Campaign correspondents tread a narrow path between political analysis and outright prognostication. Once quick to predict the future (Google these words: wrong about New Hampshire), are reporters now more circumspect? And is all coverage created equal? New York Magazine’s John Heilemann weighs in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Powers is a columnist for The National Journal. Whether or not it’s justified, Hillary Clinton has had a tougher time with the press lately, and she knows it. Here she was at Tuesday’s Democratic debate. [CLIP] HILLARY CLINTON: Well, could I just point out that in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time. And I don't mind. I, you know, I'll be happy to field them. But I do find it curious, and if anybody saw Saturday Night Live, you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Heilemann has been covering the presidential race for New York Magazine. Welcome to the show.
JOHN HEILEMANN: Nice to be here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you described to us Clinton’s comment at the debate as both a calculated tactical move and a primal scream. JOHN HEILEMANN: Yeah. I mean, I think that there has been, for a long time in the Clinton campaign, and with her personally, a sense that there has been a double standard applied by the press, that Obama has gotten off very easy. And I think that the frustration over that has been building for more than a year but in particular over the last two or three months as he’s kind of surpassed her on most electoral metrics. And I think it finally came out.
At the same time, I think you can't take away the element of calculation. I don't think it was entirely spontaneous. But the fact that it was calculated doesn't mean that it doesn't express a genuine emotion. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't we assume that when Obama says something he is both sincere and tactical and yet we in the media never put the emphasis on the tactical? JOHN HEILEMANN: He has managed, I think, very successfully over the course of the last year to portray himself as a man of sincerity and a man of authenticity and a man of conviction. And so when we hear him say something that is tactical, we sort of say, well, it’s a necessary evil. He’s being a politician because he kind of has to right now. But it’s not - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Same stuff they used to say about McCain and still do. JOHN HEILEMANN: Right. It’s not really who he is. I mean, McCain, that’s even on a larger, more absurd level. I mean, he can stand up and say, I am pro-life, I am pro-life, and every reporter in the room thinks they see him winking when he says that.
I mean, I think most reporters absolutely don't think that John McCain is pro-life, even though he has a 20-year [LAUGHS] record of being pro-life. And so there is, yes, there’s a huge amount of subtext and supra-text that has served them incredibly, incredibly well throughout the campaign whereas she, Hillary, that is, came into this campaign with a reputation for being calculating and a reputation for being manipulative.
And so everything we see that she does that is actually kind of standard political fare, we all kind of nod sagely and say, ah, there she goes again, just being the manipulative, calculating Hillary Clinton. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when are the media going to look themselves in the mirror and say, this isn't fair – in fact, it isn't even serving the public? JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, gosh, I don't know when that’s going to happen. [LAUGHTER] That’s, you know, in Never-Never Land that’s going to happen. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Fair enough. JOHN HEILEMANN: But if you mean when do I think the media’s going to turn on Obama, I think it’s the day that she’s gone. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, one thing that the media seemed to have been willing to take responsibility for briefly was prematurely calling the race. In fact, they promised collectively when wiping the egg off their face after New Hampshire that they would not be so slavishly devoted to making these calls on the basis of polls. And yet they picked up straight on through Super Tuesday straight on through today.
You were one of the reporters after Super Tuesday who basically declared Obama to be the presumptive nominee. JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, I think that one reasonable metric was to judge Super Tuesday as having been the place where the Clinton campaign had said repeatedly that that was where the race was going to end. It clearly didn't end. You looked up at the end of Super Tuesday and they had essentially tied on that day – at a moment when the Clinton campaign had said, the race was going to be over. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s the expectations game. That’s the game that the candidates like to play, but it isn't the game necessarily that the media ought to be playing. We've seen so many switcheroos this time. JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, now let's review the history a little bit. We knew that there were 11 contests to come and there were – I think six or seven of them were caucuses. Anybody who'd been following this carefully knew that the Clinton campaign was not campaigning in any of those caucus states. They had spent no money there and had no campaigner operations in those places. And we looked ahead and we thought, well, these seem to be races that the Obama campaign has a reasonable chance of winning.
We went to the Clinton campaign and said, how do you guys think you’re going to do between now and, and March 4th? And the Clinton campaign people were quietly saying, well, you know, we could lose all those races.
And so for some of us who are not necessarily wanting to get into the prognostication game, but you’re looking at a campaign that’s broke, number one, that’s behind in pledge delegates, number two, and number three is acknowledging that it might not win another contest for another month.
Now, it’s hard in that situation to not look at the campaign that has all the money and is about to conceivably win, as it did, in fact, win the next 11 contests in a row, and not make some kind of a judgment whereby we say, you know, he seems to be in a better position than she is right now. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it was just maybe a few weeks ago on this program we had somebody on who said, this is the anti-momentum campaign. We learned that lesson early and that lesson should have stuck with us, that this is really about individual states casting their individual ballots according to their own wishes. JOHN HEILEMANN: You know, I think that it’s a very healthy thing for the press to wait for the voters to speak. I also think that it’s our jobs, to some extent, you know, when we're doing political analysis, to try to tell people where we think things are headed without being too definitive and kind of saying it’s over already before the voters have had a chance to speak.
I don't hear right now the campaign media declaring Obama having won Texas and Ohio. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But definitely the media have cast that aura of inevitability upon Barack Obama. JOHN HEILEMANN: I think that’s true, though I don't think we think these things up on our own. You know, we hear what we hear coming out of the rival campaigns, and, in this case, from the Republican campaign. I mean, at some point, John McCain came to the conclusion that he was likely to face Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton.
And when he starts attacking Barack Obama on a regular basis, it feeds this perception that this is what the fall campaign is going to be. And, again, we take our cues from that, whether it’s fair entirely to her or not. BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. John. Thank you very much. JOHN HEILEMANN: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Heilemann writes the Power Grid column for New York Magazine.