A Plague on Both Houses

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008 9:05 AM

Barack Obama stumbled, bumbled, faltered and faded, but he still has a lock on the nomination.

That, in a nutshell, is the media consensus after Pennsylvania. Now I've saved you all kinds of time because you don't have to read anything else.

Journalists often accuse the Hillary camp of moving the goalposts--let's only focus on big states, blue states, the popular vote, whatever--but the media did a bit of that on Tuesday. After telling us for days on end that Hillary Clinton had to win by six to eight points for her victory to be significant, they largely dismissed her 10-point margin, saying it doesn't change anything. The math is the math, she can't possibly catch up, yadda yadda yadda. Hillary woke up yesterday morning to that NYT un-endorsement, castigating her for taking the low road and beseeching her to get the hell out of the race.

At the same time, the muscle-bound pundits have been kicking sand in Obama's face: Why can't he win blue-collar types, women, the elderly, Catholics, Reagan Democrats, fill-in-the-blank? What's his problem? He's got all this money and these adoring crowds and he can't break out of the African American/latte liberal precincts? He can't even push back against Charlie and George? Maybe he doesn't walk on water after all.

So from a media perspective, I would say they both lost. Neither one is getting good press. The pontificators say Obama will win despite his losing streak, and Hillary will lose despite her winning streak. Next question?

"It is the question that has hung over Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign," says the New York Times, "and it loomed large on Tuesday night after his loss to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in Pennsylvania: Why has he been unable to win over enough working-class and white voters to wrap up the Democratic nomination?

"Lurking behind that question is another: Is the Democratic Party hesitating about race as it moves to the brink of nominating an African-American to be president?"

David Axelrod says race is a factor.

The L.A. Times also examines the endgame: "Hillary Rodham Clinton's Pennsylvania win has bought her time -- but not much -- to make her case to the Democratic Party's superdelegates, many of whom expressed a strong desire Wednesday to end the nominating contest once the final votes are cast."

The Boston Globe follows the money: "The financial benefits of Hillary Clinton's solid victory in the Pennsylvania primary became evident yesterday, as her campaign estimated that it would reap $10 million in new contributions in one day, even as her supporters and Barack Obama's debated whether the Pennsylvania result would change the trajectory of the Democratic race."

Wall Street Journal: "Sen. Hillary Clinton's primary win in Pennsylvania is stoking concerns about Sen. Barack Obama's appeal in a general election, even as party leaders -- including Clinton supporters -- admit he remains the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination."

In Time, Joe Klein weighs in: "Hillary Clinton won a convincing victory in Pennsylvania, but it came at a significant cost to the Clinton family's reputation and to the Democratic Party. She won by throwing the 'kitchen sink' at Obama, as her campaign aides described it . . .

"But that was nothing compared with the damage done to Obama, who entered the primary as a fresh breeze and left it stale, battered and embittered -- still the mathematical favorite for the nomination but no longer the darling of his party. In the course of six weeks, the American people learned that he was a member of a church whose pastor gave angry, anti-American sermons, that he was 'friendly' with an American terrorist who had bombed buildings during the Vietnam era, and that he seemed to look on the ceremonies of working-class life -- bowling, hunting, churchgoing and the fervent consumption of greasy food -- as his anthropologist mother might have, with a mixture of cool detachment and utter bemusement. All of which deepened the skepticism that Caucasians, especially those without a college degree, had about a young, inexperienced African-American guy with an Islamic-sounding name and a highfalutin fluency with language."

Well, when you put it that way . . .

This New Republic piece by John Judis is headlined "The Next McGovern"?

"Obama's weaknesses as a general election candidate grow more apparent with each successive primary.

"Clinton's best chance of winning the nomination was to win Pennsylvania so decisively that she would have set off a media firestorm about Obama's electability--one that would lead superdelegates to wonder whether she would not be a much, much stronger candidate in November. In the wake of revelations about Obama's relationship with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Clinton was ahead by 15 percent or more in polls. I visited Pennsylvania during this time, and could feel the growing disillusionment with Obama . . .

"If you look at Obama's vote in Pennsylvania, you begin to see the outlines of the old George McGovern coalition that haunted the Democrats during the '70s and '80s, led by college students and minorities . . .

"Its ideology is very liberal. Whereas in the first primaries and caucuses, Obama benefited from being seen as middle-of-the-road or even conservative, he is now receiving his strongest support from voters who see themselves as 'very liberal.' In Pennsylvania, he defeated Clinton among 'very liberal' voters by 55 to 45 percent, but lost 'somewhat conservative' voters by 53 to 47 percent and moderates by 60 to 40 percent."

At Salon, Walter Shapiro isn't high on Obama either:

"Does Pennsylvania prove that -- like the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries -- Obama cannot close the deal when he is one big-state victory away from being bathed in triumphal confetti at the Denver convention? Or does Pennsylvania underscore for Democrats the dangers of scorched-earth politics (68 percent of voters in the exit polls thought that Clinton 'attacked unfairly' and 41 percent say she is not 'honest and trustworthy') at a time when Republicans and independent swing voters are moving in John McCain's direction?

"But no matter how you frame it, Obama is the candidate who has not won a major primary since he swept Wisconsin on Feb. 22 by uncharacteristically carrying high-school-educated and lower-income voters."

Fred Barnes sides with Hillary's critique of her rival:

"Her argument boils down to this: I can hold the traditionally Democratic voters critical to winning the general election and he can't, and thus I can defeat McCain and he can't. Sure, he's ahead in delegates, but he won many of them months ago, before the halo over his campaign was knocked off.

