The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
When Bill Clinton finished second in New Hampshire in 1992 with less than 25% of the vote, he was called the “comeback kid.” Yesterday Hillary Clinton finished second with nearly 40%, and it’s being called a devastating loss. Which just goes to show how right she was the other day when she observed that the struggle for women’s equality is not over.
We kid! Of course Mrs. Clinton, who unlike her husband 24 years ago is the inevitable nominee, did suffer a devastating loss—the worst since pen monger Paul Fisher, who finished 71.7 points behind John F. Kennedy in 1960. Votes are still being counted, but it looks as though Bernie Sanders’s percentage will exceed 60%, and his margin of victory 22 points.
Gamblers still expect Mrs. Clinton to be the nominee, and even (just barely) the president a year from now: As we write, ElectionBettingOdds.com puts the likelihoods at 78.1% and 50.4%, respectively. But it is increasingly clear that she is one of the weakest front-runners in American history—weaker even than herself in 2008, who did win New Hampshire.
Inevitability is the only thing she has going for her, and it may not be enough. What happened? It’s a commonplace by now that Mrs. Clinton is not a natural politician and that she launched her political career with a marital booster rocket. She thus missed the skill-development opportunities that accompany challenging early-career bids for lower office. But how in the world could she have gotten worse at this, not better, since 2008?
We can’t possibly give a full answer to that question in a single column, because it is an overdetermined effect. But a story Gawker’s J.K. Trotter broke on Feb. 9 illuminates one major cause.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, Trotter discovered a July 2009 email exchange between Marc Ambinder, then a contributing editor of the Atlantic, and Philippe Reines, Mrs. Clinton’s State Department press secretary. Mrs. Clinton was planning a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Ambinder wondered if he could get an early look. “On two conditions,” Reines responded. “Ok,” said Ambinder. Reines’s reply made clear the conditions were not just about timing or sourcing:
3 [conditions] actually
1) You in your own voice describe them [sic] as “muscular”
2) You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys—from Holbrooke to Mitchell to Ross—will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something
3) You don’t say you were blackmailed!
“Got it,” replied Ambinder. Later that day he published a story that complied with the first two conditions right at the top:
When you think of President Obama’s foreign policy, think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s the message behind a muscular speech that [Mrs.] Clinton is set to deliver today to the Council on Foreign Relations. The staging gives a clue to its purpose: seated in front of [Mrs.] Clinton, subordinate to [Mrs.] Clinton, in the first row, will be three potentially rival power centers: envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, and National Security Council senior director Dennis Ross.
In three responses to Trotter, Ambinder tosses up an enormous word salad: “I don’t remember much about anything. . . . The exchange is probably at best an incomplete record of what went down. That said, the transactional nature of such interactions always gave me the willies. . . . At no point at The Atlantic did I ever feel the pressure to make transactional journalism the norm.”
In sum, he complied with the third condition and did not acknowledge that he was “blackmailed” even after being caught out 6½ years later. The Atlantic cooperated, too, appending this cryptic note atop Ambinder’s 2009 piece: “On February 9, 2016, Gawker called the reporting of this post into question. It is The Atlantic’s policy never to cede to sources editorial control of the content of our stories.”
At least two other journalists covered the speech in ways consistent with the conditions Reines imposed on Ambinder. Mike Allen of Politico:
In a muscular first major address as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton warns adversaries on Wednesday that they “should never see America’s willingness to talk as a sign of weakness to be exploited.” . . .
A look at the CFR’s guest seating chart shows that arrayed in the front row will be top members of her team—the envoys she has called her “force multipliers”: Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, Philip Goldberg and Stephen Bosworth.
And the New York Times’s Mark Landler, writing after the speech (credit to former blogger Morgen Richmond for the find):
With its muscular tone and sweeping scope, it was . . . an effort to recapture the limelight after a period in which Mrs. Clinton has nursed both a broken elbow and the perception that the State Department has lost influence to an assertive White House. . . .
She even marshaled a cheering section of special envoys and other senior American diplomats in the first few rows at the Council on Foreign Relations. . . .
A few weeks ago, a senior administration official said, Mr. Obama telephoned Mrs. Clinton to inform her he was moving the State Department’s top Iran adviser, Dennis B. Ross, to a job in the White House.
Mr. Ross will offer advice on a range of issues, from the Middle East to Afghanistan. That, some officials said, could cause him to rub up against George J. Mitchell, the special envoy for the Middle East, and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who report to both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.
We should emphasize that while Ambinder clearly crossed an ethical red line in taking dictation from a source, there is no evidence that Landler or (at least in this case) Allen did anything of the sort. It’s possible they thought of the “muscular” cliché unbidden, and it’s highly plausible that they received talking points from Reines without any strings attached.
But even that latter possibility would illustrate the broader point we’d like to make here—the one that goes to Mrs. Clinton’s weakness as a candidate. She has long been coddled by journalists awed by her proximity to power and her status as a “feminist icon” and bête noire of conservatives. (A 2010 email from Ambinder to Reines, quoted by Trotter in the same piece: “This is an awesome presser . . . She is PITCH f#$*& PERFECT on this stuff.”)
In his much-discussed Politico essay last month on Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson touched on the point:
The main reason Trump could win is because he’s the only candidate hard enough to call Hillary’s bluff. Republicans will say almost anything about Hillary, but almost none challenge her basic competence. She may be evil, but she’s tough and accomplished. This we know, all of us.
But do we? Or is this understanding of Hillary just another piety we repeat out of unthinking habit, the political equivalent of, “you can be whatever you want to be,” or “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”? Trump doesn’t think Hillary is impressive and strong. He sees her as brittle and afraid.
Even that now looks like an overestimation of Mrs. Clinton’s strength. Her luxuriant treatment by friendly journalists and other establishment figures has caused a progressive wasting of whatever political muscle she had developed, so that even a 98-pound weakling like Bernie Sanders may prove to be a match for her.
As for Trump, he easily won the Republican primary, matching his polls, possibly exceeding 35%, finishing some 20 points ahead of second-place John Kasich, and leaving the GOP at least as unsettled as the Democrats.
Journalists and political professionals have long regarded Trump as inevitable, like Mrs. Clinton—only in the opposite direction: She was certain to be the nominee; he was certain to fade or self-destruct. (Disclosure: This columnist shared the latter assumption until two or three months ago.) He has proved stronger than expected in part because the expectations were so low—and in part because, again in contrast with Mrs. Clinton, the hostility of the media has afforded him ample opportunity to build his strength.
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