Getting the Straight Story

by John Lawrence

If there is one lesson that is emerging already from Campaign 2016 it is the ability of the media – both traditional and social – to drive the discussion. A few incidents of this week bear a brief discussion in this regard.

Scott Walker, RIP: I had been predicting this exit virtually from the Wisconsin governor’s entry into the Republican race, so nothing could have been less surprising (well, given how the Republican race has been going, that may be an over-statement). Despite the media’s early focus on him as a strong contender, Walker was a supremely inept candidate, initially hoping to project a picture of Mid-West conservatism combined with the fortitude to stand up to the public unions and the radicals in Madison. For my tastes, he exuded “lightweight” from the get-go, as well as a thinness of accomplishment other than surviving in power. He could (and did) dress himself in leather and plop himself on a Harley, but he still looked and sounded like a one-trick pony.

His exit gives further weight to my observation that Trump’s continued presence is good news for the more “moderate” (I can barely type the word) of the GOP hopefuls: Bush (though he seems to be doing him damndest to drive down his own numbers), Rubio (another lightweight of no record, but with a more interesting story and more electoral appeal than Walker) and Kasich (preternaturally glum and dour, but with the most appealing story and the strongest claim to a place on the ticket). Trump is simply sucking all the oxygen out of the loony Right of the party, until he inevitably disintegrates and takes with him the nativist, racist, inexperienced, alarmist lot of them. Those left standing will be the establishment candidates.

Carly Fiorina: I watched part of the second debate, as long as I could, and was bemused by Fiorina’s transparent effort to defuse the accusation that she lacks the foreign policy/national defense chops to be President. Of course she does! She has no, as in, “zero,” experience, that would remotely suggest she should manage the nation’s security; not an hour in public service, never working on defense issues in Congress, never having published or developed any expertise of any type. Naturally, therefore, she has been merrily suggesting we throw troops and weapons into hot-spots all around the globe, a strategy that has not worked remarkably well for decades. What startled me during the debate was not her ability to regurgitate the numbers someone had worked up for her on the urgent need for “50 army brigades, 36 Marine battalions, 350 ships,” but the utter failure of either the moderator or any of the other Republicans (who apparently take unlimited military spending as an axiom) to ask her (a) what are you going to actually do with all those shiny weapons and crisp uniforms, and (b) how much is this all going to cost and where is the money coming from?” Certainly not from shutting down Planned Parenthood, her other laser-like focus.

Walter Pincus’s column in Tuesday’s Washington Post (“Fiorina’s Misleading Military Proposals”) did an excellent job of chastising Fiorina for her uninformed assertions. Her facts were wrong – the 6th fleet isn’t shrinking and doesn’t need growing; the Bush anti-ballistic missile system is being replaced with a newer and more reliable system; we have just completed joint maneuvers with the Ukranians rather than having abandoned them. And it is little wonder she avoided discussing that issue of cost: Pincus estimates at least $20 billion for the Fiorina wish list, most of which we already have or don’t need.

My point here is not to ding Fiorina on her charlatan-like efforts to appear to be well informed. She is not long for this campaign either. I won’t even criticize her for uttering inane, schoolyard taunts concerning Putin (“I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him”). If she isn’t careful, she is going to start competing with Trump for cringingly embarrassingly adolescent ravings (“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.”) My complaint here is that the press/media let Fiorina get away with nothing more than reciting some Heritage Foundation recommendations off a cheat sheet without asking any follow-up or challenging her presumed expertise. I blame the press for letting her get away with it so as not to taint her supposed rise to the first tier of GOP contenders.

A good example is a September 21 story by Jennifer Rubin in the Dallas Morning News. “She might not be experienced in government,” Rubin wrote, “but she is expert at dealing with the media, reeling off concrete foreign policy proposals, thinking on her feet and doing other tasks that for better or worse have become the skills candidates need to be elected.” With all due respect, “reeling off concrete foreign policy proposals” such as sending the 6th fleet where they already have been, is not a qualification to be president. Rubin goes on to lionize Fiorina for possessing “poise, intelligence, wit, confidence and tenacity,” which are nice in a president, as long as they have the substantive knowledge and practical political experience the job requires, and which Fiorina sorely lacks. Rubin, and others, of course are trying to make the parallel to President Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience before his election (hardly uncommon: note FDR, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush). No one disputes we elect people who aren’t yet qualified to pin on their fourth star; but that’s no basis for pretending someone is more qualified because he, or she, can reel off a few statistics and facts, most of which are false.

Hillary! What would a blog be without addressing Mrs. Clinton, whom for some reason I cannot comprehend, I find myself defending at every turn? Well, one reason is that she is so often the subject of unjustified criticism. Not that she doesn’t invite the reproaches, but on several central issues, they are simply wide of the mark. What is most aggravating to many is Clinton unwillingness or inability to defuse them; incoming attacks are nothing new to her, and should she be the nominee and elected, we will all be enduring unrelenting castigations every single day of her Administration and for decades thereafter. That’s just the way it is with Clinton, but she is right not to allow the mean-spirited attack dogs chase her out of the race.

Clinton’s alleged passion for obfuscation has been demonstrated on two key issues: Benghazi and her emails. Both lines of attack are misplaced.

Let’s be clear: there have been at least 4 congressional inquiries into Benghazi, all run by Republicans, and all concluding that Clinton did not do anything improper. This is not especially surprising since it was fairly clear at the time, to those who understood the extremely volatile situation in Libya and the marginal capabilities of U.S. ground and air forces, that the disastrous turn of events in Benghazi was not the result of any decisions or lapses of judgment by then-Secretary Clinton. It goes without saying the investigations will continue for a generation to come.

Then there is the email brouhaha. Here, too, the hysteria has far outstripped any fair reading of the facts. Clinton should have moved more aggressively to dispatch the conspiratorial allegations. She has lived with outsized speculation about her allegedly nefarious activities (e.g., murder, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, to name a few) for so long that her exasperation is understandable. We will be revisiting this debate ceaselessly over the next year and a half and there is likely no way to contain the damage now. However, I cannot help but muse that the hysteria that has flared over this story is precisely the kind of carnival feeding frenzy that likely led Clinton to decide to keep her emails as close to the vest as possible rather than on State Department servers where any of dozens of lower level Republican holdovers might selectively leak them to her disadvantage.

A long piece in Sunday’s Post by Elizabeth Goitein [“Five myths about classified information”] helps explain why determining what is and isn’t “classified” is a bit more complex than critics – like the Washington Post’s headline writers and reporters – might realize, and is certainly too lengthy for use in the campaign. Clinton, however unwisely (as she has acknowledged for months) used a private server like other Cabinet officials, turned materials over to the FBI and others to review, did not wipe clean the server, and (it appears) did not receive or transmit emails containing information “classified” at that time.

Little wonder even the most political junkies seem already exasperated by the campaign season.

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