The prime movers of both political parties have long tried to game the presidential nominating process—not only to choose their eventual winner, but also to pick their November opponent. And in this landmark election without incumbents, the media wing of the Republican Party, in particular, has quite visibly been playing that game. Right-leaning pundits for months now have very openly not just called for Hillary Clinton’s head, but also coddled and promoted Barack Obama, salivating over the prospect of facing him in November.
Meanwhile, voters have been echoing that program: Barack Obama has been beating Hillary Clinton in part because Republicans are helping him.
Sixteen of the 45 Democratic primaries and caucuses held before this week were open affairs, allowing Republicans and independents to take part, and Barack Obama has won 11 of those contests. He almost invariably carried the Republican vote, which accounted for as much as 9 percent of the total in Wisconsin and Texas, and frequently ran even stronger among independents, who represented a fifth or more of Democratic primary voters in state after state. The 75 percent of the Republican vote that he won in Missouri, for example, may have pushed him over the top, and certainly, when combined with his 67 percent of the state’s much larger independent vote, it delivered many of the district-apportioned delegates to him. Republicans in Obama states like Washington, Wisconsin, and Virginia were even freer to cross the aisle, since by the time they voted, John McCain had already sewn up the GOP nomination. While Obama often won some of these states so handily that Republicans and independents could not have provided his margin of victory, there is no way to know how many delegates in close congressional-district contests will wind up in Denver because of the impact of Republican or independent voters. And there is no exit-poll data to measure their impact on the caucuses.
Nor can the exit data reveal the motive for so many crossovers. These voters may have been attracted by Obama’s message of transcending politics as usual, or they may simply have been trying to tilt the scales to help nominate the candidate they believe Republicans can most easily beat. In the lead-up to Texas and Ohio, Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show reaches 13 million, dropped his “mafia wife,” “Nurse Ratched,” and “testicle lockbox” descriptions of Hillary Clinton long enough to urge his listeners to vote for her “if they can stomach it.” His rationale was to keep the bloodbath going. Up to then, he was unabashedly boosting Obama with the same perverse purpose. Obama still carried most of the 252,000 Republicans who voted in Texas—a Limbaugh stronghold—but his percentage dropped from 72 percent in Wisconsin to 52 percent.
Limbaugh is one of the opinion makers on the right who made little secret of his early preference for Obama. Conservative pundits slammed Hillary early and hard, exploiting every opportunity to widen the racial divide among Democrats. Though their party is so white that the networks have no ethnic exit-poll data to analyze, these reliable partisans have expressed shock at a number of supposedly race-baiting Clinton comments, with the New York Post‘s top campaign columnist even calling Bill and Hillary “modern-day George Wallaces, standing in the White House door.”
Once Obama became the apparent nominee, especially after the Wisconsin primary on February 19, these same pundits began turning on him (though, it has now become clear, perhaps a bit prematurely). As often as some of them have declared that Clinton is the most beatable Democrat, their own agenda suggested otherwise. George Will may have inadvertently tipped this card when he wrote after Obama prospered on Super Tuesday: “The Republican Party’s not-so-secret weapon always is the Democratic Party, with its entertaining thirst for living dangerously.” It is possible, of course, that their hatred of the Clintons was all that drove these right-wing pundits in their early targeting of Hillary, but it’s more likely that they were collectively so confident of beating the black guy in November that they became his unofficial advance team.
Since few Democratic voters—theoretically—should be affected by anything this cabal has to say, its impact on the nominating process has been, at best, indirect. But the right’s talkers have helped to shape the way the election is covered. And even if they’ve only affected the margins, it’s precisely those margins—in states like Missouri, or in district delegate fights, or in the narrowing popular-vote contest—that matter. Perhaps the more important point for Democrats is why these drum beaters have been so universally on the same beat.
Rush Limbaugh predicted on January 28—shortly after the South Carolina primary and before Super Tuesday—that Clinton ads would make Obama “appear darker than he is,” alluding to Time magazine’s infamous O.J. Simpson cover. He even repeatedly likened Bill Clinton to the notorious public-safety commissioner and Klansman Bull Connor, branding the ex-president “Bull Clinton.”
