The first presidential primary is a year away, but that hasn’t kept the press from sizing up the frontrunners’ prospects. So far, the main criterion is not so much policy or fundraising ability as electability. Are the media playing at king-making? We ask Wall Street Journal reporter Jackie Calmes.
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BETH FERTIG: Dennis Kucinich, of course, is not the only Democratic presidential candidate suffocating from a lack of media oxygen. There's also Tom Vilsack, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Mike Gravel. But there's no question where that valuable air is going. It's being breathed down the neck of quasi-candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Obama this week formed a so-called exploratory committee, and Clinton is widely expected to follow suit shortly. As anxious as the press seems to be about a race between these two high-profile hopefuls, though, we're already seeing a number of pieces questioning their chances – to wit, an article in The Wall Street Journal last week, titled Democrat's Litmus: Electability. "Key issue for 2008 race poses hurdles for Clinton/Obama."
Chief political correspondent Jackie Calmes wrote that article and joins me now. Welcome to the show.
JACKIE CALMES: It's good to be here.
BETH FERTIG: In your piece last week, you wrote that the issue which most concerns Democrats at this stage is electability. Can you explain what electability is?
JACKIE CALMES: Well, that's the sort of in-the-eye-of-the-beholder concept where voters and activists and donors – because the voters really aren't tuned in as much as the full-time activists and donors are – they look at the candidates and they say, which one of these people can get elected?
And I was just moved to sort of write this story, or report it and then write it, because it just was striking to me, my conversations with Democrats, not just in Washington but around the country – the first thing I was hearing from a lot of these people wasn't what is their position on the war, it's can they get elected?
You know, the flip side of that is the Republicans aren't making such a big issue of electability. They're more where the Democrats used to be in holding their candidates to these litmus tests, whether it's abortion rights and stem-cell research or how much you support President Bush on the war or whether you're purist on not raising taxes, to a much greater extent than the Democrats are.
BETH FERTIG: You say that the likely Republican candidates, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and MiTt Romney, that those three are electable, but their big challenge would be wining over the base, the more conservative part of the party. Is the idea here that you are more electable if you appeal to the moderate or swing voter than if you make your pitch to your party's base?
JACKIE CALMES: Pretty much. That's pretty much exactly right. It sort of goes by definition that in order to find a candidate that's acceptable to the electorate overall in November, Election Day, it has to be someone who's more in the middle.
BETH FERTIG: So why is someone like Hillary Clinton considered unelectable?
JACKIE CALMES: Because she's too far to the left, as some people say. When you see her speak at places – New York - she's often dogged by demonstrators who believe she's too far to the right, because she voted for the war in Iraq.
JACKIE CALMES: Right. In her case, it comes down to two main reasons – one, because she's a woman. We've never elected a woman.
BETH FERTIG: Okay.
JACKIE CALMES: Just as for Barack Obama, he is an African-American. We've never nominated, let alone elected, an African-American. And the other, for Hillary Clinton, is that, you know, she just brings all the baggage of the Clinton years. She's a polarizing figure.
For Senator Obama, even more than race, the fact that he's seen as green, inexperienced, is a bigger hurdle for him at age 45, after just two years in the Senate.
BETH FERTIG: So we have these preconceptions about what electability means for a candidate. It means they have to fit a mold. But by continuously writing and talking about this question in the media - is America ready for a black, is America ready for a woman President – aren't journalists just perpetuating the status quo?
There are recent polls that suggest Americans are ready. Newsweek, back in December, polled people, and 86 percent said they would vote for a woman. Ninety-three percent said that they would vote for an African-American.
JACKIE CALMES: Yeah. But I would argue that it isn't a media creation. And I can only speak for myself, but there's a concept that I'm reflecting from what Democrats, what the activists are saying to me. You know, many of the people you talk to, they themselves would love to see Hillary Clinton elected or love to see Barack Obama elected. And they themselves have no problem whatsoever with a woman or an African-American being president. But what they're saying is they're not so sure the rest of America is ready.
BETH FERTIG: But isn't that influenced by what they read in the media, that they presume -
JACKIE CALMES: Well -
BETH FERTIG: - a person won't be electable because of what they read?
JACKIE CALMES: Right. Well, now you're getting into a chicken-and-egg question that I can't answer.
BETH FERTIG: Is it too soon to talk about this word, "electability?" You know, here we are in the beginning of 2007, when we haven't even begun to see what the candidates have to say on the issues and their policy positions, and some of them aren't even yet candidates.
JACKIE CALMES: It is too soon, no doubt about that. And so people like Chris Dodd or Barack Obama need to have the time and the opportunity to persuade people, in Senator Obama's case, that he does have the experience to be President. I mean, that's what a campaign is for. But it's also going to cost a lot of money to do that.
So, you know, the danger is that if you're dismissing people as unelectable, it's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if the donors who finance these campaigns, if they're deciding someone's unelectable – I guess I'm feeding your point now and arguing against myself – but it's a fact that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If the donors aren't there because they decide someone's unelectable, that person will be unelectable because they won't be able to afford the travel and the ads or whatever that they need in order to persuade people otherwise.
BETH FERTIG: Or reporters like yourself don't consider somebody electable because they haven't attracted enough finances.
JACKIE CALMES: Right.
BETH FERTIG: Jackie Calmes is lead political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much.
JACKIE CALMES: Oh, thank you. It's great to be with you.