Questions And More Questions

by digby

MSNBC anchor sez:

"Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times has written about how this scandal is an early test for the Obama tream. Jeff, good to see you. Uhm, many people wonder why it would take the president elect these many days to come up with an answer directly, who had contact, if any with Blagojevich. Have they failed this first test?"

Well, of course they have. But then, there was never any way to not fail it. The rules are rigged to keep the story alive. Zeleny, of course, said they hadn't failed it yet. But nobody wants to say that they passed the test because that would be the end of that.

There's been a bit of navel gazing among some in the press and I'm glad to see that some are reporting flat out that the Republicans are crudely exploiting this. But there is still something very important missing in all the coverage.

For instance, John Heilman, who is a somewhat eccentric reporter by village standards wrote an odd piece today in which he says that the press failed to adequately investigate Obama's political history in Chicago (something the right has been hammering the past few days) and that we can expect them to delve into it now. I assumed that the national press had relied on the reporting of the two big Chicago papers to have unearthed any skeletons in his closet, which seems like a pretty reasonable thing to me. But apparently, we are going to be treated to a spate of "investigations" which I'm sure will rely heavily on political enemies and spurned former supporters as sources for ill-informed out of towners. That's usually how it goes.

But as odd as his comments about Obama's "problems" are, Heileman also makes the observation that Obama is a lot like Clinton in the fact that he comes out of a somewhat compromised political environment, having been neither a member of the corrupt insiders nor a flamboyant crusader against it. I've seen those parallels as well, even though it's not obvious at first. And I would add that part of what makes these stories so enticing is the exotic nature of the political culture. In Clinton's case it was southern gothic and in Obama's it's sort of gangster kitch, but both are filled with dramatic characters and Shakespearean level intrigue, which are easily exploited by the right and eaten with a spoon by the media.

Heileman breaks the established rules, however, by suggesting that the Clinton scandals were trumped up partisan nonsense that ended up being very costly to the country.

Aside from the wack-job caucus, few regarded Clinton’s lengthy tenure in the Arkansas statehouse as egregiously corrupt. But neither would any history of great reformist governors feature him prominently, if at all. Some of his close friends from Little Rock would wind up in prison: Susan McDougal, Webb Hubbell. And Clinton’s various entanglements in the Razorback State’s quasi-feudal political and business cultures came back to haunt him during his time in office, most glaringly in the case of Whitewater.

That Whitewater was a trumped-up tin-pot scandal in which WJC was never proved to have done anything illegal is beside the point—or, more accurately, is precisely the point. The investigations Whitewater spawned were more intrusive than a thousand colonoscopies. They consumed countless news cycles, drained away political capital, inflicted horrendous legal bills on dozens of innocent bystanders, and energized the Republicans and their allies on the fringes of society and in the mainstream media. And for what? For nada.

The reason that breaks the rules is because he doesn't do the required journalistic ass covering and claim that Clinton deserved everything he got because he refused to "answer questions." That was the standard excuse for pursuing these bogus stories at the time --- the old "it doesn't pass the smell test." And we're seeing those moldy old tests pulled off the shelf again in this one.

On the other hand, Heileman makes one glaring omission in that otherwise correct recitation of events by failing to properly state the role of the press in that mess. Let's just say it couldn't have happened without them.

He goes on to discuss the potential for a similar ongoing witch hunt jumping off of the Blogjevich scandal and fervently hopes it doesn't happen. But again, that's an innocent bystander cop-out. The press is already slavering over this scandal like starving hyenas with a dead gazelle. They are following the standard village playbook. No matter how much they know, no matter how many questions are answered, there's just something "wrong" with the response that requires them ask even more.

Here's the latest read on this from MSNBC:

Norah O'Donnell: President elect Obama had pledged they would get this information out within a few days, now we hear they're going to put it out three days before Christmas, but they say there was no inappropriate contact. Will that be enough

Mark Whittaker: Well, you have to wonder, if they have it ready now, why they are waiting so long. I would say that there is such high interest in this story and so much pressure to hear everything they know, that it would really surprise me if it hold all the way until three days before Christmas.

But look, here's the issue. I met with an adviser to Obama just after the election and I asked them "what position is the president elect going to take on the senate seat in Illinois/" And basically, this adviser said three things. One is "he'[s not going to talk directly to the Governor. Two, we think the governor is going to do what is in his own political interest. I don't think they had any idea that he was actually going to try to sell the seat. but they also said, this adviser made it clear, that their main interest was that somebody be chosen who could hold the seat, who could win reelection. Uhm so, I think that what we are likely to see is that Rahm Emmanuel and others had some kind of contact with the Governors office about candidates who they thought could win reelection if they were appointed.

O'Donnell: My understanding was that Rahm Emmanuel, the incoming chief of staff provided a list of names that would be acceptable to Barack Obama but that but they are saying that in no way means there was any inappropriate contact or suggesting there was any pay to play . But I would imagine he'll get some additional quesitons today because, hey, they have promised transparency.

Whittaker: They have promised transparency and look, until we know exactly who talked to whom about when, about what, this story is not going to go away.

Update: Steve Benen reports on a Rasmussen Poll which asks a loaded question "How likely is it that President-elect Obama or one of his top campaign aides was involved in the Blagojevich scandal?" and 45% of the public say it's likely, 23% very likely.

Benen and Yglesias speculate that this is because of the press coverage relentless speculating all of the television for the past few days, which I'm sure has contributed. But it is also likely to be mostly Republicans who answer that way --- they have been pounded with propaganda through their noise machine that Obama is a muslim, terrorist, socialist, "Chicago school" politician. Many of them go in with the assumption that he's the devil. The rest may just be cynics who think that all politicians are dirty. There are plenty of them out there.

These numbers are meaningless in terms of how the scandal plays out, anyway. Recall that Clinton's numbers went up the day he was impeached. The press doesn't care what the public thinks about this, they operate on their own logic and they will not be moved one way or the other by public opinion. If anything, if the public disagrees with their behavior, they blame the public for being insufficiently "outraged" and redouble their efforts to trap the president.

The problem for Obama in this is the distraction, of course, and a gradual erosion of respect and the presumption of good faith among the American people, even if they approve of the job he's doing. Even if they see through all the media braying, people eventually get tired of this stuff and the psychological response among a good many of them, in my observation, is to begin to blame the victim. Over time, it weakens the president and makes even his supporters tire of having to defend him. And in the long term, many people subconsciously internalize the derisive criticism and without even realizing it become reflexively hostile. It can ruin a presidency without the president's approval numbers ever going much below 50%. I've seen it happen before my very eyes.