That distant rumble you’re hearing from the Beltway is the sounds of pundits eagerly excavating as they dig up the campaign goal posts established for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and reset them during the middle of the race.
After months of suggesting her White House push was possibly doomed, that she couldn’t connect with voters, pundits are now conceding she will be her party’s nominee and that polling data and demographics currently give her a November advantage. But instead of admitting they misread her run (how do you accumulate 13 million primary votes and not connect with people?), some have decided to change the rules -- to move the goal posts midway through the game -- and suggest that even if she wins the presidency, Clinton will have won it the wrong way, and that in some bizarre way her victory won’t be legitimate.
Penning a campaign memo to Clinton with the subject line, “Winning Right,” Ron Fournier in The Atlantic insisted that winning isn’t enough for her (emphasis added):
Congratulations! You are now the presumptive Democratic nominee. Considering the demographic obstacles piled against Donald J. Trump, you’re this close to the presidency. The nation’s first woman president. Heir to President Obama’s legacy.
It’s not enough. Is your goal to win the presidency or to win and transform the presidency? Are you a caretaker or a change agent? Do you seize power for the love of power or for higher purposes: to modernize the institutions of politics and governance; to restore the public’s faith in Washington; to break the cycle of polarization and solve big problems; to galvanize the youth vote (like Obama) and translate millennials’ passion and power into governmental reforms (unlike Obama)?
According to Fournier, Clinton’s victory and her presidency will only matter if she completely transforms American politics. And if she accomplishes that without any help from Republicans, of course.
For context, note that Fournier’s column scolded Clinton’s campaign for not being “honest and authentic” the way Donald Trump’s campaign has been honest and authentic. So that tells you a bit about the writer’s worldview.
Some of Fournier’s suggestions/demands for Clinton to win and govern the right way? She should “digitize” the “bully pulpit” to get Republican statehouses to stop gerrymandering voting districts, and as president she should change the rules for how the Democratic and Republican parties nominate their candidates.
So no, I doubt the Clinton camp is taking Fournier’s offerings seriously. But his heavy-handed demands are worth noting since they offer insight into how parts of the pundit class are already preemptively undermining Clinton’s possible win.
One popular refrain is that the rest of Clinton’s run is already tainted because her unfavorable/favorable rating is not good. Trump’s net unfavorable rating is worse, but many in the press are lumping the two candidates together and presenting them as a deeply unpopular pair.
“I think is very frustrating is that the two people most disliked by a majority of the country are about to end up running against each other,” lamented Matthew Dowd on ABC This Week.
Added Fournier on Meet The Press: “We have two presumptive nominees and most often America says oh, my God. Maybe I don't vote in November.”
The theme is constant: Clinton’s viewed poorly by voters, therefore she doesn’t inspire. But that’s not true. A recent Gallup poll found that Clinton supporters were among the most enthusiastic this campaign season, and were even more enthusiastic about her run than supporters of Bernie Sanders were about his.
Meanwhile, over at Politico, Todd Purdum’s recent piece, “How Hillary Could Win the Election—and Lose the Country,” harped on many of the same points Fournier made in The Atlantic. Yes, Clinton can win, but she’s winning the wrong way (emphasis added):
It is entirely possible to be the winner and still not get much of a mandate—to enter office as a kind of default president who gets in because no other candidate is electable but who doesn’t have the faith and loyalty of a large portion of the nation.”
Specifically, Purdum deducts points for Clinton lacking a clear vision (a “new animating idea”). Yes, as Purdum quotes from a recent Clinton speech, she’s fighting for “civil rights, voting rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and rights for people with disabilities.” But to pundit Purdum, it seems boring.
It’s boring and out of touch: “[Her] ideas are out of sync with the mood of the electorate in this three-sheets-to-the-wind age.”
Of course, the idea that she’s “out of sync” with voters is undermined by the fact Clinton has received more votes than any other candidate this year.
Have we ever seen a White House campaign where members of the press suggest the candidate winning the most votes isn’t really the candidate people want to vote for? Yet over and over Purdum insists Clinton’s out of touch with Democratic voters … while Clinton seems poised to accept her party’s nomination. (I’m anxiously awaiting the Purdum column about how Trump’s badly out of step with Republican voters today.)
Overall, this whole not-winning-the-right-way thing is quite odd, mainly because for decades campaign coverage in America has revolved around one thing: Winning. It’s been the only thing that mattered. And winners were usually toasted as being super savvy regardless of their margin of victory. That's why it's called horse race journalism because the press has been obsessed with documenting who crosses the finish line first; with who's up and who's down.
Today, Clinton’s clearly up so some scribes want to rewrite the rules and announce that it’s not really about winning, it’s about how you win? Suddenly pundits are subtracting points for style and grace if she doesn’t run her campaign and win exactly how they say she must conduct herself?
Media message to Hillary: Jump through these series of progressively smaller campaign hoops while we grade your leaps and bounds as being insufficient.