Declaring that he knows the Clintons “like every square inch of my glorious naked body,” Limbaugh predicted that they were “going to pit” Hispanics and blacks against each other. “The message is going to be: ‘Hispanics, don’t let them take me out, and don’t let them—those black people—marginalize you.’ ” Limbaugh was so worked up about Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama that he devoted most of a day to it, invoking Camelot and concluding that “the Clintons are the evil knights hiding out in the woods to steal from everybody and get rid of people that get in their way.” To make this argument, Limbaugh had to momentarily buy into the Obama phenomenon, contending that the Clintons were alienating blacks who see “Obama as a nice guy, a soaring visionary.” Careful to put this praise for Obama in the mouths of others, Limbaugh nonetheless portrayed him as “above the fray” and “not taking the bait” and deserving of “all this Kennedy appellation.”
Limbaugh even took credit for planting the question about drivers’ licenses for illegals that tripped up a flip-flopping Hillary at an October debate, claiming that he had “started the nosedive of the Clinton campaign.” The day of that debate, he went on about how the media was allowing Hillary Clinton to “skate” on this question, and sure enough, he bragged, Tim Russert—who has appeared as one of the rare guests on Limbaugh’s show—raised it with her (Russert says that while he does “monitor” Limbaugh, he was traveling and didn’t hear him that day). “I brought this on,” Limbaugh lamented in late February, “but I never thought it would get to this point. I never thought it would get to the point where if she loses two more states, it’s effectively over, unless they bomb the convention hall in Denver in August—still a possibility, by the way.”
He explained his regret openly when he urged his listeners to choose Clinton: “We don’t want this Democrat campaign to end now. We need Hillary. We need the soap opera. We need somebody roughing up Obama before it’s our turn to get there. We need chaos in this party. President Clinton is on our side in this. It’s about winning, folks. It is about the Democrats being defeated. It’s like, when the enemy is eating themselves alive, you pass the salt.”
Limbaugh had started the campaign way back in early 2007, singing “Barack the Magic Negro,” a “Puff the Magic Dragon” parody about Obama’s supposedly inauthentic blackness, even calling him the “Magic Negro” 27 times in a single show. Then he went silent about Obama during the heat of the January primaries. Now he’s mocking the new frontrunner again, asserting that his rhetoric is as empty “as Hillary Clinton helplessly protests,” and declaring that “his career bears no trace of his own character.”
The self-described “prince of darkness,” Robert Novak, whose Karl Rove ties put him at the center of the Valerie Plame affair, has used his widely read syndicated column to hammer the Clintons and praise Obama as “eloquent and inspirational.” Though he once opposed making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday and championed white rule in the former Rhodesia, he, too, has accused the Clintons of racial politics. “The Clinton campaign may be drifting into encouragement of brown-versus-black racial conflict by condoning Latino racial hostility to the first African-American with a chance to become president,” he wrote on the same day in late January that Limbaugh made the identical argument, if less delicately. He warned that blacks might not forget “the slurs of January,” especially Hillary’s reference to Obama’s legal representation of the indicted Chicago slumlord Tony Rezko.
Novak tried to poison the well by suggesting that the Clintons were dumping negative innuendos about Obama on donors and journalists like himself. “I have not talked to a single Republican in my reporting of attacks on Obama,” he wrote, effectively outing his anonymous Clinton sources. He called Hillary’s comments about the complementary roles of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson a “race debate.” Declaring that “Obamania reigns supreme,” Novak said that the Clintons’ tactics against Obama in late February had “yielded derisive laughter” among political professionals.
But by March 1 and 3, his columns were decrying Obama’s “horrible gaffe” on Louis Farrakhan and even discussing questions of merit regarding the Rezko relationship, citing suggestions that a controversial Iraqi billionaire had helped Obama buy his Chicago mansion, funneling the cash through friend and donor Rezko.
Here’s how Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and Fox News’ prized analyst, opened his first New York Times op-ed column in January: “Thank you, Senator Obama. You’ve defeated Senator Clinton in Iowa. It looks as if you’re about to beat her in New Hampshire. There will be no Clinton Restoration. A nation turns its grateful eyes to you.” Kristol went on in that column to cite Obama’s “ability and charm” and likened the Clinton slayer to Bobby Kennedy in another, calling him “charismatic” twice in the same paragraph, as well as “a skeptic of simple ideological stances, a gifted politician and an anti-politician.”
