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Hillary, Obama and the media: Reducing politics to sex and race

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Hillary, Obama and the media: Reducing politics to sex and race 

We’ve apparently settled on what the 2016 presidential campaign is going to be about.

Sex.

Not sex as in Hillary Clinton’s gender, but sex as in sex scandals.

And by the way, the grand narrative of Barack Obama’s presidency is about race, and that won’t change until he leaves office.

These are among the pronouncements in a pair of New York Magazine essays: Frank Rich writing about Hillary, and Jonathan Chait weighing in on Barack.

Now nobody with a pulse could deny that the Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a gender war, and that Hillary will become the focus of that, and that Bill’s escapades in the ’90s will be used against her in some form. But is that the overriding question about her probable candidacy, or just a juicy journalistic topic? I say, as someone who has written about the subject, it’s the latter—stories about “Hillary” and “sex” get more ratings and clicks than explorations of her record at Foggy Bottom.

Here’s Rich, the former New York Times columnist, welcoming the Republicans with a make-my-day tone:

“Undaunted, the GOP is back on sex patrol. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted in February: ‘Remember all the #Clinton scandals … That’s not what America needs again’—an acknowledgment that Clinton scandals are exactly what his party does remember and does need again, whether America needs them or not. Priebus elaborated to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC that a Hillary run ‘provides a lot of opportunity for us’ and that ‘everything’s on the table.’ You don’t need a slideshow to surmise what ‘everything’ is a euphemism for.

“The Democrats will publicly scold the Republicans for recycling yesterday’s garbage. But in private they should pray that Priebus and his camp will bring it on — the old Clinton sex scandals and, better still, some new ones, real or fantasized, the more women the better. The received wisdom that sex scandals threaten a Hillary run is preposterous. It’s the reverse that’s true. The right’s inability to stanch its verbal diarrhea on the subject of female sexuality — whether provoked by rape, contraception, abortion, ‘traditional marriage,’ gay marriage, gay parenting, or pop culture — did as much as anything to defeat Mitt Romney, his ‘binders full of women’ notwithstanding, in 2012. (He lost women voters to Obama by 11 percentage points.) And that obsession with sex can defeat the GOP again.” 

Partisan rhetoric aside, I happen to agree that the GOP would face a backlash for hitting the Monica Lewinsky button too hard, as Rand Paul was doing earlier this year. The country litigated all this during the impeachment drama some 16 years ago and moved on. But with the current president targeting female voters for the midterms, as in his push on equal pay (even if pay in the White House is unequal), there’s no way sex and gender issues aren’t going to swirl around the potential first woman president.

My question is whether the media will conduct that as a healthy debate or one in which both sides are reduced to caricatures. A related question is whether Clinton will do what she avoided doing in 2008, running as the woman to crack the ultimate glass ceiling.

Rich acknowledges that the GOP has taken a few steps, from the National Republican Congressional Committee offering seminars on running against female politicians to John Boehner saying that "some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be.” But then he cites such examples as Mike Huckabee saying women who “cannot control their libido” turn to “Uncle Sugar” to buy contraceptives (Huckabee says he was characterizing the Democratic view).

Rich, in case you were wondering, says it’s hard to imagine how Hillary can lose the presidency.

Meanwhile, the Chait piece on Obama sees both sides engaged in a black-and-white psychodrama:

“Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.”

During the Obama years, “race has saturated everything as perhaps never before. Hardly a day goes by without a volley and counter-volley of accusations of racial insensitivity and racial hypersensitivity. And even when the red and blue tribes are not waging their endless war of mutual victimization, the subject of race courses through everything else: debt, health care, unemployment. Whereas the great themes of the Bush years revolved around foreign policy and a cultural divide over what or who constituted ‘real’ America, the Obama years have been defined by a bitter disagreement over the size of government, which quickly reduces to an argument over whether the recipients of big-government largesse deserve it. There is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America.”

There is more. Fox doesn’t respect Obama, says Chait, and “MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Obama for playing too much golf, Lawrence O’Donnell accused him of 'trying to align … the lifestyle of Tiger Woods with Barack Obama.' … After Arizona governor Jan Brewer confronted Obama at an airport tarmac, Jonathan Capehart concluded, ‘A lot of people saw it as her wagging her finger at this president who’s also black, who should not be there.’ Martin Bashir hung a monologue around his contention that Republicans were using the initials IRS as a code that meant [the N-word]. Chris Matthews calls Republicans racist so often it is hard to even keep track.”

It’s not exactly breaking news that both sides have played racial politics during this administration. While the president has occasionally waded into these waters (from the beer summit with Henry Louis Gates to the Brother’s Keeper initiative), he generally steers clear of explicitly racial topics. That hasn’t insulated him from racially tinged attacks, and his defenders haven’t hesitated to attribute criticism to racism.

But are the arguments over ObamaCare, Wall Street regulation, Syria and Russia really rooted in race? Or is that, again, an irresistible topic for the media?

'View' from the Left?

Barbara Walters, who is stepping down from "The View" next month, acknowledges that the daytime show has no right-leaning voice since Elisabeth Hasselbeck left for Fox News.

Once she leaves, Walters told Variety, “we need a conservative voice. We do try to present a different side.”

As for ending her on-air role, Walters says she won’t be tuning it. “I think it will make me feel bad. I think I will miss it. If I don’t see it, I won’t miss it.” 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz. 

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