Assume, for a moment, that conservatives’ worst suspicions about the national media are true: that they wake up each morning and ask themselves, “How can I help the Democrats win today?”
A Democratic presidential primary is the one time of the cycle where the interests of a partisan media and those of the general public coincide: The Democratic presidential candidates need to be investigated and evaluated, with the aim of weeding out the flawed and unelectable in order to nominate the candidate most likely to win a general election. But the behavior of many reporters and commentators in this young presidential cycle suggests that they have a newfound doubt about their ability to pick a winner.
In 2016, almost everyone in the mainstream media thought Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide. Some on the Left still prefer exculpatory explanations (Russian hackers! Collusion! Heartland racism!), but others have begrudgingly acknowledged that their candidate-assessment skills had atrophied, and that Clinton was a lousy, unlikeable candidate, dogged by scandal and a sense of entitlement. Quite a few Democrats sensed Clinton’s repellence deep in their brains’ hippocampus; this is one reason that nearly half of them chose a septuagenarian socialist from Vermont over her in the primary.
Determined to not make the same mistake again, the media are looking at the bumper crop of candidates with a much more skeptical eye — and some of the nascent campaigns are proving unready for this at all.
Did you know that Joe Biden often blurts out inappropriate statements and tends to touch female strangers too much? As a National Review reader, you almost certainly know this and can cite examples off the top of your head. We and other right-of-center media spent much of the 2008 campaign and Obama’s presidency pointing this out to anyone who would listen, but for eight years, Biden’s runaway mouth was interpreted as just part of his lovable “wacky Uncle Joe” persona.
During his short-lived 2008 bid for president, Biden had the C-SPAN cameras follow him around, and an Indian-American man came up to greet Biden. Before the man could get much out of his mouth, Biden declared, “As you know, I’ve got a lot of support from the Indians. I’ve had a great relationship. . . . You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” The man hadn’t told Biden he worked in either of those establishments. The Delaware senator saw him and his first thought was to make that comment, a variation of the hackneyed routine from 1980s comedians: “Say, a whole lot of Indian-Americans run 7–Elevens, don’t they?”
A Biden spokesman was quickly deployed for cleanup, offering this lame explanation:
The point Senator Biden was making is that there has been a vibrant Indian-American community in Delaware for decades. It has primarily been made up of engineers, scientists, and physicians, but more recently, middle-class families are moving into Delaware and purchasing family-run small businesses.
As the former vice president would say, “Malarkey!” That’s not even close to what he said. He bragged about how popular he was with this demographic and immediately followed up with a cultural stereotype. Conservatives complain about political correctness, but this isn’t a matter of P.C.; this is just Biden being a jackass. “Oh, you’re a member of this ethnic group? You must be in this industry then!”
“Gonna put y’all back in chains” and “these Shylocks” — these really weren’t lovable or wacky outbursts from America’s crazy uncle; they were clumsy demagoguery. Biden is a blowhard and mentally sloppy, reaching for any half-remembered argument at hand when trying to make a point. While denouncing America’s “white man’s culture” in a speech earlier this year, Biden cited a long-debunked claim that English law used to permit husbands to beat their wives, as long as the rod wasn’t thicker than his thumb. The phrase stemmed from a term of measurement from 17th-century woodworkers. Writers and historians have regularly debunked the wife-beating connection since the early 1990s, but Biden hasn’t updated his anecdotes.
Now Biden’s handsiness, discussed on the right throughout the Obama presidency, is suddenly a topic for a Serious National Conversation. In Rolling Stone, which regularly covered Obama as a rock star, Jamil Smith thundered, about Biden: “Thus far, he has handled this controversy not much better than Trump did the Access Hollywood crisis during his 2016 campaign.” Rival 2020 candidate Julian Castro, desperate for any kind of attention, told Bill Maher, “I think it’s bull**** to say that people can get away with laughing it off.” Actress Ashley Judd, speaking the Women in the World Summit in New York City, declared portentously, “Democracy starts at my skin.”
Where was all of this when Biden was vice president and most of these touching incidents were occurring in public, with the cameras rolling? Why does this only now deserve a serious discussion and rebuke?
The other Democrat experiencing a brutal reevaluation in the early months of the Democratic primary is Beto O’Rourke, who spent most of 2018 enjoying the kind of glowing press coverage reserved for the musical Hamilton, Steve Jobs’s unveiling of Apple products, and LeBron James in years he wins the championship.
But as a presidential candidate, O’Rourke is suddenly melting like ice cream in the Texas sun. In The New Republic, Alex Shephard writes: “He has all of Obama’s self-assurance with none of his intellectual fortitude, inspirational biography, or oratory power. His rhetoric is as empty as his platform.” In Slate, Josh Voorhees assesses him as “a man without a clear political ideology, a signature legislative achievement, a major policy issue, or a concrete agenda for the country.” In Politico, David Siders concludes, “One month in, the central thrust of O’Rourke’s presidential campaign appears to be interacting with crowds.” Suddenly, political reporters watch O’Rourke jumping on diner counters and declaring that his agenda is a work in progress — “there’s no sense in campaigning if you already know every single answer, if you’re not willing to listen to those whom you wish to serve” — and they see an empty suit, gliding by on charisma and skateboard tricks and guitar-playing, the cool kid who didn’t do his homework.
No kidding. But he’s the same guy that so many media outlets gushed about last year. A lot of 2018’s Betomania amounted to “We really want to see this guy beat Ted Cruz.”
It’s fair to doubt how many of these newfound skeptics are all that bothered by Biden’s handsiness or runaway mouth, or O’Rourke’s empty platitudes and vague happy talk. The moment that either man either quits the race or wins the nomination, these issues will suddenly disappear outside of the Trump campaign and the RNC. What really bothers Democrats now is that Biden’s bad habits or O’Rourke’s thin résumé and lack of specifics might jeopardize the party’s chance of victory in 2020. They might seem minor, but Democrats convinced themselves that the Clinton Foundation’s shady ties, the former secretary of state’s private email server, and her other scandals and flaws were minor in 2016 — and were stunned to find that enough voters in enough states disagreed.
What’s forgivable in an incumbent becomes inexcusable in a challenger to Trump — because Democrats just don’t trust the electorate to see past those bad habits anymore. Nor do they have faith in their own ability to spin those flaws anymore. All things considered, that’s a good thing.
And the transparency in the media coverage of these men’s flaws, turning to a topic suddenly and en masse and then abandoning the topic just as quickly, like a school of fish moving in synch, is a good thing, even if it’s annoying. It reveals that conservatives’ worst suspicions about the national media were credible all along.