You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Has Clinton Gotten A Raw Deal?

I'm not surprised to discover that Hillary Clinton's angry response to John Edwards during the ABC/WMUR debate has dominated the coverage. As I wrote last night, when it happened, it's precisely the kind of theatrical moment that on which the media thrives--although, in fairness, a lot of voters obsess over these things, too. (It clearly made a big impression on this focus group Frank Luntz assembled for Fox News.) 

And while some people think Hillary came off well, showing determination and emotion, the majority opinion seems to be that she lost her cool--that she snapped. I even saw one person call it the "Hillary scream"--a reference to Howard Dean's infamous speech in 2004--although I can't seem to find it on the web now.

Something else did surprise me, however--the reaction to an episode later in the debate. It was right at the beginning of the second half, when WMUR's Scott Spradling suggested to Clinton that voters simply liked Barack Obama more than they liked her. Smiling, Clinton answered, "well, that hurts my feelings. ... He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad."

While a lot of commentators have noted that response, citing it as evidence of her humanity, I've yet to hear or read anybody discussing the quip it provoked from Obama: "You're likable enough, Hillary," he said. But look at those words "likable enough." That's not exactly flattery, particularly for a guy so famous for his civility. What's more, he said it in a way--at least to me--seemed smug or even a little bit cruel, like the cool kids laughing at the ugly girl on prom night.

Now, these things are incredibly subjective, so perhaps I'm in the minority here. And even if Obama was being mean, so what? In a hard-fought campaign like this, you have to assume some bad feelings will build up--and that, particularly at moments of exhaustion like last night's showdown, those feelings will rise to the surface. Clinton and Obama are both human--there's nothing wrong with flashing actual emotions now and then. They are also grown-ups. Obama has a right to feel a little smug these days. And Clinton's self-esteem, well, it will survive the episode just fine.

But the fact that Clinton's rhetorical incident has generated so much discussion--compared to nothing for Obama's--strikes me as something of a double-standard. Which leads me to Kevin Drum's excellent post today, expressing more or less what I've been thinking recently:

Am I feeling bitter? You bet. Not because Hillary Clinton seems more likely than not to lose — I can live with that pretty easily — but because of how she's likely to lose. Because the press doesn't like her. Because any time a woman raises her voice half a decibel she instantly becomes shrill. Because we insist on an idiotic nominating system that gives a bunch of Iowa corn farmers 20x the influence of any Democratic voter in any urban area in the country. Because the fever swamp, in the end, is getting the last laugh.

Kevin goes on to note that nobody forced Clinton to run for president--or to hire Mark Penn, for that matter. That's very true. Besides, if Obama can endear himself towards the press (and the public) but Clinton can't, that's obviously going to affect their respective election prospects. Anybody who cares about enacting progressive policies has to take that very seriously.

And, for the record, I would be plenty enthusiastic about Obama as the Democratic nominee. As I've written before, each of the leading Democrats offers an attractive combination of skills and ideas that, whatever his or her respective flaws, bodes well for the campaign and for the presidency. I feel like I could make an equally compelling case for any of them.

But it's hard to escape the feeling that Clinton has received a raw deal, particularly from the media, in this campaign. It is not the only reason she's struggling right now or even the most important one. But it's still a factor of some importance. And there's no reason to be enthusiastic about that.

--Jonathan Cohn