Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette was watching a week-old interview between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Bloomberg's Mark Halperin when he suddenly felt a wave of nausea. Among the unorthodox questions Halperin had for Cruz, whose parents emigrated from Cuba: What's your favorite Cuban food? Did you identify as Hispanic when applying to college? And: Please welcome Bernie Sanders to the 2016 race, but "I'd like you to do it, if you would, en Español."
"As a journalist," Navarrette wrote, "I felt embarrassed for Halperin." And as a Hispanic, "I felt like I was watching a college fraternity have fun with racial stereotypes, like when staging a 'border party' where people show up in serapes and fake mustaches." (Update: Halperin apologized.)
Prior to this incident, which blew up over the weekend, Halperin's contribution to the 2016 cycle had largely been his "report cards" on appearances by likely 2016 candidates. In April, Princeton's Sam Wang pointed out that the three scores Halperin issued -- on style, substance and an overall grade -- tended to align the "overall" score more closely with "style" in the vast majority of cases.
We looked at every grade since the Conservative Political Action Conference in February and found that in 35 of 54 cases, Halperin's overall score for speakers was closer to "style" than to "substance." And it almost never was closer to "substance" -- which certainly reinforces a negative perception of political journalists. (Full list is at the bottom of this article.)
Halperin is unbowed; since the criticism from Wang (and many others), his grades haven't once favored substance over style. Amazingly, though, that's a secondary point. The more important point is that the grades have no point.
There's no correlation between a candidate doing well in Halperin's assessment and doing well in the polls. Which: Of course not, since so few people see these performances, and because presidential preferences are shaped by much larger forces. Nor do the grades offer any insight even when fleshed out. Halperin scribbles a sentence or two to justify the grades -- a brevity that even reduces the "substance" to a veneer. Here's him on Jeb Bush, at CPAC: "Substance: No abundance of new policy ideas, but reminded the audience that he can talk fluidly about domestic policy, and showed off a keen familiarity with congressional proposals and the central questions on foreign policy." What were the new policy ideas? Who cares, didn't you see the grade?
So why do it? Wang theorized that Halperin, perhaps chastened by the 2012 data-versus-anecdote debate, was trying to introduce some quantifiable metric to his analysis. Maybe. Or maybe Halperin is simply exercising his own little primary system, a system in which his inexplicable grades are the ones that count and in which if he wants to ask a guy to say something in Spanish, he's going to ask a guy to say something in Spanish.
Halperin unquestionably believes strongly in the power of his position. When stories about contributions to the Clinton Foundation first emerged last month, Halperin appeared on ABC's "This Week" to criticize Hillary Clinton's response. "If they hadn't been so careless at the foundation," he said, "if she hadn't deleted the e-mails, and if they put somebody out on the show today to answer the questions, I think a lot of this could be put to rest." Emphasis added: If Clinton had appeared on the Sunday shows, on which Halperin himself is a regular, that could have settled it! Sure.
When Halperin joined Bloomberg, it was reported that he was earning seven figures for the privilege, largely on the strength of his "Game Change" book recaps of 2008 and 2012 with fellow Bloomberg recruit John Heilemann. It's the sort of stamp of approval that could make anyone overestimate the usefulness of their insights. It's hard to believe that this isn't hat's happening here.
In summary: We give Halperin a D on style and an F on substance. But there's always another grading period, and, besides, that's still a B overall. Bueno.
Correction: This post originally identified Navarrette as an employee of the Mercury News. He's a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.