Are presidential debates best viewed as competitions? Ideally they move the national dialogue forward by challenging candidates on critical policies. Debates run well push politicians into uncomfortable territory. Those with well-rehearsed (and often misleading) answers may struggle less, but voters see through such performances.
We saw that in 2012, when Mitt Romney repeatedly and confidently lied
during debates, yet lost the election. We saw this on Tuesday when Hillary repeatedly misrepresented her history and positions. Americans saw through it: numerous focus groups and polls declared Bernie Sanders the strong winner. But she gave enough of a performance to allow a corrupt mainstream media to give her glowing reviews.
In a Facebook US News & World Report Facebook poll, 82 percent of viewers said Sanders won
. On Twitter, he was mentioned more, gained more followers, and had a higher percentage on positive tweets than Clinton. He won focus groups and polls from Time, Slate, CNN, Fox News and many others. Yet the mainstream media
-- including NPR, The New York Times
, the Guardian
, Vox.com, and The Boston Globe
-- said or implied Clinton did better, often by a lot.
Why? Likely the mass media was responding according to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's propaganda model
. The highly concentrated mass media includes CNN, who buried polling showing Sanders had won and deleted comments.
Parent company Time Warner was Senator Clinton's seventh biggest financial contributor. CNN and other networks also edited out coverage of Sanders'
followup to his dismissal of the importance of Clinton's emails, which involved criticizing the media's campaign coverage. Debate analysis biased against Sanders also likely reflects the media currying favor with the candidate
they believe will win.
Of specific note to the mass media was Clinton's assertiveness. A New York Times
A1 article cited her " crisp answers to nearly every question
, an aggressiveness her rivals did not seen ready for."
It's true: few were prepared for her "crisp answers". But that's because her record as a moderate, her weak foreign policy decisions, and recent policy flip flops should have cast a pall over her debate performance. So instead she made stuff up. Some particularly egregious cases are below:
-- Moderator Anderson Cooper's first question to Clinton was asking her about whether she changed positions "based on political expediency," citing new stances on same-sex marriage, immigration and the TPP, which she earlier called the "gold standard." In response Clinton explained, "I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn't meet my standards." The reality is Clinton said it "set
the gold standard" (in fact, she advocated 45 times for the deal
as Secretary of State.) And she must have known this: less than a week before the debate, she put out a weirdly worded position
indicating opposition to the TPP. But her well-crafted debate story sounded better, despite its falsity.
-- After Presidential Candidate Martin O'Malley discussed his plan for a 100 percent clean energy grid by 2050, Clinton was on the defensive. She had said, ""I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone," about the pipeline she opposed less than a month ago. So in a technique she would use repeatedly, she pulled in President Obama. She described how the two of them were "hunting [!] for the Chinese" in a convention center in 2009 and "marched up, broke in" before signing them up to the first international agreement on climate change. Haven't heard of it? Not surprising, few have, given the 2009 Copenhagen Summit is "widely perceived to be one of the biggest diplomatic failures
in recent history." An international adventure with a win for American leadership sounds good. Even if it really wasn't.
-- After months of being criticized for her lack of support for reimplementing the Glass-Steagall Act, Clinton put forth a proposal on how to deal with the banks. This came out just five days before the debate. When Anderson Cooper asked her about her lack of support for Glass-Steagall, she mentioned the document few would likely have reviewed. She referred to it as "more comprehensive" and distinguished herself as taking on "shadow banking" saying others "may be missing the forest for the trees." The reality is her position is probably weaker because
: 1) shadow banking is an integral part of the banking system such that addressing Too-Big-to-Fail institutions includes tackling oversized investment banks, and 2) while her plan allows for regulators to act when banks exceed a certain threshold, it's unclear whether she would do so, especially given the largesse she has accepted from Wall Street
as campaign donations and speaking fees. So she promoted a weaker position with confidence and hand-waving.
-- When asked about Snowden's return to the US, she indicated he should be tried, saying, " He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that." Institute for Public Advocacy Executive Director Norman Solomon disagreed on Democracy Now!
, saying Clinton " gave hypocrisy a bad name
." He cited similar incidents by former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling and NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake which "marked them for persecution and prosecution." He went on to say, "[T]he idea that Hillary Clinton was floating, that somehow there are channels for whistleblowers to go through in the so-called national security arena as whistleblowers, that is ridiculous. And either she was being mendacious or ignorant, or some combination." Again Clinton spoke confidently, yet incorrectly.
Any 15-year-old kid can deliver a good speech. Any debater can maintain a façade of confidence while misrepresenting reality. Mitt Romney did so repeatedly. But, on Tuesday, the American people were not fooled. Even as the mainstream media pretended to be.
Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.