nomination races are settled and there's not as much news to cover, the lack of news is causing journalists to be a bit less selective in regards to what they cover. And when they do cover something, they often fail to dig a little deeper and instead opt to manufacture their own controversies to advance convenient media storylines. And that's a shame.

6 comment(s):

Thomas said...

One of the major things about McCain and Obama that bothers me is their supposed sensitivity to every little criticism. Intelligent people like yourself, Anthony, see through these little games but they continue to go on.

One of the reasons why I dislike politicians is there lack of faith in the intelligence of the American people. Obama and McCain must think we are so dumb that their having their feelings hurt by these manufactured controversies will cause us to vote for them.

Taiwan Rogers said...


This is such a great post. It is one of the reasons I find myself getting frustrated with our political process. People make stupid comments. It happens. If someone ran a tape recorder 24/7 in front of my lips I would be afraid to hear some of the things they would pick up.

I am not expecting any of Obama or McCain's staff members or supports to have perfect speech. I am expecting Obama and McCain to have some serious propositions for fixing our many ills. That is what I am looking for. Wright's comments, Hagee's comments, and the like, are just clever distractions.

Thomas I do not think it is only the politicians who think we are stupid. The media counts on us being stupid. Sadly, some Americans truly are. People like Rush, Franken, Hannity, and so forth cannot sell millions of books and impact the political process without a stock of sheep willing to follow them.

Brett said...

I think it's partially because of the "amplifying" power of the Internet, where every little remark bounds through the Web a million times over, gets turned over by countless hands and amateur political analysts, until one of them discovers some sort of hidden context that is potentially usable in examining the candidates. That's a double sword, of course; it also means that things that really are news-worthy don't slip through the cracks as much.

The other reason is that there is this massive media investment in political analysis and shows, in particular David Gregory's show. That's a lot of figurative mouths to feed, and only so much news. Pity I think it is affecting the quality of their shows; I can't stand watching "Countdown" anymore except in small doses.

Anthony Palmer said...


I'd like to have a little more faith in the American people, but they are so easily duped and distracted. Think of the 1 in 3 people (per a recent Newsweek poll) who think Obama is a Muslim, for example. When you appeal to the lowest common denominator of society, you never know what stupid rumors will gain traction. Very unfortunate. I think a lot of people who don't like Obama's policies very much may end up voting for him anyway as a way of repudiating this kind of stupid campaign coverage and these stupid smears. We shall see.



Yes. It's not just the politicians or the media. It's us. And shame on us for not taking politics more seriously. Now we have Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama getting into it with each other. It's embarrassing. But politics is about perception, so doing the grunt work of researching the issues and asking intelligent questions is less appealing than believing the rumor mill or looking at some photoshopped image of Politician X with a knife in his hand. Very unfortunate. But it will take an informed citizenry to fix this, which is something I don't think most politicians want.



Regarding Race for the White House, I like the show because I think most of the guests there have at least some sense of what they're talking about. I might not agree with them all the time, but at least the show doesn't make me want to throw shoes at the television. But I do see what you're saying. This really is the first YouTube election. The Apple-spoof against Hillary from 2007 showed the power of the internet as it pertained to campaigns--in a good way. But the perpetuation of these rumors illustrates the awful power of the internet as well. And given the anonymity of the internet, it's really hard to hold people accountable for what they post.

Thomas said...

Anthony, an unrelated question - do you think the Democrats are showing an arrogance now that can hurt them somewhere down the line?

DB said...

One issue is that the media is having to compete with youtube and blogs. If something is having a go on youtube or Politico, the media thinks that it is a story. I can't even count how many times the news has actually used youtube videos in their stories. 24 hour news networks competing for viewers this election also requires the most sensational claims and stories. If Fox can keep drilling Obama on something asinine, then they will get more viewers who just want his downfall, and MSNBC/McCain as well. Look at Olberman's Countdown, which seems to be an hour long segment of Bush bashing and O'Reilly hating. O'Reilly has turned into a anti-anyone but Fox News show. The media is out of stories.

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