Friday, August 10, 2012

An almost perfect example of modern political reporting (and I don't mean that in a good way)

From NPR, sadly, Ari Shapiro reports that both candidates have tried to associate themselves with the Clinton legacy. That's a valid, newsworthy topic, but to cover it you have to acknowledge some basic asymmetries. Having a popular Democratic ex-president is more likely to help the Democrats. By the same token, it's easier for Obama to point out similarities between his policies and Clinton's than it is for Romney.

You won't, however, get that from Shapiro. In his report, both parties are pursuing the same strategy with apparently the same risks, potential rewards and level of rhetoric consistency.
As long as Bill Clinton has been on the public stage, there have been people of both parties willing to say negative things about him. But this year, even high-profile Republicans are waxing nostalgic about the Clinton years. This was Newt Gingrich on CNN after Democrats announced that the former president will have a prime speaking spot at the convention.

NEWT GINGRICH: President Clinton got four consecutive balanced budgets. President Obama has had huge deficits. So I think having Bill Clinton there is going to remind people of a Democrat they used to like, and may in fact shrink Obama by comparison.

SHAPIRO: On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney has been applauding the Clinton welfare program as an accomplishment for the ages. Here he was in Illinois this week.

MITT ROMNEY: One of the things that happened in the last couple of decades was one of the greatest bipartisan successes we've seen. And that was President Bill Clinton and Republicans coming together to reform welfare.

SHAPIRO: Republicans who praise Bill Clinton can show that they are not mindless partisans. It's a way of saying: There are Democrats I like, just not the one in office right now. Of course, the Democrat in office right now has tried to co-opt Clinton's legacy, too.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My theories have been tested. Last time they were tried was by a guy named Bill Clinton.

SHAPIRO: On the campaign trail, Barack Obama makes it sound like he's running to continue the Clinton administration.


OBAMA: And that's why I'm running for a second term as president of the United States, to go back to what works.
Do we really have to go to the tape here? Do we have to compare the "bad things" Democrats said about Clinton (irresponsible, opportunistic triangulator) to those said by Republicans (drug dealing, Manchurian Candidate who raped his lesbian wife and countless other women and had his best friend murdered)? Do we have to review the statements that Republicans like Gingrich made about Clinton's policies at the time? Do we need to point out that Obama "makes it sound like he's running to continue the Clinton administration" because his policies actually are largely a continuation of Clinton's policies, and where there are difference on things like taxes, Clinton is generally to the left of Obama?

As James Fallows, Paul Krugman and many others have noted, journalistic fairness does not consist of saying the same number of good things and bad things about both parties. That's not balance; it's cowardice and it's undermining our ability to have a productive discussion (and in a democracy that's a bad thing to undermine).

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