Ezra Klein is mad at the Clinton campaign for being honest and practical. WTF?! (Click here to see all of TLP’s #Election2016 posts.)
I know a lot of people start their morning the same way I do, although I don’t know for sure that too many others read Vox while they do it. Today it was an unusually appropriate pairing as read the intellectually malodorous editorial by Ezra Klein in which he lambastes the Clinton campaign for being honest about something. Let’s start with my biases and some background before we get into the morning’s derp.
(Or you can skip down to the point-by-point rebuttal of Klein, if you’ve been following this story already and/or don’t care about background stuff.)
I really like Ezra Klein! If I were offered the chance to swap lives with anyone on Earth (and bring my kid with me), Ezra Klein would definitely be on my short list. No doubt some combination of admiration and jealousy motivates much of my criticism of other writers. But I digress. I like Ezra Klein and Vox a lot – articles, podcasts, whatever. He’s great.
My other bias here is that I absolutely do not want to watch another Democratic debate. I am grateful for the Miami debate just because it included a Guatemalan woman asking a question, and getting answers, from presidential candidates via a translator. That was a great moment in American politics. Other than that the debates between Clinton and Sanders have become repetitive in a way that forces both candidates to make increasingly scurrilous claims about one another in an attempt to be interesting and gain an edge. Clinton is understandably cautious while Sanders is basically blogging with his mouth from the stage. Speaking for myself, I’m incredibly bored of both of those acts. The only thing that needs to happen in a debate that hasn’t yet is for Clinton to hammer Sanders about being full of shit on gun safety policy, but she isn’t going to do that because she wants to win over his supporters later. So nothing will happen. Please, no more debates.
My final bias here is that I tend to look for sexism in criticisms of Hillary Clinton, and also tend to find them. Whether or not I’m making a solid analysis or just falling victim to confirmation bias is a reasonable point of debate. Feel free to let me know what you think.
On Sunday, March 27th, the Washington Post ran a piece titled “Sanders sharpens attacks for N.Y. showdown that may dash Clinton’s unity hopes” and written by Phillip Rucker. In the article (read it – it is quick), Rucker describes the current state of the campaign as being one where Clinton is focused on unifying the party while Sanders is trying to drag the primary out for as long as possible. Bernie’s current strategy to do this is to attempt an upset victory in New York’s April 19th primary. Here is the most relevant excerpt:
To capitalize on his fresh momentum, Sanders plans an aggressive push in New York, modeled after his come-from-behind victory a few weeks ago in Michigan. He intends to barnstorm the state as if he were running for governor. His advisers, spoiling for a brawl, have commissioned polls to show which contrasts with Clinton — from Wall Street to fracking — could do the most damage to her at home.
The article goes on to detail how the Clinton camp is working on ways to woo Sanders supporters after the primary and unify both candidates’ voters going into the general election.
Meanwhile, on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton to a debate in New York. Caitlin Cruz at TPM wrote it up for the video-averse folks like myself, but there is also a video clip at the link if you like. Here is the quote:
“I would hope very much that as we go into New York State, Secretary Clinton’s home state, that we will have a debate, New York City, upstate, wherever, on the important issues facing New York and in fact the country,” Sanders told host Chuck Todd.
(Okay, but let’s be clear – there have already been 8 debates focused mostly on those issues.)
Then, on Monday, Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson responded to the debate invitation when CNN’s Kate Bolduan asked him about it. Caitlin Macneal had the details at TPM (hey, I like TPM a lot, okay?). Here is (what I believe to be) the part of the discussion that Klein et al. are reacting to:
When pressed about why the Clinton campaign wouldn’t agree to another debate, Benenson said the campaign only “agreed to debates up to a certain point.”
“What’s the risk?” Bolduan asked.
“There’s no risk. She’s done well in the debates,” Benenson said in response. “But Sen. Sanders doesn’t get to decide when we debate, particularly when he’s running a very negative campaign against us. Let’s see if he goes back to the kind of tone he said he was going to set early on. If he does that, then we’ll talk about debates.”
Brian Fallon said on Bloomberg’s “With All Due Respect” that campaigns typically work with the Democratic National Committee in private to agree on a debate time. He said the Clinton campaign has offered “several” dates and locations, including some in New York.
