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Eric Boehlert Headshot

Campaigns in Waiting: The Press Loved Bush's But Dumps on Clinton

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For a candidate who enjoys historically strong polling support for her possible White House push, Hillary Clinton is sure getting heaps of bad press as supporters await her decision on whether to run for president in 2016.

According to endless Beltway commentary regarding her non-candidacy, Clinton's overseeing an ominous "shadow campaign" that features a "political hit list" to keep track of "treacherous" foes. She's linked "to a culture of payback and bare-knuckles politics." Her non-candidacy is peaking too soon and it lacks "transparency"; it's a "predestined" "train wreck." "Indecision" is becoming a trademark. She's taking a "wrong turn" and repeating her mistakes from 2008. Her presence "unsettles" Democrats, she doesn't stand for anything, and her campaign needs a better manager!

Keep in mind Clinton isn't even a candidate yet. And the general election won't be held for more than 1,000 days. But that hasn't stopped the Beltway press from obsessing over her on a daily basis and routinely detailing all the things wrong with Clinton's would-be run. Because being the distant would-be Democratic frontrunner and leading all GOP contenders in the polls is suddenly a bad thing?

Well, it's certainly not a good thing:

Politico: Hillary's No Slam Dunk in 2016

The Atlantic: Can Anyone Stop Hillary? Absolutely

National Journal: Why You Shouldn't Pay Attention to Hillary Clinton's Massive 2016 Lead

Can you spot the trend? And can you image the negative tone of the press coverage if Clinton's poll numbers were weak?

Obviously, candidates ought to face media skepticism. And over the last 20 years, few have faced more doubts in the press than Hillary Clinton. But isn't it odd that right now it seems the widely agreed-upon Beltway narrative regarding Clinton is that her possible campaign is already in deep trouble. That's the spin despite the fact that poll after poll puts her in one of the most enviable positions of any potential candidate in modern American history.

Talk about a vast disconnect between the people and the press.

Here's what's curious: Look at the sour assessments that surround the chattering class' Clinton appraisal and then compare that to the last time the Republican Party had a presidential campaign-in-waiting. As is the case with Clinton today, that featured a candidate with global name recognition, a big lead in the primary polls and a seemingly bottomless well of generous donors. That was George W. Bush prior to 2000, and the press had very few doubts about his mission.

"The national news media have built up George W. Bush like a rock star," observed one Florida newspaper columnist in 1999. And that media worship started long before Bush formally declared his candidacy in June of that year. It began in earnest when Bush won a reelection landslide as the governor of Texas in 1998.

Back then, while Bush lurked on the sidelines and gobbled up endorsement and campaign cash prior to his official candidacy, the press was amazed by his good fortune. There was no chronic hand-wringing. Instead, reporters and pundits marveled at Bush's standing and the unmatched infrastructure his team had built.

For instance, I've gone back and read dozens of New York Times articles about Bush from that period and trust me, the doom-and-gloom that often permeates today's Clinton coverage simply did not exist.

A brief sampling, from March 8, 1999:

In a grand pageant of political might, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas introduced the 10 members of his Presidential exploratory committee today, an ethnically and ideologically diverse tableau of some of the Republican Party's biggest names and most promising stars.

And May 16, 1999:

Mr. Bush has managed to set a new early season Republican fund-raising record without breaking his promise to the people of Texas that he will remain focused on the state's business until the current legislative session ends in late May.

What explains the Bush/Clinton double standard? Why didn't the press spend months eagerly speculating on how Bush might blow his big nomination lead even before he became a candidate?

Part of it stems from the fact the current avalanche of coverage centers around a presidential campaign season that's years away, which is unheard of. But that amount of focus brings with it the modern media desire to create tension; to mold an entertaining narrative for the distant election season. And the press does not consider Clinton's widespread popularity among Democratic voters to be an entertaining storyline.

So for instance, on Monday morning National Journal published three separate articles examining the Clinton non-candidacy, despite the fact there was no news about her possible run. Arriving on the heels of the Washington Post survey which showed that if Clinton sought the Democratic nomination she'd enjoy the largest lead in the history of Washington Post polling, none of the three articles dwelled on her envious political standing. (By contrast, read these recent, optimistic National Journal portraits of would-be Republican candidates Rand Paul and John Kasich.)

Or look at the CNN piece from last month, boldly headlined "Hillary Clinton's Iowa Problem." The crux of the article seemed to be that two years before the 2016 election season, some Democrats in Iowa are holding off on endorsing Clinton, who isn't even a candidate yet, and are anxious to hear from other Democrats who might want to run for president. That's the extent of Hillary "Iowa problem." Keep in mind that late last year a Des Moines Register poll indicated Clinton remains extraordinarily popular in Iowa.

Question: For what other politician would editors at CNN look at astronomical polling results (a 89 percent favorable rating in Iowa), and then assign an article on that person's "Iowa problem"? For no other politician, of course, because it defies logic.

That kind of fact-free campaign analysis didn't make sense when Bush ran for president, and it doesn't make sense now.

Crossposted at Media Matters for America.