By Richard Norman
There are a lot of reasons why Hillary Clinton looks set to lose the Democratic nomination. An inconsistent message and inflexible campaign strategy are two. Another important one is Barack Obama’s singular political talent. But one of Clinton’s biggest problems is a website: the Drudge Report. Earlier this year, two journalists, Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, wrote a book called The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008. In it they make some very astute observations about the changing nature of American political culture.
Anger, prurience, invective, conspiracy theory — all are native flowers on the American landscape. What is new is the greenhouse in which these blossoms are cultivated and sold. This greenhouse was built on two beams. The first was the disintegration of editorial filters in the Old Media, which in an earlier age prevented the most salacious tales and bitter accusations (though certainly not all) from entering the public arena. The New Media — talk radio, cable television, Internet websites — for the most part never had these editorial filters . . .
This in turn helped promote, and was promoted by, the second beam, the erosion of basic habits of decorum and self-restraint, in politics and media alike. In an earlier generation, these habits meant that people more often refrained from fully expressing how much they loathed one another. In the current generation, self-restraint is commonly regarded as a weakness and rarely is rewarded economically or politically. The result is that the extreme and eccentric voices who always populated the margins of politics now reside, with money and fame as the rewards, at the center. Michael Moore, please say hello to Ann Coulter. The collapse of filters and the collapse of civility together have changed the purpose of politics. The goal now is not simply to win, but to persuade voters (and donors and viewers and readers) that an opponent lacks the character and credibility even to deserve a place in the contest. That is Freak Show politics.
The king of the online political freak show is of course Matt Drudge, the reclusive second-hand "journalist" who came to prominence by breaking the Monica Lewinsky story. More than anyone else in America, he sets the tone of the media’s political coverage. Last October, it appeared Clinton and her advisers had taken the advice offered in Halperin and Harris’ book. A New York Times article, "Clinton Finds a Way to Play Along with Drudge," described a prominent Drudge scoop on a big Clinton fundraising drive. The article went on to say:
That people in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign orbit would tip off the Drudge Report to its fund-raising numbers is in part a reflection of her pragmatic approach to dealing with potential enemies, like Newt Gingrich or Rupert Murdoch. But it also speaks to the enduring power of the Drudge Report, which mixes original reporting with links to newspaper, Internet or television reports far and wide. The site is a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge’s targets of choice ? some of it delivered with no apparent effort to determine its truth, as politicians of all stripes have discovered at times. Aides in both parties acknowledge working harder than ever to get favorable coverage for their candidates ? or unfavorable coverage of competitors ? onto the Drudge Report’s home page, knowing that television producers, radio talk show hosts and newspaper reporters view it as a bulletin board for the latest news and gossip.
But by my estimation this article marked a sharp turn in Drudge’s coverage of Clinton. From November to February, the Drudge Report has gone out of its way to abuse and smear Clinton at every turn. It almost appears he wanted to make sure no one ever connected his name favourably with Clinton’s again. Here’s a representative sample from the last three months: SLIP: Hillary says ‘IF’ not ‘WHEN’ she is president… Sore Loser: Hillary Refuses To Congratulate… OBAMA TAKES ALL 3; AS HILLARY CRIES AGAIN VIDEO: HILLARY ELECTION DAY HEALTH SCARE: Coughing Fits Cut Short Election Day Media Interviews… Hillary’s 261 Earmarks Leads All… TALK OF HILLARY EXIT ENGULFS CAMPAIGN… ^ Photo of nude man missing from Hillary fundraiser… Flags come crashing down on Hillary after Veterans Day press conference… Hillary Clinton suddenly vulnerable as bruises start to show… ***Flashback 2000: Hillary stiffs single-mom waitress… HERE COMES KATHLEEN: Hillary Clinton faces sensational claims from another woman in Bill’s past… DON’T SHOOT THE MODERATOR: DEBATE FALLOUT TURNS UGLY… Tim Russert ‘should be shot’, Hillary supporter declares on conference call with top advisers… A search of the Drudge archives during this time does not reveal a single positive story. Obama, considered much more liberal than Clinton, meanwhile came in for little to no grief. From the last four months: Obama Dances, Sings with Texas Swing Band… Superdelegate schmoozed by Chelsea backs Obama… Even blowing his nose, Obama gets applause… Obama Draws Large Crowds In San Antonio, Houston… Obama: ‘Whatever it takes’ to end gun violence… Obama’s Edge: Michelle… FLASH: House Speaker Pelosi ‘leaning towards Obama’… Madame Tussauds Wax Museum Unveils Obama in Oval Office… Developing… Karl Rove to Obama: ‘How to Beat Hillary’… This is all in line with a CMPA report that shows Clinton has come in for the most negative media attention of any candidate: 3 to 2 negative, to Obama’s 3 to 2 positive, for example. What remains to be seen is whether Obama’s campaign has been passively benefiting from Drudge’s anti-Hillary whim, or has found a strategy to bring him on-side against her. If the latter, his likely victory in the nomination battle will appear as a master blueprint of how to win in today’s American politics.