Now that the Democratic primary fight is (finally!) over, we’re seeing a spate of postmortems from the press, analyzing how Hillary Clinton, who last year looked like the almost inevitable nominee, managed to fall short. But many of these assessments miss arguably the biggest factor of all in her defeat—and in doing so, they point up some deep-seated weaknesses in the political press corps.
Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal led the pack with a front-pager headlined “Clinton’s Road to Second Place,” which identified four broad categories of mistakes made by Clinton and her campaign: “mismanagement,” a “flawed message,” a “failure to mobilize,” and “Clinton craziness.”
Yesterday, brought another effort: Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter offers “Five Reasons Obama Won. Five Reasons Clinton Lost.” Those latter five, which in places echo the Journal, boil down to “No Respect for the Voters,” “Poor Strategy,” “Weak Management,” “Arrogance,” and “Entitlement.”
Both of these pieces offer smart insights about why Clinton lost, and it’s hard to dispute the salience of any of these factors. But neither the Journal nor Alter give significant consideration to an additional factor that may have been more important than any other: Clinton’s vote to go to war in Iraq.
Even before this latest batch of stories, the media’s efforts to explain Clinton’s struggles have consistently downplayed Iraq, as bloggers like The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias and Atrios have pointed out.
It’s hard to remember now, but last year, when he was a dark-horse challenger, Obama’s consistent opposition to the war, along with Clinton’s vote for it, provided much of the rationale for his long-shot candidacy. Without that black-and-white contrast, it’s doubtful whether his insurgent campaign could have gotten off the ground.
The Journal piece mentions Iraq only in passing, arguing that Clinton’s “failure to mobilize” in caucus states, which turned out to be a major mistake, was due to the Clinton team’s belief that caucuses were dominated by antiwar activists.
Similarly, Alter refers to Iraq only to make the case that Clinton’s reliance on Mark Penn was a case of “weak management.” Penn, with an eye on the general election, had been instrumental in convincing her that she shouldn’t apologize for her vote in favor of the war.
As for the other major outlets, The Washington Post, too, seemed to have little interest in the Iraq vote. But it did give a hint as to what it sees as the important factors in Clinton’s loss. In yesterday’s A1 tick-tock of the final months of her campaign, the paper briefly summarized the early missteps that doomed her, again echoing the Journal and Alter: “a flawed message a failure to make Clinton more appealing to Iowa voters a strategic miscalculation about the importance of caucus states Bill Clinton.” Nothing on Iraq.
The New York Times, meanwhile, yesterday examined Clinton’s failure over the last few months to maintain and build on her support among superdelegates. Given the story’s focus, it’s not surprising that it doesn’t mention Iraq. But the editors’ decision, the morning after the announcement of Clinton’s withdrawal, to concentrate on the (admittedly important) process issue of super-delegates, and ignore Iraq, speaks for itself.
This isn’t just a gotcha point. There are underlying reasons, I’d argue, why the press has made the mistake of downplaying Iraq in explaining Clinton’s loss. And there are further reasons why it matters.
For a long time after September 11, appearing “tough” on national security was, broadly speaking, good politics. The GOP gained seats in 2002, and President Bush won re-election in 2004, in large part by convincing voters that their party was more willing than the Democrats to use force. Much of the press internalized that state of affairs, assuming that the politics of national security always cut in favor of the more hawkish candidate.