Protected by the aura
Beating Clinton in Iowa may be necessary for her competitors, but it won’t be easy. Her organization in Iowa is good, with the money to get even better. She has the machine of former governor Tom Vilsack working for her. Her caucus manager is the same woman who ran John Kerry’s stellar Iowa get-out-the-vote effort in 2004.
And the best thing going for Clinton in Iowa might be the wide-open scramble for the Republican nomination. That race promises endless conflict, suspense, and entertainment for political journalists. “There may be a sense that Hillary Clinton has this side won,” says D’Allesandro, “so the interesting one is over on the Republican side.”
This is the tangible effect of that ethereal aura of inevitability — the press and the public lose interest. The front-runner’s flaws and weaknesses attract no attention or scrutiny.
Think of it this way: a Red Sox pitcher’s sore shoulder might attract little attention if the team leads the Yankees by 15 games. If the lead is only three, everyone in New England with access to a keyboard or a microphone would be analyzing those tender ligaments.
Clinton’s status in this regard is now being put to the test, in the coverage of the Norman Hsu scandal. Hsu, a Clinton “HillRaiser” who collected $850,000 in so-called “bundled” donations for her presidential campaign, turns out to be a fugitive wanted since 1991. Worse, it appears some of that bundled money might have been illegally funneled through third parties.
It’s bad enough, in any context, for newspapers to be running photos of a presidential candidate grinning next to a man identified with the Whitey Bulger–esque tag “fugitive from justice.” But Clinton had already been under fire as the lone Democratic candidate defending “special interest” fundraising. And Hsu’s escapades played out as Clinton was appearing at campaign events with her husband, for whom campaign fundraising provided the biggest non-penis-related scandals of his presidency. The Clintons turned the “Lincoln Bedroom” into shorthand for the special access provided to those able to pay for it.
“This scandal coming out is potentially significant,” says Mayer, of Northeastern. “It reminds people of what they didn’t like about the Clinton presidency: their rather casual attitude toward ethics.”
Initially, most reporting about Hsu relegated Clinton to minor mention, and most coverage of Clinton has barely mentioned Hsu at all. Some staff and supporters of other candidates told the Phoenix that they were frustrated at the media’s disinterest in using the Hsu story as a window into how Clinton plays the political game. “Voters want change,” says one Edwards consultant, “and you cannot make fundamental change unless you change the campaign-fundraising practices.” (On Tuesday, Clinton announced that she is returning all contributions raised for her by Hsu, a possible sign that the story is causing more trouble for her than first thought.)
The Hsu story is the kind that might dog a front-running candidate without an aura of inevitability, says Mayer. In 1988, reporters tracked rumors of Gary Hart’s philandering until the Donna Rice story torpedoed his campaign. Ed Muskie’s campaign sank in 1972 when sustained interest in the fraudulent “Canuck letter” — purportedly revealing Muskie’s anti–French Canadian prejudice — forced him into a humiliating, tearful press conference. In 1964, accusations of adultery followed GOP Nelson Rockefeller throughout the campaign, which he lost to Barry Goldwater. Hart, Muskie, and Rockefeller were all front-runners at the time, though they certainly lacked auras of inevitability.