In 1995, political consultant Chris Lehane wrote an extensive memo which analyzed the conservative media, and, more specifically, its role in mainstreaming conspiracy theories related to, at the time, the first couple of the United States, Bill and Hillary Clinton. The impetus for Lehane’s authoring that memo came when he noticed speculation circulating on the then up-and-coming ‘internet’ about the circumstances of Vince Foster’s death, officially ruled a suicide, in 1993. A few years later, as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was consuming the country in 1998, Hillary herself popularized the term “vast right wing conspiracy” in a television interview with Matt Lauer, claiming that she and her husband had been the victims of several carefully co-ordinated, and completely bogus, smear campaigns, since Bill announced his candidacy for president.
Ever since, the Democratic faithful have taken for granted that such a conspiracy exists, and, to a certain extent, they’re correct. The right-wing media is a well funded, well organized, and, by now, well oiled machine very much capable of salacious, sensationalistic scandal-mongering. Right-wing media played a key role in the swift-boating of John Kerry in the 2004 election. They also claimed that Operation Fast and Furious was an insidious plot by the Obama administration to deliberately arm Mexican drug cartels in an effort to bolster support for gun control legislation here in the United States. They ran an innuendo campaign in the wake of the US consulate attack in Libya that eventually earned Hillary Clinton the “Butcher of Benghazi” nickname in many conservative circles. Examples abound.
So yes, the right-wing fever swamp is a real thing. Equally real, however, is the pervasive tendency among Democratic voters to assume that any and all scrutiny of high-ranking Democrats is a creation of it, and therefore, dismissible out of hand. Their contempt for conservative media, and all who consume it, has instilled in them a permanent knee-jerk response to everything they hear from right-wing sources: that first, none of it is ever true, and second, that none of it will ever gain traction in the world of mainstream public opinion.
This unwillingness to take these narratives seriously, and adjust their political strategy accordingly, has wrought disastrous consequences upon Democrats’ electoral prospects. The 2010 midterm election campaign was dominated by insane, over-the-top rhetoric from the newly formed Tea Party over the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Absurd as it seemed to the cosmopolitan liberal class that Obama was being compared to Hitler and Stalin for passing a relatively modest, market-based healthcare reform law, the Democrats lost 63 House seats and 7 Senate seats that year - their worst drubbing since 1948.
Then, of course, there was the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary herself was on the ballot. Before she had even announced her candidacy, news broke that Hillary had used a private email server to conduct State Department business while she was Secretary of State, and that this had potentially serious legal ramifications. The Clinton campaign, as well as the bulk of Democratic primary voters, and even Bernie Sanders, her opponent throughout the primary contest, dismissed the email scandal as a non-issue; just another incarnation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” obsessed with taking her down. Yet, immediately after James Comey’s press conference on July 5, 2016, in which he exonerated her of any criminal wrongdoing, a poll showed that 56% of the American people thought she should have been indicted. In that very press conference, Comey cited that there was in fact “evidence of potential violations of the [Espionage Act] statutes regarding the handling of classified information,” and that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of such material. We later found out an earlier draft of Comey’s statement had described Clinton as “grossly negligent,” but that the words “extremely careless” were chosen as a substitute, because “gross negligence” could have carried with it criminal liability for Clinton.
I could go on at length about this, but my purpose here is not to rehash this whole unfortunate episode. Rather, my point is that the Clinton email scandal is an example of how Democrats were caught flat-footed by a controversy that they had dismissed as a ridiculous nothing-burger from the get-go. In fact, right now, as you’re reading this, there’s an art exhibit in Venice called “HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails,” which Clinton herself just visited, and claimed the exhibit proved the absurdity of the whole ordeal. Objectively speaking, however, there was reason to be suspicious of Clinton’s decision to conduct State Department emails on a private server, and then to delete over 30,000 emails after being ordered to turn them over to authorities, and then to claim she had followed proper protocols when Obama’s own OIG report stated otherwise rather explicitly. This is especially concerning given that a majority of non-government parties with whom Hillary took meetings as Secretary of State were Clinton Foundation donors.
Now, it was one thing, in that situation, to have been a good Democrat - a loyal foot soldier - and to contend that there was no fire there. It was another thing, however, to have insisted all the while that there wasn’t even any smoke. The latter was not only delusional, it was politically reckless; a charge I don’t think even the most steadfast Clinton supporters can deny, given how everything turned out. And Democrats are making similar mistakes in the run-up to 2020.
The first example of this blindness to legitimate and politically potent criticism that will be lodged at them in a general election lies in Elizabeth Warren’s “Pocahontas” problem. I know, I know, you don’t wanna hear it. I can see your eyes rolling as you read this, because to you, this is just the Republican smear machine at work. To you, there’s nothing to this story; it’s just inane, meaningless ‘deplorable fodder.’
