05/12/2008 05:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russert Watch 5-11-08: In Which Hillary Surrogates Get Got

[From the Columbia Journalism Review]

What’s a Sunday morning show to do when it specializes in political prophecy and the expectation is a foregone conclusion? Bring some players on, ask them routine questions, register their spin, try to trip them up when the spin is ridiculous, and move on.

By all conventional measures, the news is that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is sinking beneath the weight of arithmetic. Senator Chris Dodd, an Obama supporter, came on Meet the Press and said so, and since the arithmetic is on his side, he didn’t present any trip-up potential. Clinton proxy Terry McAuliffe, on the other hand, crammed himself into the absurd position of sticking up for the remote possibility of a game-changing event that could resurrect the expiring Clinton campaign. When he plumped for counting the Michigan votes in a primary where Obama’s name was not on the ballot, all McAuliffe could summon up in support of that argument was to insist that Obama had taken himself off the Michigan ballot. Russert countered with a passage from McAuliffe’s own book insisting that when it comes to the way the party chooses its delegates, “The rules are the rules.”

This is the sort of gotcha moment where Russert’s research staff excels, and McAuliffe must have known it. Russert offered no more than a perfunctory nod in the face of McAuliffe’s feeble prayer—for a bolt from the blue—he offered the pathetic historical precedent of a onetime come-from-behind victory by (surprise!) the Buffalo Bills. Nice try but no cigar.

The other morning “issue” was Clinton’s maladroit remark May 8 about “white Americans.” She referred to an Associated Press poll "that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me." Russert confronted McAuliffe with the thunderous objections from her supporter, Representative Charlie Rangel, and from The New York Times’s Bob Herbert, in the Saturday paper, charging her with arousing white West Virginia voters to see her as their champion and, in effect, to vote their race prejudice. Curiously, thrust into a corner, a possibly ill-briefed McAuliffe scrounged around but scraped up nothing but boilerplate to toss back.

He could have offered a defense to the effect that Clinton garbled her words. It could have been argued—myself, I’d be inclined to argue—that Clinton meant to say two distinct and true things, and erred when she crammed them into a single sentence: first, that she does better than Obama so far among white working-class voters; and second, that working class Americans are “hard-working.” This benign interpretation would hold that she was merely pandering-as-usual, though even so, this sort of constituency-calculating is the sort of thing that a candidate best leave to journalists and academics. It’s her business to present herself as potential president of all the people, not a slicer and dicer of factions. But I can’t believe that she was impugning black voters for not being “hard-working.”

Well, it’s not Russert’s job to untangle a candidate’s garbled syntax. (On the Stephanopoulos show, Harry Reid stumbled around trying to cast a rosier light on her words and then flatly gave up.) If she gaffes it up so badly that her surrogates can’t put out the fire, then maybe she’s not just “TOAST,” as the New York Post screamed last week, but burnt toast.