Given the insanity of our politics over the past few years, you would think that the mere existence of a candidate doing a town hall style interview on a cable network would be a pretty non-controversial happening. [Boring Newsreader Voice]: Candidate Hornswoggle takes questions from voters in New Hampshire, more at 11.
But as you know by now, that sane world is not the one we inhabit. Our politics demands outrage the way your browned, neglected houseplant craves sunlight.
So Pete Buttigieg choosing to spend an hour on Fox News fielding questions from what ended up seeming like a rather liberal audience of New Englanders with some tough, but hardly outlandish, follow-ups from Chris Wallace yielded the requisite rending and gnashing.
First I’d like to dispense with the most moronic of the objections to this town hall gathering, which came from—prepare your shocked face—the current president of these United States.
Anywhere there is faux outrage to be had and cable news to be watched, you can be certain that Donald Trump will be present. He tweeted that Fox was “wasting airtime” on Mayor Pete and that the network is forgetting “the people who got them there.” I’m not sure that the suits over at Fox appreciate their assignment editor in the White House saying the quiet part out loud (again) about how fairly their coverage is balanced in his favor. And despite how wildly inappropriate it is for the president to suggest that a news station should bend to his will, we’ve seen this story before. The president’s fluffers will once again employ strategic silence and this will become yet another tweet thrown atop Trump’s pyre of degradation of the presidency.
The (slightly) more surprising objection to the town hall came from the activist left for whom boycotting Fox has become one of the 98,756 litmus tests that a person must be in line with in order to qualify as a progressive in good standing on Twitter dot com. This activist tail wagging has worked in keeping other 2020 candidates in line, most prominently Elizabeth Warren, who seemed to peg an entire day’s message to her boycott of Fox.
Staying off of Fox may be a savvy tactical move to gain goodwill on the left, from a candidate who is far more in touch with the desires of the progressive base than I am. (And one who, incidentally, I believe to be the most undervalued as the potential nominee by the conventional-wisdom mongers at present). Beyond being an astute list-building exercise for Warren 2020, I also believe there are some very legitimate reasons to object to, or even boycott, certain programs on Fox. To take just one example: Hannity’s Seth Rich conspiracy mongering. We could rehash a litany of other offenses, but you get the point. So if activists like Media Matters want to take this fight to Fox, they should have at it, but the calculus is different for presidential candidates.
In the fog of the outrages and counter-outrages, slams and sick burns, what sometimes gets lost in a presidential campaign is exactly what it is that you are doing here. And for the 2020 candidates such as Warren, the ostensible goal is still becoming the president of the United States with a governing coalition able to enact some policy.
So how does ignoring conservative media and demonizing those who read or watch it help achieve that goal?
Look what happened to Hillary Clinton. Her “deplorable” outreach was at best ham-handed and at worst insulting. And when the exit polls were tabulated, it turned out that 20 percent of voters didn’t like either candidate and Trump won a big majority of these people. So when Clinton needed their vote—or, more realistically, needed them to stay home or check the box for Johnson or McMullin or write in Billy Graham—they decided to put on the red hat instead. She shouldn’t have been surprised, having been in national public life for 25 years without ever even trying to build up goodwill with the other side. One of Clinton’s deepest failings was that she never attempted to connect with these voters on an emotional or cultural level, even if they were misaligned ideologically.
I can hear the leftist Twitterati’s response now. “That ain’t it chief.” “They WERE deplorable.” “Fuuuuuck that.” “She won the popular vote, bro.”
Okay. Maybe so. But . . . who cares? A presidential campaign isn’t scored by judges. As it turned out, Clinton only had to convince a total of about 75,000 people in three states that they could trust her enough that they didn’t have to waste their time leaving the house to vote for a guy they didn’t like. With the margins that close, not trying is tantamount to political malpractice. Because let’s be honest: The Twitter progs were going to vote for Clinton anyway. Supreme Court judges. Sorry, sorry, sorry. No choice.
So back to Mayor Pete. In his interviews so far you’ve seen both the good and the bad that come with engaging conservative media. But on balance, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Buttigieg comes out the better when the Monday morning headline on the biggest conservative news site is “MAYOR PETE STANDING OVATION; TRUMP SIMMERS” with a photo of the Fox town hall.
Prior to joining Fox, Buttigieg did a fascinating radio interview with Hugh Hewitt that focused more on his bio and detailed foreign policy questions than the typical campaign interview. One bit from the interview created a dust-up. Hewitt asked about changing the names of the Democratic party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinners and Buttigieg gave a lengthy exegesis on why he supports making that change, citing Jefferson’s letters acknowledging he knew that slavery was an atrocity.
The Daily Caller and Laura Ingraham and assorted other “credible news outlets” proceeded to distort the answer, claiming that Buttigieg was anti-history and wanted to change everything named after Jefferson.
But at the Fox town hall the very next night Chris Wallace followed-up this question and Buttigieg laughed it off, corrected the record, and used it as an opportunity to critique click bait news and the conservative media saying, “You would’ve thought I was proposing blowing up the Jefferson Memorial in D.C.”
So yes, this incident could be used as an argument for not dealing with conservative media. But it also shows that, if done consistently and handled right, these ministorms don’t have to take on a life of their own.
The other landmine Buttigieg encountered was on abortion, where Wallace honed in on the question of third trimester abortions. And Buttigieg wound up in the same extreme corner as his primary opponents. Just as a matter of politics, this isn’t a position shared by a majority of the general public and certainly not the Fox audience. But on the other hand, if Buttigieg is going to become president, then he is going to get these questions eventually anyway. Where’s the advantage in avoiding them by staying in the overwhelmingly pro-choice, safe-space mainstream media?
Outside of that, the interview portion of the Fox event was downright tame. Buttigieg, who would’ve been considered a doctrinaire Democrat up until 2017—but is tonally moderate in the current primary field—got to offer the Fox audience some pleasing paens to addressing the deficit, paying for his proposals, morality, and his respect for the military. The second sentence that came out of his mouth was, “it’s safe to say I’m not like the others” which was both a reference to his unconventional bio but also a message to Fox viewers asking them to give him a shot.
Fox aired a short video on Buttigieg’s bio that was practically a paid ad—and a not-so-subtle message to the other Dems that they should play ball with the network and the Fox audience got to see an hour of New Hampshire town hall goers giving Buttigieg ovation after ovation in response to just about every answer he gave.
And on top of all of that, he even earned some headline grabbing good-will on the left for trashing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Fox’s prime time lineup on their own network.
On net, not a bad night. And in a crowded field where attention-share is at a premium, Buttigieg got a fair bit of it on Sunday night while Elizabeth Warren was invisible.
In the end will we look back on this one hour as the moment that won Buttigieg the nomination? Of course not. By itself, will it build the goodwill necessary to counter the onslaught on bullshit that will come down on his head from Trump and his conservative media allies? Heck no.
But might a concerted effort to speak to conservative voters where they are and run a campaign that doesn’t condescend to them make 75,000 votes worth of difference?
I don’t know. It’s not like I have a crystal ball. But I can tell you that Democrats tried it the other way and well . . . the result was rather deplorable.