Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, Hillary Clinton is suddenly enjoying a media honeymoon—this, for a presidential candidate whose fractious relationship with the Fourth Estate has always been in dire need of couples’ counseling.
“You never know what’s going to happen, it’s always unpredictable, but in the roller coaster of politics, she has had a very pleasant ride in the last couple of hills and valleys,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told The Daily Beast. “But the car could come off the tracks at any time for anybody in either party.”
While the current era of good feeling is unlikely to last, Sabato said it can be credited to dumb luck as well as improved media-handling skills—at least an improvement over the day three months ago when Clinton campaign staffers memorably denied access to their candidate during a Fourth of July parade in New Hampshire by roping reporters off like cattle in a pen.
“That was awful,” Sabato said. “They do things like that when they incorrectly convince themselves that they can’t lose. That’s how they act and then something always happens to wake them up. And then they do what they have to do.”
The belated honeymoon—which has featured a more accessible Clinton making self-deprecating jokes with podcast interviewers and doing shtick on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live—is a massively welcome development for the Democratic presidential frontrunner as she girds for a combative session Thursday before the Republican-run House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Yet it must also strike the candidate as downright bizarre after spending her quarter-century on the national stage—as first lady, United States senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of state—as the target of an endless barrage of scandal reporting and character dissection.
For the past three weeks, ever since House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy implied on Fox News —boasted, actually—that the Benghazi committee is really an effective political operation to depress Clinton’s poll numbers, she has been surfing a rare wave of positive coverage and commentary.
The Clinton campaign could only revel in similarly impolitic Republican outbursts from New York Rep. Richard Hanna and Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who vowed on Monday to file an immediate impeachment resolution in the apocalyptic event of a Hillary Clinton presidency.
The universal praise for Clinton’s performance at last week’s widely viewed televised Democratic debate in Las Vegas only reinforced a trend that has placed Republicans—especially Benghazi committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor who plans to interrogate Clinton before the cameras—in a defensive crouch.
After Gowdy’s self-justifying and irritable performance on this past Sunday’s Face the Nation, Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin remarked on the program: “Hillary Clinton’s on the offense, and...Chairman Gowdy showed this morning that he does not know how to frame for the public broad questions, what did the president know, when did he know it, something that will break through. So I think Hillary Clinton is set up to be as strong and as powerful in this hearing—unless Chairman Gowdy’s sitting on some secret—than anyone could have imagined.”
A seasoned Democratic Party operative, a Clinton supporter who spoke on the condition of not being named for fear of antagonizing the frontrunner’s campaign, noted that the newly positive Clinton coverage is not unexpected.
“The pendulum was bound to swing back, and the praise she received for the debate is well-deserved,” this person said. “The revealing statements by Republicans were luck, and the Benghazi committee has been trucking along under this ruse. She has had a steady lead in the polling, and the pendulum is swinging back in a media narrative that her support seems to only be growing."
Even National Journal columnist Ron Fournier, who has been relentless in his criticism of Clinton’s secret use of a private email server as secretary of state and her continual dissembling about it on the campaign trail, has been making pleasant noises.
On this past Sunday’s Meet the Press, Fournier expressed skepticism that a possible Joe Biden candidacy—or, for that matter, the FBI investigation into whether Clinton’s emails undermined national security by improperly transmitting classified material—will do serious damage to Clinton’s chances.
“It’s hard to make the argument that Hillary Clinton could not win the presidency,” Fournier declared. “[U]nless something really changes for Hillary Clinton, she’s certainly going to win the nomination, or pretty certainly. And it’s hard to argue that she could not win the presidency.”
Democratic media consultant Tracy Sefl, one of group of informal advisers to the Clinton campaign, said the candidate’s frequent appearances in entertainment venues such as Fallon and SNL have offered Clinton an effective method of connecting with the American people.
“Those shows are much more at the level of the general person who’s not living and dying by Ron Fournier’s tweets,” Sefl said. “The regular person is more likely to pay attention” to such appearances. “There are many people who have tuned out. ‘'We still have a year to go? You’ve got to be kidding me!’ they say.”
Another factor in Clinton’s media boost is undoubtedly her decision—after a series of painful missteps in close encounters with the press—to admit to have made a mistake and using the unusual phrase “I’m sorry” in lancing the festering boil of the email controversy.
Some observers attribute the change in tactics to the candidate’s willingness, albeit reluctant, to take the advice of savvy media-political veterans. This time, she is not yielding to her instincts and relying on her press-averse lawyer, David Kendall, and other trusted members of her longtime inner circle. She is listening instead to former Bill Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, former Obama White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri, and former Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon, who previously was press secretary to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
“You and I both know that if Hillary Clinton had her druthers, she would be in a bubble with her friends, a good book, and a nice hot cup of tea,” Sabato said. “That would be her preference, but she can’t do that, running for president. She’s actually having to open up to the press and do loads of interviews, and answer questions that haven’t been pre-screened.”
Sabato continued: “She’s adjusting to reality again and getting back into the swing of the campaign. But if she’s elected, you know what’s likely to happen? When you get into office, you get to have your way a great deal of the time. She’s going to have to have people around her who constantly fight isolation. I can see that being a big problem in her White House—talking to relatively few people and only venturing forth in set conditions, and not really mixing with people and getting a wide variety of advice beyond that tight circle that she’s trusted for decades.”
Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos, meanwhile, argued that Clinton is benefiting in the media narrative from two distinct phenomena: the dysfunction of the Republican opposition, which Castellanos has described as “a dumpster fire,” and the weakness of her rival Democrats.
“I think one of the biggest reasons she’s doing so well is not the quality of her campaign, but the quality of her enemies,” Castellanos said.
Indeed, he noted, her political communication skills suffer by comparison to President Obama’s or, for that matter, Bill Clinton’s.
With just three months to go before voters start making their feelings known in the early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire, Castellanos added, political journalists are realizing that Clinton might be going all the way and are calculating their coverage accordingly.
“Maybe this is the wrong thing to say, but all the girls get prettier at closing time—even Hillary Clinton,” he quipped. “When you look at her on her own, she’s not much to look at politically. But she does benefit from the idea that she’s the only one [among the Democratic candidates] who looks like she’s going to get this thing...That’s all we got. And it’s getting near closing time.”