When Obama later won in South Carolina, Kristol contended that Bill Clinton played “the race card,” albeit “clumsily.” Kristol said that Clinton was trying “to turn Obama into Jesse Jackson” and blasted him as “unseemly.” A beacon of racial sensitivity, Kristol has acknowledged his longstanding speed-dial ties to Karl Rove, even after Rove appeared to orchestrate the push polls in the 2000 South Carolina primary that defeated Kristol’s then favorite, John McCain, by suggesting that he’d fathered a black child with a prostitute. Like almost everyone else on this list, Kristol has actually expressed more moral outrage over Bill Clinton’s allusion to Jesse Jackson this year than he ever did over the Bush campaign’s foul innuendos about John McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter back in 2000.
Of course, once Kristol concluded that Obama had the nomination in the bag, he delivered an extraordinary hit piece of his own in the Times. On February 25, Kristol clobbered Obama for removing his lapel flag pin, saying that Obama was “impugning the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose” to wear one. He also derided Michelle Obama’s statement that she was “really proud of my country” for the “first time” in her adult life. “It is fitting that the alternative to Obama will be John McCain,” he said, rushing into the general election as precipitately as he rushed into Baghdad. “But could the American people, by November, decide that for all his impressive qualities, Obama tends too much toward the preening self-regard of Bill Clinton, the patronizing elitism of Al Gore and the haughty liberalism of John Kerry?”
CNN commentator, maxed-out John McCain donor, and professional moralist Bill Bennett—whose brother Bob represented McCain in the flap over The New York Times‘s recent attempt at exposing a McCain sex scandal—became an Obama booster as soon as the primaries started. “Obama never brings race into it,” Bennett said in early January. “He taught the black community you don’t have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don’t have to act like Al Sharpton. You can talk about the issues.” Undeterred by the race flap over his own assertion on his syndicated talk-radio show in 2005 that “you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down,” Bennett deplored “the bitterness of the Clinton campaign” and the “unfair hits” they’d taken at Obama. He declared that “all the magic is with Obama” and saluted his “great dignity.”
During the TV coverage on the night of the New Hampshire primary, Bennett twice counted the Clintons out before the results came in, flatly contradicting his Democratic counterpart, Donna Brazile. He predicted that the Clintons would “come in like George McGovern and go out like Richard Nixon.” When Hillary won, Bennett described himself as “an almost lifelong critic of the Clintons,” adding that “there’s a lot of things you can say about them that are uncomplimentary and that are true.”
Bennett also blasted Bill Clinton a few days before his Jesse Jackson comments, calling him an “unguided missile” who was “driving Hillary out of the headlines with his own irrepressible zest for political combat,” though the only comment of the ex-president that had drawn ire at that point was his reference to Obama’s “fairy tale” version of his opposition to the Iraq War. Unlike many of his right-wing colleagues, Bennett has been too busy rallying conservative support for McCain to explicitly recast his early embrace of Obama, oscillating in recent post-debate commentary between saluting Obama as “well-spoken” and declaring Hillary a victor. But he did devote one column to the many ways that McCain is preferable to either Democrat.
Byron York, whose columns in The National Review and The Hill have made him a “voice-of-reason” conservative on Fox News and elsewhere, has traveled full circle on Obama. Last July, he analyzed Obama’s debate performances beginning in April of 2007 and concluded that “one major candidate is unquestionably unprepared to be president.” The author of a book called The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, York then abruptly enlisted in the apparent pro-Obama right-wing conspiracy, hailing him as “electrifying” and praising him for “one of the best political performances anyone has seen this year” after attending a rally in South Carolina in January. Obama, York wrote, was “relentlessly mocking his rivals while making himself the only sane, honest and reasonable person in the race.” York concluded that Obama represented “a mortal threat” to the Clinton candidacy and said it would be hard for Bill Clinton “to cut his legs out from under him without appearing racist.” A couple of days after the article appeared, York praised the Obama campaign’s “high-mindedness”—on Fox News, no less—and said the Clintons “needed to knock Obama down from that plane.”
