Wanted: “Un-Journalists” to Cover the 2008 Election

What's a political reporter to do when the presidential primaries are nearly two years away? Why, hand out meaningless titles, like “The Un-Hillary”!

There is, as is sometimes the case, a certain familiarity to the front of this week’s New York magazine.

The cover? An unflattering, too-close photograph of former Vice President Al Gore, the large red words “The Un-Hillary,” and the smaller white words, “President Al Gore?”

Where, we thought, have we seen this sort of thing before?

Ah, yes. The cover of the March 16, 2006 New York Times Magazine, which featured an unflattering, too-close photograph of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and the words “The Anti-Hillary?” printed on a faux campaign pin Photoshopped onto Warner’s Photoshopped maroon jacket — and the smaller words, “Meet Mark Warner…”

According to a November 2005 New Republic cover (registration required), it is Sen. Russ Feingold who is “The Hillary Slayer” — a cover which depicted not a claustrophobic photograph, but rather cartoon renderings of an imposing, sword-wielding Clinton staring down a small-but-smiling, slingshot-wielding Feingold.

Faster than would-be candidates can race to embrace “The Not Hillary” mantle — indeed, before anyone, including “The Hillary,” has officially thrown their hat into the ring — political reporters are rushing to ordain “The Alternative” to the former First Lady (someone to best Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries or, in the case of the New Republic, someone who might at least damage her candidacy).

It’s all part of the speculative run-up to primary season when there isn’t much for the political press to report. What’s a political reporter to do when the primaries themselves are nearly two years away? Why, hand out meaningless titles! Or declare — with a little help from pollsters, think-tankers, and anonymous sources (including once and future campaign managers) — “This is the one to watch.”

The congealing conventional wisdom has it that for the Democrats, 2008 will be a battle between Hillary and “The Un-Hillary” — with the winner going on to face, perhaps, “The Un-Bush,” as The Rocky Mountain News in December dubbed Mitt Romney, current Massachusetts Governor and potential Republican presidential candidate. (Or, as Matt Bai wrote in the above-mentioned New York Times Magazine piece — a refrain echoed in more than one article before and since — “And so the conventional thinking holds that there may only be room for two serious candidates by the time the primaries roll around: Hillary and the anti-Hillary.”)

If that’s the case, who can blame reporters for trying to unmask the real “Un-Hillary”? After all, these are the same boys and girls who love their guessing games (see: Veepstakes) above all else.

So, what does being “The Anti-Hillary” or “The Un-Hillary” actually entail? Depends who you ask. Here is a quick run down, a cheat-sheet of sorts, to help us all keep the current cast of “Anti-Hillaries” straight.

To Warner watchers in the press, what makes the former Virginia governor “The Anti-Hillary” is actually his resemblance to Clinton (as in, Bill). The New York Times Magazine summarized Warner as “Centrist Democrat, Southern Governor, National Unknown. Can He Be the Bill Clinton of 2008?” (Power of suggestion: The week after Bai’s piece ran, the Washington Post referred to Mark Warner in passing as “the hot ‘anti-Hillary’ candidate these days” and, that same week, CNN’s Bill Schneider called Warner “a hot prospect” for the “role” of “the un-Hillary, a moderate alternative who can claim to be more electable.”) Last July, Stephen Moore wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Gov. Warner’s pitch is thoroughly Clintonian — Bill, not Hillary” and quoted “one Democratic political strategist” saying that if Warner gets in to the 2008 race, “there is a real possibility that he emerges as the primary alternative to Hillary Clinton.”

Feingold is “The Un-Hillary” (or the “Hillary Slayer,” if you prefer), apparently, because he is Howard Dean-esque. According to the New Republic, Feingold’s shot at the nomination may be “slim,” but “[w]hat Feingold can do is make life miserable for the other Democrats who seek [the nomination]. … In 2008, perhaps Feingold will play the role of Dean to Clinton’s Kerry, battering her image and dragging her further left than she can afford to go.”

On March 19, the Los Angeles Times published its own “The Anti-Hillary” story about Feingold in which reporter Maura Reynolds saw in the senator “shades” of both Howard Dean and John McCain. Reported Reynolds: “Campaign analysts agree the Democratic field of potential White House contenders is dominated by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has been staking out territory toward the political center, leaving open the left end of the spectrum. ‘Basically, the field will be Hillary and the anti-Hillary,’ said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. ‘There’s this big void out there that needs to be filled. Since [the left wing’s] unhappiness is generally about the war and [the NSA] surveillance, Feingold’s talking to them and they’re listening,’” wrote Reynolds. (Duffy gave the Christian Science Monitor the same spiel way back in November 2004, but back then the “anti-Hillary” was no lefty: “There’s going to be Hillary and the anti-Hillary — somebody who’s kind of everything she’s not — more moderate, probably from the Midwest or the South,” declared Duffy.)

What of Al Gore? According to New York, Gore is the “un-Hillary” — or “the political pariah who might be the one person to stop Clinton in her tracks” — because he can both “challenge [Clinton] from the left” on Iraq, as on opponent of the war, and “run to her right” on national security “given his long-held expertise about bombs and bullets and his advocacy of intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia.” Moreover, “Gore’s anti-global-warming jihad” would please “greens and other liberals, while his long and demonstrated history as a moderate on countless other issues … would allow him to score with centrist Democrats who fear that Clinton is a once-and-future lefty.”

In March, CNN’s Bill Schneider also emphasized Gore’s lefty appeal, saying, “there’s a part for the left alternative to Hillary” since “many Hollywood liberals and online activists consider Hillary Clinton too moderate” and “want a more outspoken choice like Senator Russ Feingold or maybe Al Gore.” In April, the (London) Guardian described Gore as “the conscience of the Democratic Left — the anti-Hillary figure speaking out in anger against the war in Iraq and domestic wiretapping.”

Reporters who can’t locate the ideal “Un-Hillary” might consider building their own fantasy version. In June 2005, the Economist (in a story headlined “The Un-Hillary”) identified “two potential un-Hillaries” in Mark Warner (“the most interesting un-Hillary”) and Sen. Joe Biden. The reporter went on to offer this assessment: “If Messrs Warner and Biden were rolled into one, they would make a formidable rival to Hillary even at the top of her game” but “[s]ince that, alas, is impossible, they will have to wait for her to stumble” — and, the Economist warned Economist-esquely, “There is many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.”

And there is many a month ‘twixt now and presidential primary season. How many more “Un-Hillaries” will journalists identify (and for what reasons) between now and when candidates actually begin to announce their intentions? How many “Un-Bushes”?

It’s going to be a long slog.

Is there any way we could get some “un-journalists” to cover the ‘08 election?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.