The Beltway's Clinton derangement syndrome: What I saw inside a Hillary campaign briefing

Nothing about the meeting seemed noteworthy -- until journalists went up in arms

Published June 2, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

So I attended that now-infamous briefing with Clinton campaign officials in Brooklyn last Thursday. I wasn’t going to write about it. No news was broken. Still, I learned some things I could see myself using along the way. It was a snapshot; here’s what senior officials thought about the race six weeks in, and seven months from the first caucuses in Iowa. I knew it was set up to give increasingly restless Clinton beat reporters time to ask questions of campaign officials, to diffuse the obviously building tension. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it seemed worth a try.

But it turns out news was broken, in a way. The briefing itself became news; its structure, its ground rules, its very existence. CNBC’s John Harwood wrote a withering take on it. It led to reporters from rival news organizations gathering to formalize their complaints about access to the Clinton campaign. They told other reporters about the meeting, but strictly on background, an irony that wasn’t entirely lost on the reporters who then covered it. (This Paul Farhi story about said reporters failing to "practice what they preach," trying to control his story about the flap, is hilarious.)

Media covering the media’s complaints about the way media is treated; what could be more Beltway-centric inside baseball? But as long as people are writing about it, it’s clear the briefing scandal illuminates the increasingly toxic relationship between the press and the Clintons. So I’ll share what I saw, since now the event has become news in itself.

Let me shock you up front: I actually came away from it marginally more sympathetic to the Clinton beat reporters than before I went in. Essentially, they’re a bunch of people trying to do their jobs. Some are well-paid and pampered; many are not. A lot of reporters had schlepped up from a Clinton event in South Carolina earlier that day. They carried luggage and laptop bags and looked tired and bedraggled, resentful at having a command event scheduled that afternoon but unwilling to miss it. What if it did break news?

So a lot of the bitching is just people trying to do a good job, who think the Clinton folks are making it harder than necessary. There were lots of questions about when Clinton might take a vacation (which means they can, too) – we couldn’t get more specific than late August. That might seem petty, unless you’ve been asking these questions going back to the first Bush campaign, which some of those folks may be. Likewise, they peppered officials with questions about Clinton’s June 13 kickoff rally, but couldn’t get much detail, not even the location (three days later, we learned it would be in New York.) That got tedious, but the beat reporters have been surprised more than once with sudden scheduling (include the briefing itself). The senior campaign officials promised they’d have plenty of notice, and they did, they got 12 days.

I come at this from a completely different perspective. I took the B train to Brooklyn, just kind of curious about the event and not on any kind of deadline. And since I consider political media part of my beat, I got a fascinating look at the culture. My comfort with the scheduling and the ground rules partly reflects my very different job. I get that. But that said, the briefing wasn’t as useless as it’s been depicted. I learned a lot about the campaign I can share with readers. I could see the very different styles of individual “senior campaign officials,” and learn who suffers fools, or questions they consider foolish, better than others – although Harwood’s right, I can’t tell you about them specifically, by name.

The Clinton folks, for their part, stayed relentlessly on message – which is their job -- but I learned some interesting things anyway. I saw the way they’re determined to frame Clinton as laser-focused on the four early primary and caucus states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. She doesn’t take anything for granted, they said many times. Sure, that’s become a cliché. But there was a rueful joke about how, this time around, they’re paying attention to the actual delegates who will pick the nominee. It would be funnier if I could put it in direct quotes, but it was salty, and it acknowledged the 2008 campaign’s many stumbles when it came to actually winning delegates, especially in caucus states.

I also learned that campaign polling shows that stories about the Clinton Foundation, and Clinton’s infamous personal email server, aren’t damaging her – at least among Democratic primary voters, and they’re the focus for now. I asked a question about how the campaign balances its need to consolidate the Obama coalition with ideas about reaching working class white voters, and heard them say those are questions more suited to the general election than the primary. They emphasized their polling shows Clinton doing very well with the Obama coalition, despite that spirited 2008 rivalry. I heard a lot of talk about millennials and women, who seem to be the white voters the campaign is best suited to lure.

