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The Real Democratic Primary: Hillary Versus the Media

Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Beth Lilly, 29, remembers the first time she felt like the media was doing Hillary Clinton wrong: It was in 1992, when she was just about six years old, and remembers that people weren’t happy about Hillary’s chocolate-chip cookie recipe.

The incident was actually one of the most infamous moments of the 1992 campaign. “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,” Hillary said. The comment prompted a media firestorm—and an invitation from “Family Circle” magazine to pit her cookie recipe against Barbara Bush’s. “The press coverage was just so absurd,” recalls Lilly, who’s now a policy attorney in Washington, D.C.

It was Lilly’s very first memory of Hillary. Twenty-three years later, Lilly sees the Hillary pile-on is happening yet again, and she’ll be there to support her. “So her foundation took money. It’s kind of what foundations do,” she tells me at a recent happy hour for Clinton supporters in Arlington, Virginia.

To the irritation of her biggest devotees, the controversial donations to the Clinton Foundation—and the efforts to tie them to Hillary's policymaking at the State Department—have loomed over the early weeks of her official campaign. Jack Bardo, a young Democratic activist from Arlington, believes “the media is missing the mark” by focusing on such issues. “I wasn’t surprised—that’s what you’d expect in this media landscape,” says Bardo, who supported Clinton in the 2008 primary.

The lack of competition in the Democratic primary has left Hillary’s most ardent supporters with the strange task of having someone to root for, without having someone to root against. Her Republican opponents are a distant challenge; the other Democratic candidates are mere speed bumps in the polls. Instead, the most visible threat to Hillary is her own public image, leaving her early supporters with the dual mission of ginning up enthusiasm for her campaign—and pointing fingers at the media for trying to drag her down. 

Just a few Metro stops from the White House, the northern Virginia corner of Hillaryland is particularly well suited to the task of flacking for Clinton, full of political junkies, yellow-dog Democrats, media-savvy consultants, grad students, wannabe Hillary campaign staffers, and other ambitious professionals who are old enough to have grown up with Hillary but too young to have been burned out on anti-Clinton mudslinging.

Nate Maeur, 29, remembers seeing Hillary for the first time on TV when he was young. She was advocating for children’s rights in Africa. “I remember being glued to the TV as a really little kid, watching her, almost being entranced by what she was saying, what she believed in, because it was exactly what my mother was saying,” says Maeur, who runs a workforce development organization. “I’m surprised I didn’t confuse my mom for her, and say—‘Oh, there’s Mom right there.’”

For Clinton’s younger supporters—many of whom, like Maeur, were Barack Obama campaign volunteers—their memories of the scandals and pseudo-scandals of the Clinton years are hazy at best, filtered through the soft focus of childhood. In sharper relief for them are the accomplishments that Hillary has racked up since then—U.S. senator, 2008 candidate, secretary of state—which her young Arlington supporters quickly rattled off when asked why they were backing her. “She’s going down in history whether people like it or not,” says Renzo Olivari, 19, a political science major at James Madison University who hopes to run for office one day. He was still in middle school during the 2008 campaign but remembers watching her speeches at age 12 and getting “emotionally invested” in the Clinton campaign even then. 

In Clinton, young supporters see someone who’s risen up through the political establishment on her own merits: the ultimate Washington success story. What they missed earlier in the ‘90s was what Josh Marshall describes as the “Vince Foster moment” that the Clintons had to overcome first:

For those of you not familiar with Vince Foster, his tragic suicide or the years-long right-wing clown show it kicked off, it is probably best described as the '90s version of Benghazi...It's never enough for the Clintons' perennial critics to be satisfied with potential conflicts of interest or arguably unseemly behavior. It's got to be more. It always has to be more. There have to be high crimes, dead people, corrupt schemes. And if they don't materialize, they need to be made up. Both because there is an organized partisan apparatus aimed at perpetuating them and because there is a right-wing audience that requires a constant diet of hyperventilating outrage from which to find nourishment. 

Hillary’s older supporters remember those days all too well and are quick to point out the larger machinations of the anti-Clinton apparatus. “You think of all this dirt that gets thrown out at her every day. There are what, 30 organizations that have been founded to throw crap at her?” says Allida Black, 63, a historian and long-time Hillary supporter who co-founded the Ready for Hillary SuperPAC.

The Clinton Foundation story is almost perfectly designed to polarize Clinton’s supporters and opponents along traditional lines. Critics say donations from foreign governments and business interests with a stake in administration policy raise conflict-of-interest questions, but even the conservative author leading the charge on the issue, Peter Schweizer, acknowledges there’s no “direct evidence” linking Clinton to any specific quid pro quo deal. Whether you believe there’s more to the story than just bad “optics” mostly depends on whether you see it as merely the latest in a long line of trumped-up Clinton scandals that didn’t pan out or the newest example of those ruthless and corrupt Clintons flouting the rules for personal gain.

But like many of Hillarys young supporters gathered in Arlington, Olivari doesnt blame Republicans or a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Instead, he faults the media itself for driving the controversy over the Clinton Foundation, the Libya intervention, and Clinton’s use of her personal email at the State Department. (The New York Times broke the story on her personal email, going off a tip from an unidentified source.)  “The media—they’re bringing these allegations and these scandals up to see if anyone else in the Democratic side will emerge as a strong candidate and they can go head to head,” says Olivari, who hopes to run for office one day. He adds: “That sells, if you put that out, it sells. It’s them trying to tailor the election to their own needs, rather than what the election is.”

Hillary herself has been keeping the media at an arm’s length, taking only a handful of questions from the press in the early weeks of the campaign. And that control—otherwise known as campaign “discipline”—has even extended to the upstairs bar in Arlington where her early supporters gathered on Tuesday. I try to talk to Nalini Pande, a health policy consultant who had organized the happy hour in Arlington as a more casual alternative to the traditional house party. But a Clinton grassroots organizer in Virginia offers herself up for comment instead.

Obama’s own campaign had a similarly defensive attitude toward the media, but also pioneered new ways to bring his own message directly to supporters without the press. And that’s ultimately what the Clinton campaign is trying to draw on as well: Growing its own grassroots network of support—online and on the ground—that doesn’t need external news outlets to carry her message. And ultimately, the need for that ground-level enthusiasm that will be a far biggest obstacle for Clinton to overcome than Clinton Foundation-palooza.

The Clinton campaign has been organizing similar grassroots events with paid staffers in all 50 states. It’s building not only a base of volunteers for Hillary’s campaign, but also a way to push back against the barrage of negative attention in the media that Clinton’s early supporters are so frustrated with. “Every day I meet people who are so happy about this in a way that’s different,” says Black. “This is what you want to get done, not about what you’re against.” After everyone goes home, Pande keeps the cheering squad alive on Twitter: “So excited that the Hillary Happy Hour I planned in Arlington,VA had an awesome turnout! It looked like we had about 200 people!#Hillary2016.”