The Blog

Metanarratives and Hillary's Honesty Gap

For Gore, mentioning "Love Canal" and "invented the internet" were all it took to remind voters of a storyline that he was a serial exaggerator. It's hard to imagine that the same wouldn't happen to Hillary Clinton.
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Do you want to know how McCain beats Hillary in November? In short, the same way George Bush beat Al Gore (minus the Supreme Court coup). As Rolling Stone explained in 2001 :

Last year, a review conducted by two nonpartisan groups, Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Research Center, found that a stunning seventy-six percent of the Gore campaign coverage in early 2000 centered around two negative themes: that he lies and exaggerates, and that he's tarred by scandal. "We call it the metanarrative," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Journalists are looking for a story line, a narrative device, that plays out over weeks and months, and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is if they let the narrative overwhelm the facts, then it becomes a distorting lens. It can lead journalists to ignore and mischaracterize facts as they try to fit them into the story."

For those whose memories of Bush are cloudy pre-9/11 or forget how much the press despised Al Gore prior to his public resurrection as a party elder and environmental evangelist, Google the words "invented the internet" to get an idea of how the zombie lies of media narratives refuse to die. All it takes is a few quotes out of context and a few dashes of hyperbole to turn someone into a "serial fibber" with a "Pinocchio problem".

It's pretty clear that this is the same sort of tactic that would be used to defeat Hillary Clinton in the fall if she were to become the Democratic nominee. Over the past week, she's been contradicted on a number of claims that she uses to bolster her "experience" over her rival. The first being her Ohio primary-motivated insistence that she opposed NAFTA, which Jake Tapper has been debunking at length :

I have now talked to three former Clinton Administration officials whom I trust who tell me that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton opposed the idea of introducing NAFTA before health care, but expressed no reservations in public or private about the substance of NAFTA.

Yet the Clinton campaign continues to propagate this myth that she fought NAFTA tooth and nail because she opposed the substance of the bill.The campaign claims over and over that she did not support NAFTA. That may be emotionally and intellectually true -- but actions speak louder than misgivings.

For the Clinton campaign, we're not supposed to pay attention to what she did (which, according to her recently released schedules, included a handful of pro-NAFTA meetings) but what she said about NAFTA (but only privately, at least, until it was politically convenient).

The even bigger, and more embarrassing, fib is Clinton's fictional account of her dangerous flight into Tuzla, Boznia which is becoming her campaign-killing YouTube moment. (via nitpicker)

Clinton's foreign policy credentials have also been questioned recently in regards to her role (or lack therof) in the Northern Ireland peace process :

Mrs Clinton's version of events has been challenged by Peter King, an Ulster Unionist Party negotiator at the Good Friday talks in 1998, who said: "Hillary Clinton was totally invisible at the actual negotiations.

"As far as I am concerned, Mrs Clinton was as relevant to peace in Northern Ireland as Tony Blair's wife or the ex-wife of Bertie Ahern [the Irish prime minister]."

Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party in 1998, told The Daily Telegraph last week that Mrs Clinton's claims were a "wee bit silly".

This month, Terry McAuliffe, Mrs Clinton's campaign chairman, told CNN: "We would not have peace today had it not for Hillary's hard work in Northern Ireland."

Both Unionist and Nationalist negotiators told this newspaper that while Mrs Clinton's work with women's groups was positive her overall role was peripheral and she played no part in the gruelling negotiations that took years.

These incidents taken individually wouldn't necessarily be enough to derail a campaign, but how they play into the "metanarrative" speaks volumes about how her campaign might fare in the fall. For Gore in 2000, mentioning "Love Canal" and "invented the internet" were all it took to remind voters of the media storyline that Gore was a serial exaggerator. In the months between now and the general election, it's hard to imagine that the same wouldn't happen to Hillary Clinton, with scattered references to "Northern Ireland", "NAFTA", and "Tuzla" making their way into unrelated campaign coverage and subtly undermining her campaign.

In fact, that narrative is already being shaped to a lesser extent as the Obama campaign capitalizes on recent polls showing that a majority of Americans don't believe that Clinton is trustworthy :

This honesty gap that separates Clinton from her two opponents will ultimately end her campaign, either in the primary or general elections. Whether or not any subsequent claims about Clinton are valid would be irrelevant (as Gore could attest) as long as they play into the preconceived notions that people have about the candidate. With a public that already distrusts her, getting frequently caught misspeaking (to use the Clinton campaign's preferred euphemism) only reinforces the media narrative that Hillary Clinton is a liar who will say anything it takes to become president.