"In the Democratic debate last week, she said 'yes, yes, yes' when asked if she thinks Obama can defeat McCain. But, in private, she and her allies make the opposite argument: Obama can't win."

I get the distinct impression that National Review's Mark Steyn isn't crazy about either one:

"He's the new face in a party that loves new faces (as long as they peddle the same old cobwebbed policies), and he's cool and glamorous, to boot. She's a divisive figure with high negatives who's fought an inept campaign with far worse press coverage hobbled by a blundering hubby who's turned the buy-one-get-two double-act into a pantomime horse with two rear ends. Why can't he close the deal?"

Perhaps it's time to blame the system:

"What the Democratic primaries don't do -- what they seemed designed to put off doing -- choosing a nominee for the office of the President of the United States of America," says Vodka Pundit.

"Look. You can become President of these United States by winning just 11 states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia.

"Of those, Clinton has won California, New York, Florida (which didn't count), Ohio, Michigan (which also didn't count), New Jersey, presumably Pennsylvania tonight, and the popular vote in Texas. If the Democrats ran a winner-take-all system like the Republicans and the Electoral College do, she'd have this thing clinched -- and Obama would look like a regional candidate who can't win much outside the South and his home state of Illinois.

"Instead, the race goes on and on and the candidates get weaker and weaker and without an end in sight."

It's true--the Dems' crazy delegate-awarding rules remind me of a Little League where everyone gets a trophy for participating.

Millions of dollars are spent on them, but Bull Dog Pundit concludes: "People don't care about negative ads. If exit polls are to be believed, about 75% of voters thought Hillary unfairly attacked Obama, yet she still won the state by 10 points."

But what is lost in the process of those negative attacks? Andrew Sullivan dispenses with the niceties:

"It's worth recalling what this primary came to be about, because of a self-conscious decision by the Clintons to adopt the tactics and politics of the people who persecuted and hounded them in the 1990s. It was indeed in the end about smearing and labeling Obama as a far-left, atheist, elite, pansy Godless snob fraud. That was almost all it came to be about. It was the Clintons' core message and core belief. And if anywhere would have proved its salience, it would surely have been beleaguered and depressed central and western Pennsylvania; and it would surely have worked with white ethnic voters over 50.

"It did work, it seems to me."

Suffering from primary fatigue? Me, too. And so is Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias:

"I have to say that I'm getting really tired of this. All the superdelegates should just say who they're voting for and bring this to the end . . . The idea that in two weeks we'll have another inconclusive primary, then another, then another, then another and then the superdelegates make up their mind is inane."

But Commentary's John Podhoretz scoffs at the notion:

"Sure. Because politicians with the most valuable votes in America are just going to choose up sides and not spend three months being courted and feted and promised. They are going to forswear having their feet kissed, their backs massaged, their views requested, their wants fulfilled, their needs anticipated. They are going to throw their vote away rather than milk it for all it's worth."

This goes back to the debate over the ABC debate: What exactly is trivial in presidential politics? American Prospect's Paul Waldman blames the press:

"Reporters will choose to write about flag pins. They will choose to write about whether some catastrophic, heretofore hidden character flaw has been revealed by a comment a candidate made, or by a comment somebody who knows the candidate made.. They are not merely conduits for the campaign's discourse, they create the campaign's discourse, as much as the candidates themselves . . .

"To many in the press corps, Obama is just naive for characterizing things like flag pins, the patriotism of his former pastor, and subversive activities committed 40 years ago by a guy he sort of knows as 'distractions.' When he noted that the debate was nearly half over before an actual policy issue was mentioned, they were dismissive.. Appearing on MSNBC the next day, Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle said with a mocking tone, 'It seems like he wants to live in this sort of perfect, high-minded political world where things like flag pins don't matter, but they really do. These things create perceptions. Everyone is saying he didn't do well. I have to agree. I don't think he did much for himself at all.' The 'everyone' to whom she was referring was no doubt the rest of the political reporters . . .

"When you criticize the current state of politics, no one is more indicted than the press itself."

I mentioned that LAT piece yesterday on John McCain getting $58,000 a year from the Navy for being disabled. Hot Air's Ed Morrissey jumps on the story:

"Go ahead, raise your hands above your head if you object to John McCain's disability pension. John McCain can't do the same, thanks to the damage inflicted by Vietnamese torturers in Hanoi. He has constant pain in his knee and his back as well, significantly limiting his mobility. However, unless the presidency requires a successful completion of an obstacle course every day, the Los Angeles Times' questioning of his physical fitness for office seems ludicrous."

Boston media critic Dan Kennedy takes note of Columbia Journalism Review's new Russert Watch feature, in which author Todd Gitlin made his debut by accusing the "Meet the Press" host of dishing "disingenuous slime":

"Shouldn't CJR have chosen someone other than Todd Gitlin to write the feature? Gitlin's debut isn't bad. But look at this: Gitlin publicly announced his support for Barack Obama back in February.

"Gitlin is an academic moonlighting as a journalist. Yes, he's a liberal opinion journalist. But even we opinion-mongers owe readers our independence. I sometimes hear it said that journalists should say whom they're voting for in the name of transparency. I disagree. Voting, and even stating your position on issues, is not the same as publicly supporting a candidate."

Gitlin responds that Kennedy's objections are incoherent:

"I'm not writing a column on Obama, I'm writing a column on Tim Russert. I've been writing about Russert for a decade or so. I was writing about him--critically, in the main--when I'd never heard of Barack Obama. I'll write straight about Russert whatever his subject."

And in case you haven't gotten over this story, the New York Post finds another Spitzer hooker.

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