Gaffes by Hillary and Amy

I’ve just read Amy Chozick’s 2018 memoir Chasing Hillary. The book is an enjoyable mixture of bildungsroman and political reportage. Chozick writes about her development as a journalist over the ten years she spent covering Hillary Clinton, first for the Wall Street Journal and then for the New York Times, and also includes reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence as a Jew in San Antonio.

Chozick’s political reportage focuses on Clinton’s unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008 and for the presidency in 2016. The shortcomings and sheer bad luck of Clinton’s campaign have been addressed by several other writers, notably Allen and Parnes in Shattered and Clinton herself in What Happened. Reading Chozick on the Clinton campaign is like having a recurring nightmare once again, or watching a slow-motion train wreck from a slightly different angle.

Chasing Hillary has launched Chozick’s career, as she has moved from the demands of to-the-minute political coverage to the position of writer-at-large at New York Times, with more freedom to choose her own subjects, such as a profile of Malcolm Gladwell in the business section of last Sunday’s paper. Chasing Hillary was a best-seller and is now being developed into a television series.

What interested me most in the book were Chozick’s accounts of two egregious gaffe’s, one her own and the other Hillary Clinton’s. Chozick made clear her frustration with Clinton’s distancing herself from the media and refusal to do interviews. At one point Trump called Chozick and Chozick “said something I never should have said” (p. 268). She told Trump that Clinton had never called her in 10 years and hadn’t had a press conference for five or six months. This gave Trump an attack line that he began to use in his speeches and on the campaign’s website.

How much that contributed to Trump’s election victory is unknowable, but members of the media covering one candidate should never be volunteering information to the candidate’s opponent than can be used in subsequent attacks. For a journalist to inject him/herself into an election campaign in that way is reprehensible. Journalists should be reporting the news, not inadvertently making the news.

The second egregious gaffe was Hillary Clinton’s turn of phrase to describe the most racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables.” Chozick provides some essential context, which is that Clinton was using the phrase in small private off-the-record fund-raisers (pp. 285-6) in July and August 2016. Unfortunately, a few weeks later when Clinton was suffering from pneumonia at not at her best she made the mistake of using the phrase at a large on-the-record fund-raiser (pp. 301). Chozick recounts that, similarly, Michelle Obama blurted out at a rally a line she had previously used only off-the-record: “for the first time in my life, I am really proud of this country.” Chozick surmises that in 2012 Mitt Romney was often saying off-the-record that 47 percent of the public pay no income tax, are dependent on government, and would never vote Republican. Chozick concludes that candidates’ aides should try to convince them not to keep saying in private things “that wouldn’t look so good if [they] got out” (p. 286).

What Clinton’s and Romney’s statements have in common is that they disparage people who are likely to vote for their opponents. Attacking an opponent’s supporters goes much farther than attacking the opponent. Ideally, candidates should be trying to persuade voters to support them. Perhaps American politics has become so polarized that candidates see attacking their opponent’s base as an effective way of rallying their own base.

I conclude with a contrasting anecdote from the 2015 federal election campaign in Canada. When the Liberals began to gain momentum, canvassers in Don Valley West asked our candidate Rob Oliphant what arguments to use with voters who we identified as Conservatives. Rob’s answer was that Conservatives are our neighbours and our friends and we are asking them to vote Liberal this time because Prime Minister Harper had in many ways forsaken some of the key tenets of conservatism. One of our goals was getting some of the Conservative vote to swing to the Liberals, and we were successful.

Comparing the 2015 Canadian and 2016 US elections, it is clear that the US was more polarized, and had a much smaller proportion of the electorate who switched from one party to the other. Canada appears to be less polarized than the US, with a much larger proportion of the electorate willing to consider switching parties. Of course, that is facilitated by having six parties contesting the election. It will be interesting to see what the dynamics of the swing vote are. But that will be the topic of future posts about the campaign.

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