“If they can find a mutually agreeable date in the next couple of weeks before New York, I think it could happen,” he said.
(FYI, you can get all this info other places as well, but TLP has a subscription to TPM and so it is mostly ad-free for me to get/link material there. So you could say I also have a bias against ads. Also, TPM is great.)
In between those two events – first the Clinton strategist telling Sanders to watch his tone if he wants debates, then the press secretary saying debates would be fine – the Berners on social media started making the Clinton campaign’s point really clear. And here is a story about that from… …Tara Golshan at Vox:
A top Clinton aide’s chiding comments about Sanders’s “negative” tone have prompted Sanders supporters to drudge up all their Clinton attacks on Twitter with the viral hashtag #ToneDownForWhat (a reference to DJ Snake’s song “Turn Down for What”).
And here is one example from the piece:
— NC For Bernie (@NCForBernie) March 29, 2016
“Hey, you got paid by bankers to give speeches, you must be corrupt!” – This is exactly the kind of ad hominem attack that Sanders supporters have been making explicitly for months while Sanders himself pushes the limits of the word “implicitly” when he makes the same attack over, and over, and over again at debates. I imagine this is exactly the kind of thing that the Clinton campaign was talking about when they referred to the “tone” of the Sanders campaign.
This brings us to the main event…
Point-by-point rebuttal of Klein’s hot take
Late Wednesday afternoon, after all those other events I listed, Ezra Klein posted his thoughts about the Clinton camp’s initial response to Sanders’ debate challenge. I think the root cause of the problem is a mischaracterization of Benenson’s original comments, which Klein puts at the top:
The Clinton campaign is saying that they won’t agree to a debate with Bernie Sanders in New York because they’re offended by Sanders’s recent “tone.”
This is plainly ridiculous.
Well yeah, that is a ridiculous interpretation of what Clinton’s strategist said. Benenson didn’t say he was offended, or that Clinton is offended, but just that they’re not going to agree to a debate if Sanders is launching into a(n even more) negative campaign. “I don’t want to stand on stage and debate you for two hours if you’re going to launch an endless series of ad hominem and guilt-by-association attacks.” That is a perfectly reasonable boundary to set after there have already been eight fucking debates.
The reason Clinton’s people don’t want a debate before the New York primary is there’s no upside for them in a debate before the New York primary. Their polling, as of now, shows Clinton winning the state’s massive delegate haul, and a debate would simply be an opportunity to screw that up.
Actually, given how Clinton has done in the debates thus far it might also be an opportunity to solidify that lead, maybe even deal a knockout blow to Sanders. If Clinton were willing to tie Sanders to gun violence the way he has tied her to Wall St., then I suspect that would demoralize many Sanders’ supporters pretty badly. Of course Clinton isn’t going to do that because her campaign is focused on party unity and the general election – and we know that because they have told us. So Klein has a plausible theory here, but it is not as plausible as the theory that the Clinton campaign already explained all this and were telling the truth.
Undaunted by the reality of this having all been explained already, Klein continues his attack on his imagined version of what the Clinton camp is doing:
The problem is that their reasoning, though tactically correct, would strike people as rather less than sporting. So the Clinton campaign has come up with the argument that Sanders has somehow crossed a line with his negative campaigning. “They’re talking about running harsher negatives now,” Joel Benenson, Clinton’s pollster, complained to CNN.
What is Klein’s source? Is he a mind reader? Did someone in the campaign tell him something different? Does he have a natural distrust of women and/or their campaign staffers?
Let’s get real: If the Clinton campaign wanted to bullshit their way away from a debate for tactical purposes, they would say they’re too busy talking to the people to take a day off for the umpteenth debate with Sanders. Instead, they’re stating very clearly that they are not interested in another debate if the campaign is going negative. That is legitimate and believable.
But he keeps going:
This is flatly absurd. The Democratic primary — including the debates — has been substantive and respectful. Sanders has, at times, bent over backward to run a positive race, as when he refused to hound Clinton over her emails. If any candidate has ever proven himself a fair and courteous adversary, it’s Sanders. The mockery Sanders’s supporters are throwing at Clinton is entirely merited.
