Monday, June 9, 2014

Separating 2016 Narrative from 2016 Fact

I've made no secret of my apparently controversial theory that Hillary Clinton is not going to run for president. The theory rests on the fact that Clinton herself hasn't signaled a desire to run or done any of the things that candidates in the invisible primary tend to do. Instead, this widespread assumption that she's running stems from a snowballing groupthink in the DC bubble—especially in major media outlets, which have ignored her many denials of her candidacy.

Two recent articles, I think, are especially egregious examples of this. The first is from the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza:
Hillary Clinton is running for president.

That simple sentence is one that the political-media complex seems incapable of uttering though evidence is sprinkled absolutely everywhere — including in comments from Clinton herself — that she will be a candidate in 2016.
I pick on this piece in particular (I could have chosen many others) for the irony: the political-media complex has done nothing but perpetrate the notion that Clinton is running for president. Cillizza is more typical of the genre when he goes on to cite the evidence he refers to—the existence of Ready for Hillary, public endorsements, etc. The problem is that none of it is evidence that Hillary Rodham Clinton has herself made plans to run for president. All of it is actually just evidence that other people believe she'll run. This, of course, is not in doubt—and citing other Washington insiders as evidence of what's inside the brain of a third party is the very definition of what I'm talking about.

But the fixation on speculation doesn't end with Hillary—and, say what you will about Cillizza's column, he doesn't contradict any known facts (just misinterprets them, in my opinion). That's not the case with the second article, this one on Elizabeth Warren. Warren announced several months ago that she was flattered, but she is absolutely, positively not running for president. So why did we see an article by Byron York in April speculating about a Warren candidacy? In the article, York addresses head-on, even quotes, Warren’s Sherman statement—but still launches into an exploration of how she could be lying and planning to run!

The whole article reveals a staggering blindness to fact and a slavish devotion to narrative, at all costs—even accuracy. Unlike Clinton's still up-in-the-air status,** Warren has categorically ruled herself out as a candidate. But it’s still fun to speculate about a populist candidate carrying the banner of the Democratic Party’s left wing… Or better yet, about an insurgent who would dare to take on the juggernaut Clinton for the nomination.

The sexy image of what the 2016 campaign could look like has been built up by total speculation for years, even though it was only based on the flimsiest of facts. In Warren's case, now we have facts that directly contradict it—and so that image has gone from speculative to definitively false. But York and others continue to erroneously write reports that Warren could be a candidate. They put so much time and care into building the narrative that they can't bring themselves to tear it down when they have to.

This is a shtick well worn in baseball, where it causes enough trouble in the form of new- vs. old-school culture wars. But baseball is, by and large, an endeavor of entertainment only; politics is important and affects the lives of everyone living in this country, whether they vote or not. Whereas narrative-building is ridiculous in baseball, it's seriously troubling and misleading in political journalism.

(**A note on Clinton: I acknowledge that statements she has made recently have opened the door to her candidacy. In her book being released this week, she writes, “Will I run for president in 2016? I haven’t decided yet.” That’s the clearest indicator yet that she may indeed run. Since writing that Clinton post last year, I’ve become OK with the media narrative of her potential 2016 dominance. It’s a solid fact now that she’s considering a run, and she would indeed be the strongest candidate if she did so. What I take issue with is speculation that becomes reported as fact. In that sense, any journalism about “presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton” continues to be intellectually dishonest. And even though I now recognize that there’s a very real chance that I’m way wrong about this, I’m still predicting Clinton surprises us all and takes a pass in the end.)