When Bill Clinton drew the Jackson parallel on the day of the primary, York appeared with Maureen Dowd on Meet the Press, and both of them lobbed one bomb after another at the Clintons. “I don’t think you can overstate the amount of anger created in Democrats by Bill Clinton’s tactics,” the scholarly-looking York deadpanned. “The whole point” of the Clinton strategy in South Carolina, he said, was “to suggest that all these white voters” who’d looked at Obama earlier and concluded that he “wants to be president for everybody” were wrong, and that he “really wants to be president for black America.” Extrapolating this from the reference to Jackson’s victory years earlier, York said the Clintons were trying “to drive white voters away from Obama” and that these tactics were “making the Democratic establishment so angry.” Prior to York’s South Carolina pronouncements, he’d devoted most of his campaign coverage to tireless cheerleading for a paragon of racial sensitivity named Rudy Giuliani, whose relationships with African-Americans left far less to the imagination than the Clintons’.
By January 30, York was back on Fox, declaring that “we’ve seen this huge shift from a lot of the Washington-based establishment toward Barack Obama.” By February 10, when he appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he had already begun to use Obama’s success to put the Democrats in a bind. “I think there’s going to be great dissatisfaction with a system where one guy seems to win a lot and yet they seem to be kind of equal in delegates,” York observed. “And it seems terribly unfair. And that’s where you get a revolution.” And he continued pushing attack lines on Hillary, urging Obama to go after her on the decade-and-a-half-old Travelgate scandal at one point, and then bringing up her tax returns and campaign loan on ABC.
York had shifted, however, to critiques of Obama by late February, accompanying Michelle Obama to an Ohio day-care nursery and contrasting her $316,962 salary as a Chicago Hospital vice president with the paltry earnings of the women she met with there. Her statements that she and Barack had “left corporate America” and were “asking young people to do” the same—to “move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry”—were ridiculed in view of how well the “helping industry” had “treated her.” Next, York took Barack Obama to task for his “not-so-deft sidestep” of the Louis Farrakhan question in the February 26 Democratic debate.
The Fox News prime-time bluster boy, Sean Hannity, has lately ceded show after show to Obama-bashing of the most chilling order. When talk-show host Bill Cunningham repeatedly and insultingly invoked Barack Obama’s middle name (Hussein) at a McCain rally in Ohio—earning a reprimand from the Republican candidate himself—Hannity put Cunningham on two nights in a row, saluting him as “a great American” and declaring that “you didn’t make it up.” Unsatisfied by Obama’s denunciation and rejection of Farrakhan, Hannity has also been hammering away at the fact that the daughters of Obama’s pastor once saluted the Nation of Islam leader in a church newsletter.
It wasn’t always this way. Hillary was his target of choice throughout the early primaries, with Hannity steering what he proudly dubbed the “Stop Hillary Express.” On the night of the Iowa vote, he accused Clinton of using “dirty political tricks, leaking damaging information [an apparent allusion to Obama’s admission of drug use] at a time when Obama is ascending quite rapidly,” all the while conceding that he had “no proof whatsoever” for his charge. Explaining Obama’s win that night, Hannity added: “I think he’s a likable person. She’s not.” When co-host Alan Colmes said that it sounded like Hannity was “afraid of her,” Hannity proclaimed Clinton “the most power-hungry person in America.”
On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Hannity blasted both Clintons and defended Obama: “They always attack their opponents—smear, besmirch, character assassination. If they do this in the case of Barack Obama, a very likable man, this is not going to work.” On January 14, with little ammunition to work with before the South Carolina vote, Hannity nonetheless pressed Al Sharpton to declare that “the Clintons have a race problem.” Failing that, he brought Armstrong Williams—the black pseudo-journalist who was secretly on the payroll of the Bush Education Department—and got him to declare that Hillary Clinton is “nasty and sort of pretty disgusting.” Meanwhile, Hannity stood by his man Barack: “I’ve got to tell you something—the Clintons want to draw everybody in the mud. They want to take away this image that Barack has that he’s above politics.” Nonetheless, Hannity decided that Obama “made a pretty good case for himself in answering Hillary’s charges and the fairy-tale charge and everything else.”
