Election seasons are littered with unforced errors.
In 2012, Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the “47 percent” — supposedly government-dependent, non-taxpaying Barack Obama voters — helped to derail his campaign in the final months of the presidential campaign season.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s offhand comments about the “deplorables” — irredeemably racist, sexist, xenophobic Donald Trump supporters — had much the same effect, except to an even greater extent.
Both carried more than a whiff of arrogance. “We don’t even need to bother with that segment of the population,” both statements conveyed. “We don’t care about you. Your participation is incidental to our goals.”
In Clinton’s case, the gaffe turned into one of the defining mistakes of her doomed campaign, energizing her opposition and delivering a ready-made rallying cry. Reflecting on her loss in 2017, Clinton even described her “deplorables” comments as a “political gift” to her opponent.
One would hope that the Democratic Party would have learned from that disaster. Yet, in 2019, the Democratic National Committee’s decision to bar Fox News from hosting any of its primary debates is sure to be just as counterproductive.
On Monday, the New Yorker published an 11,000-word article by writer Jane Mayer, reporting that Fox News had essentially devolved into a propaganda outlet for President Trump. Among other things, Mayer’s reporting alleged that Trump and Fox News’ most popular hosts are in constant conversation; that Fox News killed a deeply unflattering Trump story ahead of the 2016 election; and that the channel may have leaked questions to then-candidate Trump in advance of the presidential debates it hosted.
In a statement Wednesday, DNC Chairman Tom Perez cited that reporting as evidence that the network was “not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for Democratic candidates.”
Fair point. Maybe the channel that seems to spend approximately 20 out of 24 hours debating whether Democrats really hate America or only mostly do (and the other four hours stalking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) isn’t the best place for Democratic candidates to hold a substantive, left-leaning policy discussion.
But then again, is that what presidential primary debates are for?
The Democratic debates are unlikely to be a locus of serious discussion. In reality, they’re an early stage beauty pageant. The objective of the 12 scheduled debates is to allow potential voters, especially those unfamiliar with the slate of perhaps as many as 15 or 20 Democratic candidates, to put faces to names. On MSNBC Wednesday night, Perez admitted as much, saying that of his two “north stars” for planning the upcoming debates, the first was “to make sure as many people as possible see our candidates.”
Even Tucker Carlson cackling away in the moderator’s chair wouldn’t have prevented the DNC from succeeding at that — in fact, it might have helped. Fox News is, after all, the most-watched cable news network. Furthermore, a non-trivial portion of conservative voters and potential voters get their news only from Fox News and shun other networks, which means an appearance on the channel might have been one of the few times a Democratic hopeful could actually present his or her case (or some of it, at least) to such viewers in their own words.
Yet, in its attempt to make the already-obvious point that the channel tilts hard right, the DNC has made it more challenging for the outlet’s viewers to consider the opposition. By cutting Fox News out of the debates entirely, it has alienated even the few responsible journalists from that network and given Fox News defenders even more fuel for their anti-Democratic tirades.
As of Thursday, Trump himself had jumped in to fan the flames, tweeting, “Democrats just blocked @FoxNews from holding a debate. Good, then I think I’ll do the same thing with the Fake News Networks and the Radical Left Democrats in the General Election debates!”
Just what the nation needs.
In 2016, Clinton denigrating the nation’s so-called deplorables only made them stronger, feeding a sense of persecution and providing a “countercultural” identity that has been worn with pride ever since. While Fox News may deserve Perez’s rebuke, branding it the “deplorable” channel will likely produce a similar backlash.
Christine Emba is an editor and columnist with The Washington Post.