Judging by the reaction to Thursday night’s CNN debate, everything seems to be falling into place for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for president. After flirting with subjecting her to some scrutiny, the media seem to be coming to the conclusion that her nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate is inevitable. The moderator, Wolf Blitzer, let Hillary off the hook on the issue of illegal immigration while luring Hillary’s main competitor, Barack Obama, into a Wolf trap, and he stiffed candidate John Edwards on air time during the debate. It was Hillary’s moment to shine, which is what CNN intended.
In contrast to Tim Russert’s handling of the October 30 debate, at which Hillary virtually melted down under long-overdue tough questioning on the subject of illegal immigration, Blitzer gave her the kid-glove treatment. He had denied reports earlier in the week that he had been warned by the Clinton camp to not pull “a Russert” on Thursday night. But after watching his performance, you have to wonder. He permitted Hillary a brisk “No” when asked for her stand on driver’s licenses for illegal aliens, whereas close scrutiny of her contradictory statements was in order. Instead, Blitzer sparred with Senator Barack Obama, who sounded almost like Hillary during the last debate. What’s more, Blitzer did not actively discourage the audience from coming to Hillary’s defense with audible sighs and moans when she came under attack by her rivals, especially John Edwards.
“Wolf Turned Into a Lamb,” announced the Drudge Report, quoting a source in another campaign.
Blitzer’s performance followed CNN personality Rick Sanchez attacking Senator John McCain for being present at a campaign event where a supporter criticized Mrs. Clinton as something that rhymes with witch. Sanchez had suggested that McCain had not defended Hillary vigorously enough. Apparently, according to CNN, candidates are not even supposed to allow their supporters to say nasty things about the Clintons. In the CNN world, everybody is supposed to be nice to the former First Lady. That was clearly the case on Thursday night. Blitzer has a lot to answer for.
Meanwhile, left-wing Democrats at the Dailykos.com are upset that CNN commentator James Carville is a Clinton sycophant but pretends to be otherwise on the air.
An analysis of speaking time showed Hillary and Obama dominating the debate, which is what Blitizer had intended, in order to set Obama up for the kill on immigration. The big loser, this analysis shows, was Edwards, who ended up behind Bill Richardson and Joe Biden in the amount of time they commanded on stage.
Blitzer’s acceptance of the “no” answer from Hillary was striking. There had been some scrutiny in the preceding weeks about the inevitability of her becoming the next president because of that very issue. In general, as all of the Republican presidential candidates fully understand, illegal immigration has the potential of destroying the Democrats next November. The media seem to understand this, too. Perhaps that is why Hillary was given a pass this time around.
This time, Obama was the first to be asked about it, and he stumbled on the issue, while trying to offer a nuanced position. Wolf let him dig himself into a deeper hole, and then asked for a simple yes or no from everyone else. It was the best thing that could have happened to Hillary. Here was her main rival taking the heat because of a position that she had taken.
Here’s the (edited) exchange:
BLITZER: Do you support or oppose driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants?
OBAMA: I am not proposing that that’s what we do.
What I’m saying is that we can’t…
No, no, no, no. Look, I have already said, I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver’s licenses at the same level can make that happen.
But what I also know…
BLITZER: All right…
OBAMA: But what I also know, Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it.
BLITZER: But — because this is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer.
Either you support it or you oppose it.
BLITZER: All right. Thank you. Senator Obama, yes or no?
Before the license flap, our media had considered going after Hillary because of her links to Norman Hsu, the crooked fundraiser and businessman who bundled more than $800,000 for her campaign. At the time, she tried distancing herself from him, and originally agreed to donate to charity only the $23,000 that he personally gave her campaign. She later thought better of it and said she would be giving up the whole $850,000 that he had bundled for her. It turned out that much of that money came from straw donors, people whose names were used though they actually put up none of their own money, and investors who were in the process of being conned out of their money by the unscrupulous Hsu.
As I discussed in a previous column, this event was significant in that the New York Times and L.A. Times, among others, gave front-page coverage to a potentially serious Clinton scandal that was reminiscent of Clinton fundraising scandals of the 1990’s. The scrutiny suggested that some in the major media thought Hillary’s ethical baggage might render her unelectable in 2008.
The scrutiny continued with the Democratic debate on October 30, moderated by Tim Russert, when she gave different answers just moments apart about her support for a controversial plan being put forth by the Democratic governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, regarding issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. Hillary said that “it makes a lot of sense…we want people to come out of the shadows,” and moments later equivocated, saying that she wasn’t saying she supported it.