Except it isn’t. There is documented evidence that Warren intentionally passed herself off as an American Indian, and that she benefited tremendously from having been successful in doing so. Furthermore, she’s never actually been honest about why she did this. She has claimed, in her apology for the whole affair, that her greatest regret was that she “should have been more mindful of the distinction with tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty.” In reality, we all know where the real political liability comes from here, and it’s not from the Cherokee Nation themselves. It’s from white, working class voters who will no doubt resent that she falsely claimed minority status in order to take advantage of affirmative action policies. Harvard Law listed her as American Indian on their federal affirmative action forms from 1995 to 2004.
So not only is there a lot of smoke there, but this is the exacttype of issue that Trump and his base can best exploit politically, because it feeds the white grievance sentiment that Trump so viscerally animates in large swaths of the American electorate, beyond just his most ardent supporters. You can deny this if you’d like, but if you’re a Democrat, you do so at your peril, just as you denied the political potency of Hillary’s email problems.
And finally, there’s the issue of Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and the Ukraine. I know Democrats are giddy this week over the House’s decision to launch an impeachment inquiry. And just to be clear, I support the inquiry. But I support it only because, given the circumstances, they had no other real option. I am, though, quite bearish on its political efficacy for Democrats, mostly because when it comes to the Bidens and Ukraine, I’m sorry to say, there is reason for skepticism.
If you consume liberal media, they have been nearly unanimous in their assertion that there’s nothing to see there, and that the Bidens did nothing wrong, and have nothing to be concerned about. But in the very piece on NBCNews.com entitled “There’s No Evidence of Trump’s Biden-Ukraine Accusations. What Really Happened?,” journalist Jane C. Timm writes the following:
“As vice president, the elder Biden lead the U.S. diplomatic efforts to bolster the country’s fledgling democracy and root out corruption after mass protests ousted the country’s pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Biden spoke frequently with Ukrainian leaders and in April 2014, he traveled to Ukraine, bringing financial support and warning the Russians — who had recently annexed Crimea — to stop intervening in Ukrainian sovereignty.
The company had ties to Yanukovych, raising eyebrows among White House aidesand others who saw potential for a conflict of interest. The Obama White Housesaid at the timethat the younger Biden was a private citizen, and that there was no conflict of interest.”
This reeks of textbook gaslighting, as those paragraphs seem to outline, at the very least, circumstantial evidence that something may have been fishy about Hunter’s dealings, in contradiction to the title of the article.
At the same time, right-wing outlet FOX News published a much different story regarding this matter, specifically covering Congressman Ted Lieu’s contention that there was no corruption involved in Hunter Biden’s arrangement. Their headline is as follows:
“Rep. Ted Lieu defends Hunter Biden’s $50,000 monthly salary from Ukranian firm, suggests it’s normal.”
The clear implication of that headline, from, yes, an admittedly biased network that is absolutely part of the right-wing propaganda machine, is that such an arrangement is notnormal, or, at least, it ought notbe normal, whereas NBC claims there’s no basis for suspicion. Ask yourself honestly: which of these narratives makes the most sense to the most people? Do you actually believe that most Americans think Hunter Biden would’ve received the same deal had his name been Hunter Johnson? Hey, Democrats, here’s a hint: *THEY DON’T.*I’m sorry, but they just don’t. And I mean that exactly how I just wrote it, because people have a gut feeling about these things, and, in politics, gut feelings are extremely powerful.
So you might think it unfair that the Bidens will be scrutinized over this Ukraine business by the Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media for as long as this impeachment inquiry lasts. But they will be. And, by the way, you should also be prepared to hear about the DNC’s confirmed efforts, in 2016, to solicit dirt on their political opponent, Donald Trump, from, you guessed it, Ukraine! As published in The Hill:
“In its most detailed account yet, the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington says a Democratic National Committee (DNC) insider during the 2016 election solicited dirt on Donald Trump’s campaign chairman and even tried to enlist the country’s president to help.
In written answers to questions, Ambassador Valeriy Chaly’s office says DNC contractor Alexandra Chalupa sought information from the Ukrainian government on Paul Manafort’s dealings inside the country in hopes of forcing the issue before Congress.
Chalupa later tried to arrange for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to comment on Manafort’s Russian ties on a U.S. visit during the 2016 campaign, the ambassador said.
Chaly says that, at the time of the contacts in 2016, the embassy knew Chalupa primarily as a Ukrainian American activist and learned only later of her ties to the DNC. He says the embassy considered her requests an inappropriate solicitation of interference in the U.S. election.”
Once again, Democrats’ dismissal of these considerations, as well as their overt and snobbish contempt for anyone who dares to raise them, could yield disastrous political results in 2020. Remember, Democrats: only about 30% of Americans identify as members of your club, which means that 70% of the American people are notpre-disposed to siding with you on these matters. They have no reason to invest in the Democratic Party’s rationale, because they’re not part of the Democratic Party institution. And, most importantly, they’re not in on the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” They’re just calling things as they see them, and in many cases, they look at you guys and they don’t like what they see.
In order to avoid these political pitfalls, Democrats must, at the very least, learn to compartmentalize their attitudes towards these critiques. Yes, some of them are absurd. Some of this stuff is just salacious mudslinging. But some of it isn’t. Democrats’ electoral success in 2020 could hinge upon their ability to discern which is which, before they walk into another political bear trap.