Finally, I learned that they consider this early period of the campaign a success, on their terms. Clinton’s small-group “dialogues” -- oh, it’s not a listening tour, I learned that, too: she’s having dialogue with voters – have performed several functions for the campaign. Yes, they provide kind of a soft launch for a woman who hasn’t campaigned in seven years. They also let her reach voters in a person to person way some of these same reporters said she’d never pull off.  And finally, they let voters, not reporters, dominate the campaign. You can mock it, you can wish it were otherwise, but mostly it’s working, so far.

So I was just going to file all this away for some future post. But in the wake of the controversy over the briefing, I find it surprising that so many people thought the gathering useless. Again, I get that my job is different, but it shocked me that this was the dastardly Clinton campaign event that put some reporters over the edge.

I also saw, first-hand, how the journalists try to mask their own complaints about access as being impartial, expert criticism of the campaign’s strategy. The small “dialogues” made sense for a while, one reporter allowed, but aren’t they becoming “counterproductive?” They were said to lack “energy;” they’re becoming “static.” Why isn't Clinton turning out big crowds and giving big speeches? And are we really supposed to believe she’s serious about focusing on Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina? C’mon now. Members of the Church of the Savvy know that can’t be true.

Of course, if Clinton was going around giving big speeches in huge venues and criss-crossing the country without paying special attention to the early primary/caucus states, she'd be accused of arrogance, and running another campaign about inevitability, just like 2008. One campaign official (I can't tell you who) essentially made that sarcastic observation: remember how in 2008, Barack Obama was criticized for his speechifying before large, adoring crowds?

It struck me that a sizeable share of the room seemed to work backward from the conclusion that whatever campaign strategy Clinton adopts, it's flawed. As a colleague of mine (who wasn't there) correctly observed later, they so often use “voters” as sock puppets to voice their complaints. It’s not enough for the pack, even though it's early, to watch the campaign unfold, and report on it. We will learn soon enough – from polling numbers, from voters’ praise or grousing, ultimately, from results – whether it’s working. No, these folks have to pre-emptively declare the campaign flawed – largely because they don’t like their access to it.

Yes, the campaign’s secrecy about mundane logistics is silly, and so is the notion of sending "embargoed" background information via email to hundreds of reporters who haven't agreed to keep the info embargoed. (So Adam Nagourney tweeted it out anyway.)  Personally, I would like to hear Clinton talk, whether to reporters or publicly to voters, about her views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or how to combat ISIS, or what she thinks of the debt-free college movement. There were a couple of questions about when Clinton will make a formal stand on the TPP, but otherwise issues were largely missing from the discussion.

The whole thing seemed designed to improve campaign-media relations, to clear the air and answer the frustrated reporters' questions until there were no more questions. Then they stayed and served us beer – I was peeved; I prefer wine -- and talked some more. Some “senior Clinton campaign officials” stayed and schmoozed longer than I was able to. And it all backfired, spectacularly, because this relationship cannot be saved. But on some level, right now, the campaign doesn't have to care.

I continue to be struck by the self-importance of the media. Campaigning has changed, and the Clinton campaign has evolved an approach that its leadership thinks serves the candidate. Maybe they’ve changed the rules of coverage; but the rules change all the time. Instead of figuring out a way to grapple with those changing rules and break stories anyway, journalists are acting as though they have a sacred right to have dozens of them covering Clinton’s every move. If they don’t like the campaign rules, they shouldn’t play. They are entirely within their rights to refuse to attend briefings where officials can’t be quoted, for instance. They could boycott her events and talk to voters on their own, instead. They could pore over records and donor lists (some people are doing that.)

After 30 years of wrangling, Clinton can't win with the national media, but I think the campaign has decided it doesn't need to. It's going to look for ways to be cordial, and serve folks beer occasionally, but it's not going to be driven by irritated beat reporters. And let me use voters as sock puppets here: I really don’t think voters will care.


By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Adam Nagourney Hillary Clinton John Harwood Media Criticism Political Campaigns