This is total bullshit. Bernie Sanders has bent over backwards to appear to be running a positive race, but he has deployed fallacy after fallacy in an attempt to paint Clinton – and most Democrats running for office – as corrupt cowards, tools of a system that buys them and then commands them with ease. Sanders also took many opportunities to condemn Bill Clinton’s sex scandals just before saying he doesn’t want to talk about them.
On top of all of that, surely Sanders – just like Donald Trump – has some responsibility as a candidate for the behavior of his supporters. On social media, Sanders supporters are relentlessly negative. At best, they eschew practical questions about how their revolution will comport with the American institutions of government in order to repeat their favorite Sanders lines instead. At worst, they engage in vicious attacks against Hillary Clinton that read like something from an early 90s ultra-reactionary zine, just in meme form. Hell, Klein even links to the Vox story about the negative attacks that Sanders supporters started making after Benenson made his comments about their tone! Not all Sanders supporters behave the same as the Berners on social media, but then again not all Trump supporters behave like the Trumpsters at his rallies.
Onward to the denunciation:
This is the Clinton campaign at its worst. The argument isn’t just false, it also insults the intelligence of voters. The message is that debates are something Clinton graciously concedes to rather than participates in as part of the democratic process. And the whole effort baits and annoys the Sanders supporters whom Clinton ultimately needs to win over.
This is like watching a yoga master accidentally tie his body into a knot he can’t get out of. I’m not saying it is the Clinton campaign at its best, but at its worst? Please. The argument isn’t false, if anything it is remarkably honest: Clinton doesn’t want another two hour lecture about speaking fees and campaign donations that masquerades as a debate. Why is Clinton avoiding that? Because she wants the least amount of animosity between now and when she needs to win over Berners for the general election. Klein has this completely backwards.
And by the way – all candidates graciously concede to debates, especially when there have already been eight of the damn things. I have never seen a politician criticized like this for pointing out that their opponent does not get to determine their schedule. The assumption that Clinton is offended, that her campaign’s frank explanation is somehow a lie, and that her attitude towards debates is somehow arrogant are all aspect’s of Klein’s take that make me wonder if his viewpoint on this is shaped by some of the enculturated sexism that even the most enlightened American man is bound to exhibit from time to time.
Politics ain’t beanbag. If the Clinton campaign doesn’t want another debate, no one can force them into it. But if they didn’t want another debate, they should have just said so, and offered some anodyne excuse like they wanted to spend more time campaigning in New York and less time campaigning on television. Trying to place the blame on Sanders for the fact that they are refusing to debate is just dirty, and it cheapens the tone of this race far more than anything the Sanders campaign has done recently.
Well he isn’t wrong about politics not being beanbag. Bernie needs the free media that comes with two hours on stage with Hillary and he knows it – that is why he made the challenge. Clinton knows this too, and she set the price with her response: call off the negative attacks you’ve been prepping and start thinking about the future (aka the general election).
This is why Klein’s piece is so baffling. The dude is really, really smart and usually has a completely coherent take on the day’s events. But this piece is just bizarre – he complains that Clinton’s response insults the intelligence of voters, then in the next paragraph complains that Clinton didn’t instead use “some anodyne excuse” that would, you know, insult the intelligence of voters.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that Hillary Clinton didn’t blame Bernie Sanders for not wanting another debate. She set a boundary: If Sanders wants another debate, then he must get back to a positive message, because Clinton won’t talk about debates while his campaign is going negative. That is a stand on principle that seems obviously designed to both point out to some voters that Sanders really isn’t running a positive campaign (he’s not) and also use her only leverage with Sanders (more debates) to get him to halt his march to negativity. Clinton’s goal isn’t to make Sanders look bad, her goal is to keep him from making it any harder to bring their respective supporters together in November, and her campaign was refreshingly honest about that.
I know it can be very hard
for men in our culture to take what any woman Hillary Clinton says at face value, but it is certainly important to make the effort to do so. If nothing else, it is easier than coming up with an incoherent alternative explanation and getting yourself all upset about it.
Sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell us! TLP wants to hear from you. Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.
Click here to see all of TLP’s #Election2016 posts.