That, of course, was before Bill Clinton’s allusion to Jesse Jackson implausibly outraged Hannity, who began lobbing charges of “racial politics” and “playing the race card” at the Clintons. Informed by one of his guests that half of the Congressional Black Caucus was backing Hillary, Hannity ordered the guest to “stop spinning” and explain why “her colleagues that know her best are not only leaving her, but accusing her and her husband of distorting, lying about Obama’s record, and playing the race card.” Colmes was forced to observe: “I feel like I’m living 10 years ago, back in the Lewinsky era—let’s go after Hillary Clinton, let’s knock Bill Clinton every time they breathe.” Shortly before the primaries started, Colmes had even wondered on the air why Hannity wasn’t “elevating” Hillary if he thought—as Hannity has often claimed—that she was the easiest Democrat to beat in the general election. He pushed Hannity repeatedly on the question, and Hannity squirmed. “I’m not knocking her,” he contended, “just telling the truth about her.”
On his nationally syndicated radio show, Hannity and guest Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, agreed in mid-February that having Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee was the best way for a Republican to win in November.
George Will is the nation’s premier syndicated columnist, reaching up to 26 million readers. He has also enjoyed the megaphone that comes with being a panelist on ABC’s Sunday-morning talk show This Week, where he routinely recycles column nuggets as smug soundbites. Will poses as a wise man, one who is generally above the political game, so it’s worth recalling that he once lavished praise on a debate performance by Ronald Reagan that he’d secretly coached. That’s enough to make one wonder if he’s up to his old mischief.
Barack Obama must have noticed when Will wrote in December 2006 that this was the time “for him to reach for the brass ring.” Will opined that there was “a tsunami of excitement” about Obama and that “a decision against running would brand him a tease.” He proclaimed Hillary the “optimal opponent,” one that Obama could counter with “a tone of sweet reasonableness.” He added that “one can only be an intriguing novelty once,” and that the best time to be one was “when the odds favor the Democratic nominee”—which, he insisted with historical precision, was now. When Candidate Obama made his first appearance on a national interview show a few months later, it was the one that Will is a regular on: ABC’s This Week.
Will marked the anniversary of his first Obama salute with a second one in December 2007, knighting Obama as “a model of blacks’ possibilities when they are emancipated from the ideologies of blackness” and proclaiming his campaign the “most interesting presidential candidacy since 1980.” The “Fred Astaire of politics,” Obama seemed, to Will, “to understand America’s race fatigue,” an “unbearable boredom” with “the perfunctory theatrics of race” that has apparently so long oppressed Will that he has yet to write anything memorable about it.
Will remained true to his electoral progeny throughout much of the primary season. He wrote of the Clinton campaign on January 17—when it had won one and lost one—that it was “floundering around, like a dinosaur drowning in a tar pit.” He reviewed its “serial misadventures in the racial minefield” and “its synthetic racial and other sensitivity-mongering” 10 days before Bill Clinton ever uttered Jesse Jackson’s name. After Super Tuesday, Will devoted a column to deploring early voting, attributing Obama’s California loss to “impatient voters” who had rushed to judgment before it was apparent to all that Obama was “the party’s most potentially potent nominee.” Will still apparently believed that when he assaulted Hillary Clinton’s experience claim in a February 21 column, claiming that America’s “worst president,” James Buchanan, was also its most experienced.
But now, like so many of his brethren, Will is sending mixed messages. He amended his earlier rationale for Obama’s candidacy, saying that “you can only be a novelty once and for a while,” as if Barack had already worn off. “He’s worked one pedal on the organ quite enough now,” Will declared, dismissing Obama’s rhetorical skills as “banal eloquence.”
He muttered darkly about the candidate’s “Farrakhan problem” and assailed Michelle Obama, turning her expression of newfound “real pride” in America into the “leaking out” of “a kind of adversarial stance to mainstream American patriotism.” Media Matters, the website that is changing political discourse in America, even caught him falsely claiming that McCain had attracted more independent voters than Obama—a strong hint of where Will may be moving himself.
Will is unmistakably still rooting for Obama to be the Democratic nominee, but his earlier praise for the Illinois senator looks more and more like a Grand Old ruse.
Additional research by: Kimberly Chin, Shaunna Murphy, Shea O’Rourke, Marguerite A. Suozzi, Adam Weinstein, and John Wilwol