“Freak Show”? Gimme A Break!

At The Politico, John Harris and Jim VandeHei describe “What Clinton wishes she could say”:

She and Bill Clinton both devoutly believe that Obama’s likely victory is a disaster-in-waiting. Naïve Democrats just don’t see it. And a timid, pro-Obama press corps won’t tell the story.

But Hillary Clinton won’t tell it, either.

A lot of coverage of the Clinton campaign supposes them to be in kitchen-sink mode—hurling every pot and pan, no matter the damage this might do to Obama as the likely Democratic nominee in the fall.

In fact, the Democratic race has not been especially rough by historical standards. What’s more, our conversations with Democrats who speak to the Clintons make plain that their public comments are only the palest version of what they really believe: That if Obama is the nominee a likely Democratic victory would turn to a near-certain defeat.

I think it may well be true, especially after Obama’s self-revelatory moment in San Francisco, that Obama will be a relatively weak general election candidate. It is also certainly true that the Republicans will go after Obama in ways that the Clintons didn’t or couldn’t. After all, in the Democratic primaries there is essentially no such thing as too far left, so the Republicans will make an issue of Obama’s liberalism in a way that hasn’t happened so far.

What is repellent, however, about Harris’s and VandeHei’s analysis is the classless way they characterize conservative media:

The last two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John F. Kerry, were both military veterans, and both had been familiar, highly successful figures in national politics for more than two decades by the time they ran.

Both men lost control of their public images to the right-wing freak show — that network of operatives and commentators working mostly outside of the mainstream media — and ultimately lost their elections as many voters came to see them as elitist, out-of-touch, phony, and even unpatriotic.

Obama is a much less familiar figure than Kerry or Gore, with a life story that is far more exotic, who is coming out of a political milieu in Chicago politics that is far more liberal.

The freak show has already signaled its early lines of attack on Obama. Polls show a significant percentage of Americans believe — falsely — that he is a Muslim. Voter interviews reveal widespread unease with minor and seemingly irrelevant questions like why he does not favor American flag pins on his lapel. Nor have we heard the last about Wright and his fulminations.

Here will be the real kitchen sink: every damaging comment or association from Obama’s past, mixed together with innuendo and downright fiction, to portray him as an an exotic character of uncertain values and weak patriotism.

Where to begin? Al Gore lost because he was a lousy candidate, and because the public’s weariness of the Clintons largely cancelled out the record of peace and prosperity on which Gore wanted to run. The internet played little role in 2000, and talk radio was hardly decisive.

In 2004, Kerry lost because most voters were reasonably satisfied with the Bush administration and because he, too, was a mediocre candidate. The principal “freak show” of 2004, in VandeHei’s and Harris’s view, was no doubt the Swift Boat Vets and their supporters. Both of these reporters have expressed hostility toward the Vets in the past. In fact, though, it was stupid for John Kerry to “report for duty” at the Democratic convention and to try to define himself as a war hero. The Swift Boat Vets told the American people what most did not know: that Kerry, upon returning from Vietnam, falsely denounced his fellow servicemen as war criminals. It’s hardly a surprise that most voters were not favorably impressed when they learned the facts about how Kerry got his start in politics.

Now, VandeHei and Harris want to declare voters’ concerns about Obama out of bounds by associating them with the “right wing freak show.” In fact, however, it is entirely legitimate to wonder whether a candidate whose spiritual mentor says “God damn America,” and who was himself drawn to that mentor when he heard him blame the world’s problems on “white men’s greed,” is the kind of person who should be elected President. And let’s not start throwing stones about “downright fiction.” The “right wing freak show” hasn’t fabricated any charges against Obama. The fabrications, so far, have all come from the liberal (“mainstream”) media, like the New York Times, and Democratic politicians, like Jay Rockefeller and Howard Dean, just as they did in 2004.

If there is a “freak show” on the fringes of American politics, it can be found on the Left, at fever swamps like the Daily Kos and Democratic Underground that specialize in conspiracy theories and hate. It’s interesting, though, to find out how former mainstream reporters–Harris and VandeHei formerly wrote for the Washington Post–feel about those who have broken the liberal monopoly on the news.


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