At some point on the long, hard slog toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Hillary Clinton is going to need the people whom she least wants. Safe passage to the White House will require an audience with, perhaps even a benediction from, the lizard kings of the campaign trail: political reporters.
The conservative quest to stop Clinton is already an epic. After spending the ‘90s waging multi-front assaults on the legitimacy of the Clinton White House, Republicans are now deeply immersed in another round of negative research, testing new lines of attack. (Democrats don’t have the luxury of concentrating resources on a single candidate.) House Republicans have been using subpoena power and tax dollars to hunt for damaging material — or anything that can be repurposed as damaging material — on Clinton. When their first Benghazi investigation collapsed from its chairman’s oily overreach, they simply impaneled another tax-financed assault under more competent partisan management.
This zealotry, combined with the Clintons’ peregrinations to the gray regions of the ethical map, all but guarantees a campaign crisis or two before November 2016.
Like it or not — and Clinton surely does not— political reporters retain some power to adjudicate partisan conflicts. They choose whether to treat a lumpen rehash as journalistic caviar, or whether to focus attention on a candidate’s appearance and vocal tics instead of policy prescriptions. The attention that mainstream media devote to a scandal signals to partisan media whether to continue beating the drum, or to switch instruments.
So at various points in this campaign, despite the best efforts of Clinton’s team to create a sealed universe of unmediated interaction with the electorate, mainstream political reporters will sit in judgment of Clinton, with variable power to influence public opinion.
Perhaps that inevitability is what’s driving a nascent glasnost in the Clinton campaign. But instead of being slightly less hostile to reporters, Clinton would do better to smother them — with attention if not love. She should take a week or two and let reporters hang around her for as long as — no, longer than — they dare. Conversation should follow a single ground rule: only public policy questions allowed. It needn’t all be on-the-record: The goal is to achieve an ecstatic boredom, with sporadic instances of genuine human interaction, as Clinton diligently grinds reporters into a substantive stupor.
Clinton might hate the self-exposure. But having a rotating gaggle of journalists in tow would help her candidacy in two major ways.
First, gaining access to Clinton — in long, tedious, wonky blocks — would ease some of the gnawing existential hunger that afflicts reporters covering a subject who so energetically ignores them. It would disarm resentments and help transform Clinton from campaign hologram to quasi-human.
Second, in granting access on condition that policy substance is the sole currency, Clinton would subtly elevate the importance of policy in campaign coverage. This could be a very significant advantage. Her policies will almost certainly be more popular (and coherent) than those of her eventual Republican opponent, who will be trapped in the familiar cul-de- sacs of more tax cuts for the wealthy, more carbon for the atmosphere and more dubious rationales about why that isn’t nearly as reckless as it seems. Policy is terrain on which Clinton excels — comfortably. (As this very smart Jonathan Allen piece in Vox shows, there are others.)
Clinton, persevering as always, would survive the intrusion and annoyance. And when you consider what Republican candidates endure (who gets placed next to Donald Trump at the debate?) a week or two in the steady company of the press seems positively dignified. Reporters would never be fully satisfied with a ban on questions about the family foundation or outside income. But the rapprochement would pay dividends in deeper, broader coverage of policy. And if it replaces mutual hostility with a modicum of trust between the candidate and those who cover her, it just might prove useful when the products of all that Republican research and testing explode in the night.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.
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