Hillary Clinton's tiff this week with Bernie Sanders over their respective qualifications to serve as president is a bit of a head-spinner. Let's begin with a brief recap.
In an interview on the Wednesday edition of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," host Joe Scarborough pressed Clinton on whether she thinks Sanders is "qualified" to serve as president. Clinton stopped short of explicitly saying she thinks Sanders is unqualified, but said this: "I think he hadn't done his homework and he'd been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn't really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions." [Emphasis mine]
The Washington Post then ran a story with the headline "Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president."
Later that evening, Sanders attacked Clinton at a rally in Philadelphia: "[Clinton] has been saying lately that she thinks I am quote-unquote not qualified to be president. Let me just say in response to Secretary Clinton, I don't believe that she is qualified." Sanders reportedly based his statement on the aforementioned Washington Post article.
The Clinton campaign responded with sanctimonious incredulity. “This is a ridiculous and irresponsible attack for someone to make,” Clinton spokeswoman Christina Reynolds wrote in a fundraising email. Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon took to Twitter:
The crux of the Clinton camp's argument is that Hillary Clinton never "quote-unquote" said that Sanders was unqualified. Rather, she simply noted that his record "raises questions" about his qualifications. "Raising questions" is a classic move that allows politicians to bring up an issue while maintaining deniability about their stance on it. Compare Clinton's "questions" to what Donald Trump said in 2012 regarding Barack Obama's birth certificate: "I don't consider myself birther or not birther, but there are some major questions here." Who me? I'm not a birther! I'm just asking questions!
The Washington Post is surely familiar with this kind of kindergarten legalism, but for some reason the paper did little but echo the Clinton campaign's talking points in a Thursday article under the headline "Sanders’s incorrect claim that Clinton called him ‘not qualified’ for the presidency."
The Post gave Sanders "three-out-of-four pinocchios" for his statement, on the following grounds: "Sanders is putting words in Clinton’s mouth. She never said 'quote unquote' that he was not qualified to be president. In fact, she diplomatically went out of her way to avoid saying that, without at the same time saying he was qualified." Really? Diplomatically? Sanders is perhaps guilty of clumsy phrasing, but not dishonesty.
Meanwhile, the Post excused itself for writing the headline partially responsible for starting the whole thing:
The art of headline writing is an imperfect art. The editor often has to summarize the meaning of a complex and nuanced article in just a few words. Many Washington-based reporters have experienced the frustration of having an accurate article denied by an agency spokesman because of a headline that went a little far off the mark.
In this case, however, The Post headline or article did not quote Clinton as saying Sanders was unqualified. Instead, it drew attention to an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" in which Clinton sidestepped questions about whether Sanders was qualified.
So if you're keeping score at home, The Washington Post reported that Clinton had questioned Sanders' qualifications, Sanders attacked Clinton based upon that very article, and then the Post attacked Sanders using the Clinton campaign's spin and washed its hands of its own role in the controversy.
The Post is happy to clear both itself and the Clinton campaign because, according to its reasoning, "Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president" is light years different than "Clinton says Sanders is qualified to be president." But isn't that a distinction without a difference?
This whole conflict is exceedingly silly, and the Washington Post played a willing role in the circus.