Under pressure, her campaign released a less than definitive statement that she in fact “supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
But just before the CNN debate in Las Vegas, the Clintons reportedly leaned on Spitzer to withdraw the plan, and Hillary quickly announced that she no longer supports it.
She wasn’t alone in waffling. The seven Democratic candidates were asked the same question in the Las Vegas debate as they were in the October 30 debate: Do you support driver’s licenses for illegal aliens? On October 30 Sen. Chris Dodd was alone in opposing it. On November 15, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Hillary and Joe Biden all said no. This demonstrates the political potency of the issue. The media got the message, too.
As a result of waving the white flag in front of Hillary at Thursday’s debate, we cannot expect the media to subject the senator to scrutiny for other campaign misdeeds, such as naming Sandy Berger as an adviser. He pled guilty in 2005 to destroying highly classified documents he had stolen from the National Archives in advance of the 9/11 commission hearings, to purge records that would reflect badly on the Clinton administration.
Going back further in time, to the days when she served as co-president under her husband, it is apparent that Hillary will not be asked about her judgment in having picked Craig Livingstone, a bar bouncer with a phony resumé, to head up the FBI White House liaison office, who then oversaw the transfer of more than 1,000 FBI files of Republicans from previous administrations. Then-FBI director Louis Freeh called this an “egregious violation of privacy,” and former FBI agent Dennis Sculimbrene said that White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum told him that Livingstone got the job because Hillary knew his mother.
Before Blitzer’s Clinton-friendly performance on Thursday, we know that Hillary’s campaign had been caught planting questions in town hall meetings. When John Edwards brought that up indirectly in the debate, he was booed by the audience, which suggests the audience was itself stacked with Hillary followers. Was CNN aware of this in advance? Was Blitzer? The Edwards, Obama and other campaigns should take a look.
The mere suggestion of having an audience stacked in Hillary’s favor may strike some as fantastic. But Michael Crowley, in an article in the New Republic entitled “Bunker Hillary,” reveals how the Clinton campaign manipulates media coverage of Hillary and intimidates reporters who probe too deeply into her flaws. This is an operation that tries to control every detail of the campaign as well as the media.
Crowley’s piece is a powerful indictment, brining back memories of the Clinton enemies list from the 1990’s. It was then called the Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce, a 331-page document that formed the basis of the “Vast right wing conspiracy” that Hillary claimed was out to get her husband.
Crowley cites numerous examples of Clinton bullying. He points to a front-page New York Times story by Patrick Healey, which tended to humanize Barack Obama, talking about him hitting a game-winning shot in a game of pick-up basketball. Team Clinton let him know that they viewed the article as an “annoyance.”
“If grumbling about a basketball story seems excessive,” writes Crowley, “It’s also typical of the Clinton media machine. Reporters who have covered the hyper-vigilant campaign say that no detail or editorial spin is too minor to draw a rebuke. Even seasoned political journalists describe reporting on Hillary as a torturous experience. Though few dare offer specifics for the record―‘They’re too smart,’ one furtively confides. ‘They’ll figure out who I am’―privately, they recount excruciating battles to secure basic facts. Innocent queries are met with deep suspicion. Only surgically precise questioning yields relevant answers.”
Crowley writes that “Hillary’s aides don’t hesitate to use access as a blunt instrument, as when they killed off a negative GQ story on the campaign by threatening to stop cooperating with a separate Bill Clinton story the magazine had in the works. Reporters’ jabs and errors are long remembered, and no hour is too odd for an angry phone call. Clinton aides are especially swift to bypass reporters and complain to top editors. ‘They’re frightening!’ says one reporter who has covered Clinton. ‘They don’t see [reporting] as a healthy part of the process. They view this as a ruthless kill-or-be-killed game.’”
Crowley further states that “Despite all the grumbling, however, the press has showered Hillary with strikingly positive coverage.”
An Old Story
Bill Clinton himself showed his mastery of manipulating the media when he lined up some senators and others to put pressure on ABC when the network announced plans to air “The Path to 9/11,” a September 2006 miniseries demonstrating how Clinton’s inaction on terrorism may have contributed to the horrendous act of terror committed on that fateful day. The pressure resulted in certain cuts favorable to Clinton being made in the film that eventually aired.
In view of this kind of history, Blitzer’s decision to spare Hillary from the scrutiny she richly deserves makes a lot of sense. Look for Hillary’s rivals to join conservatives in calling CNN the Clinton News Network.