April 07, 2016

Move over Jeff Jacoby, Eric Fehrnstrom’s appears to be gunning for your beat over at the Globe. A couple weeks back I gently debunked Fehrnstrom’s transparently weak argument that Trump could beat Clinton. This week, he has published an even more transparently weak attack on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy that I will herein debunk a bit less gently. Frankly, Mr. Fehrnstrom writes like a graduating senior taking a course pass-fail, though I’m not sure he deserves credit for giving it “the old college try.”

      Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, so it’s perfectly appropriate for him to write about the weaknesses of the Democratic frontrunner. It’s also important to note that his partisanship DOES NOT mean that his arguments should be automatically discounted. His personal interests and biases do not prevent him from writing an objectively fair and intelligent critique of Clinton’s candidacy. His last two Globe columns, however, make me suspect that he doesn’t think it’s worth it to do so. Maybe he assumes that only fellow Republicans, who share his assumptions and conclusions already will read his columns. Maybe he’s just trying to add fuel to the Hillary-hatred of Bernie Sanders’ most ardent followers, particularly the ones who’ve shown a willingness to adopt and disseminate some of the unsubstantiated, non-reality based right wing attacks on Clinton. Or, maybe Mr. Fehrnstrom, who I assume is a competent Republican political operative, simply isn’t very good at intelligent opinion writing.

     Fehrnstrom argues that unlike most candidates, Clinton is not getting better with experience. She is getting worse. Ironically, this line of argument is getting traction in the media with regard to Donald Trump. Fehrnstrom seems to want to capitalize on this by repeatedly comparing Clinton to the first time candidate embarrassing himself daily at this point. The fact that in his last Globe column he argued that this bumbling, bloviating billionaire could actually beat Clinton in the fall shows that Fehrnstrom’s latest anti-Clinton thesis might actually apply to his own tenure as a Globe columnist.

     Fehrnstrom asserts that Clinton has been guilty of many “miscues and gaffes” that an experienced campaigner should have been able to avoid.  He cites Clinton’s reference [in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press”] to a developing child in the womb as an “unborn person”” as a gaffe because it “inflamed supporters on the left who prefer medically neutral terms like “embryo” or “fetus.”” His effort to get Clinton in trouble with pro-choice women jumps the shark, however, when he tries to liken her “Meet the Press” comment to Donald Trump’s train wreck of a response to questions about who should be punished for the crime of abortion. While I realize Trump’s subterranean poll numbers with women make this comparison attractive to Fehrnstrom, comparing a female pol who has been an outspoken advocate for choice for decades to the most misogynistic candidate ever to run for the presidency doesn’t pass the smell test even for highly motivated reasoners.

     Fehrnstrom also argues that Clinton’s angry retort to a Greenpeace activist about how “sick” she is of being lied about by the Sanders’ campaign reflects her failure to learn from previous mistakes on the campaign trail and calls her refusal to release the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches an “unforced error.” Gaffes such as these look to Fehrnstrom like “rookie mistakes.” However, neither showing passion by getting mad at a Greenpeace activist nor referring to a fetus as an “unborn person” sound like mistakes that will hurt Clinton in the general election. In fact, both could be quite useful in certain quarters, not unlike her overly charitable words about Nancy Reagan upon the passing of her fellow former First Lady. To call these serious mistakes you would have to believe that Clinton is in a real dog fight with Sanders; in a truly close race that could go either way.  Fehrnstrom clearly wants his readers to believe this. Ignoring Clinton’s formidable lead in both delegates and votes, Fehrnstrom focuses instead on how many recent contests Sanders has “won” and how much more money Sanders has raised. He completely ignores the math, which despite the efforts of media savvy Sanders supporters and Republicans like Fehrnstrom who would MUCH rather see Sanders as the Democratic nominee, makes clear that the Clinton-Sanders race is not close.  Fehrnstrom’s characterization of Clinton’s refusal to release her speeches is a transparently disingenuous assessment. Fehrnstrom knows full well that despite there being nothing truly problematic in those speeches, the G.O.P. is always happy to have more material to quote out of context, misconstrue, or flat out lie about, especially when it comes to Hillary Clinton.  Her not taking this bate contradicts Fehrnstrom’s thesis quite dramatically.

     Fehrnstrom’s best weak argument involves his party’s frontrunner. He argues that “Clinton has benefited from the spectacle created by Donald Trump’s candidacy to escape hard scrutiny.” You remember Donald Trump, he’s the guy Fehrnstrom thinks can beat Clinton in the fall. Now, this argument has the virtue of partial truth, but what Fehrnstrom either doesn’t understand or isn’t willing to admit is that the Trump spectacle has also been very helpful to Bernie Sanders. Disaffected progressive voters feel more compelled to support a left wing protest candidate in part because of the spectacle and success of a right wing protest candidate. In a year when being an outsider has so much currency, disaffected progressives want such a champion as much or more than disaffected conservatives do. Many Sanders defenders actually depend on the Trump spectacle in order to bolster their argument that Sanders could be a strong candidate in the fall. Without Trump, Sanders would have virtually no plausible argument that he would be a strong general election candidate for the Democrats.

     The reality of this contest is that Clinton wants to win without alienating Bernie Sanders or his supporters in order to best position herself for the fall campaign. The best case scenario for Clinton would be a victory over Sanders that afforded Sanders, his message, and his supporters as much deference and respect as possible without allowing the Vermont Senator to win enough delegates to get the nomination. Fehrnstrom wants Clinton to doubt herself; to question the assumption that math trumps “momentum.” He (and the Sanders camp) want Clinton to lose her cool with Sanders himself and to start treating him badly.  This would allow Sanders to “take the gloves off” rather than having to continue to fight with “one hand tied behind his back” (as Fehrnstrom suggests). If Clinton goes hard negative, Sanders would have cover to unload the GOPs Hate-Hillary play book without surrendering his image as a principled and passionate populist unwilling to get down in the mud and play “politics as usual.” Sanders’ advisors have recently echoed this thinking by lamenting that Sanders gave Clinton a pass on “email-gate” so far, but this is Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst because ignoring the right wing’s baseless attacks on Clinton was (and is) an essential aspect of Sanders’ brand, of his reputation for integrity. Choosing not to parrot G.O.P. mud slingers was clearly the right choice for a candidate who ran to move the national political dialogue in a substantive way. Using G.O.P. talking points would have (and would still) signal that Sanders is just another pol who wants to win the big prize, rather than the vanguard of a real “political revolution.”

     From this perspective, Clinton’s patience and perseverance; her willingness to suffer losses to Sanders without over reacting could more credibly be seen as impressive growth and development as a politician.  The fact that Clinton, who has probably been more consistently and maliciously maligned by her critics for a longer period of time than any American politician in modern times, has a virtually insurmountable lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination suggests that she can afford to suffer what Fehrnstrom calls a “lengthening string of losses” to Sanders.

     The last couple days on the campaign trail in New York suggest that, despite Fehrnstrom’s assessment of her campaign acumen, Hillary has developed very sharp campaign skills. She is schooling her less experienced opponent on how to score points in a political mud fight without losing your cool. It is Sanders who is showing his limited campaign savvy and Clinton who is demonstrating how politicians with experience on the national stage goad their opponents into over-reactions.

Eric Fehrnstrom, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton

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