Blow and Krugman

In “Emails, Genitalia and the F.B.I.” Mr. Blow says the F.B.I. director, James Comey, appears to have been fully aware of how disruptive to the election his note would be.  In “Working the Refs” Prof. Krugman tells us how the right uses the weak-minded.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Who would have thought that the final leg of this election cycle would be dominated by crowing about violating vaginas and by probes into penis pictures?

But even that frame is problematic because it creates an equivalency that doesn’t exist. One scandal is about a man boasting of predation and the other is about a woman weary of people’s prying. These are fundamentally different flaws, one being clearly about a pattern of assault and the other about a pattern of ill-fated insularity.

And yet an utterly irresponsible media, thirsty for a scoop and ignoring the consequences of its scope, has egged on a public with a scandal lust, aiding and abetting Republicans in turning an email mistake into a colossal crime.

Far from the faux election rigging that Donald Trump has been harping on for weeks, this election isn’t in danger of being stolen by Hillary Clinton, but in danger of being stolen from her.

On Friday, the F.B.I. director, James Comey, took the outrageous and unprecedented step of sending a letter to Congress announcing that the bureau has “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent” to the inquiry into Clinton’s personal email server that apparently had been uncovered as part of an Anthony Weiner sexting investigation.

Not only was this move reckless, weaponizing the reputation of the bureau once again as a partisan political entity, but also Comey was apparently ignoring the strong discouragement of the Justice Department.

But, according to a report by The New York Times: “Senior Justice Department officials did not move to stop him from sending the letter, officials said, but they did everything short of it, pointing to policies against talking about current criminal investigations or being seen as meddling in elections.”

Comey, for his part, appeared fully cognizant of how disruptive to the election his note would be, and yet inexplicably, he sent it anyway.

In a letter to F.B.I. employees, he pointed out that “of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations,” but feebly tried to explain that he was doing so this time, at this crucial moment, so as not to mislead the American people and to “supplement the record.”

Then he wrote: “At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.”

“Risk of being misunderstood” is one of the most appalling understatements of this presidential cycle. Comey clearly knew that his ill-advised actions could implicate Clinton by insinuation and he proceeded anyway, presenting his vague letter as an act of valor when in fact it was an act of vacuity. The irony here is that the man who blasted Clinton for being “extremely careless” for her use of a private email server was himself “extremely careless” for inserting himself and his agency into an election with that letter.

And let’s be clear: Although there have been contradictory news reports on how many new emails there are in question and whether or not any of them were sent to or from Clinton, Comey himself did not and has not clarified any of these questions.

How are voters supposed to fold this into their decision-making with a little more than a week left before Election Day? Is this a big deal about nothing or another phase in something substantial?

Republicans may be gleeful, but Democrats have every right to be livid. This is just the latest lifeline being thrown to a Republican candidate drowning in his own ineptitude.

There is no way to know what electoral impact this will have, but I would venture that it is safe to say that it will have some. Headlines and sound bites are as deep as some voters go. The impropriety of Comey’s action requires a level of detailed assessment that is simply beyond the inclination of what I roughly call the Fickle Five Percent, the late-deciding swing voters who move between candidates based on the week’s revelations.

Add to that the fact that Trump has been encouraging his supporters to watch the polls in “certain areas,” a move that many worry could amount to voter intimidation, particularly in minority neighborhoods.

Furthermore, a senior Trump campaign official last week told Bloomberg Business Week, “We have three major voter suppression operations underway.” As the publication pointed out: “They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African-Americans.”

Trump wants to win through sleight of hand and Comey most likely just increased that possibility, however slightly. Voters of all ideologies who value the integrity of our electoral process must send the strongest possible message that this is not how we want our democracy to operate. They must vote with conviction in absolute opposition.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The cryptic letter James Comey, the F.B.I. director, sent to Congress on Friday looked bizarre at the time — seeming to hint at a major new Clinton scandal, but offering no substance. Given what we know now, however, it was worse than bizarre, it was outrageous. Mr. Comey apparently had no evidence suggesting any wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton; he violated longstanding rules about commenting on politically sensitive investigations close to an election; and he did so despite being warned by other officials that he was doing something terribly wrong.

So what happened? We may never know the full story, but the best guess is that Mr. Comey, like many others — media organizations, would-be nonpartisan advocacy groups, and more — let himself be bullied by the usual suspects. Working the refs — screaming about bias and unfair treatment, no matter how favorable the treatment actually is — has been a consistent, long-term political strategy on the right. And the reason it keeps happening is because it so often works.

You see this most obviously in news coverage. Reporters who find themselves shut up in pens at Trump rallies while the crowd shouts abuse shouldn’t be surprised: constant accusations of liberal media bias have been a staple of Republican rhetoric for decades. And why not? The pressure has been effective.

Part of this effectiveness comes through false equivalence: news organizations, afraid of being attacked for bias, give evenhanded treatment to lies and truth. Way back in 2000 I suggested that if a Republican candidate said that the earth was flat, headlines would read, “Views differ on shape of planet.” That still happens.

The desire to get right-wing critics off one’s back may also explain why the news media keep falling for fake scandals. There’s a straight line from the Whitewater investigation — which ran for seven years, was endlessly hyped in the press, but never found any wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons — to the catastrophically bad coverage of the Clinton Foundation a couple of months ago. Remember when The Associated Press suggested scandalous undue influence based on a meeting between Hillary Clinton and a donor who just happened to be both a Nobel Prize winner and an old personal friend?

Sure enough, much of the initial coverage of the Comey letter was based not on what the letter said, which was very little, but on a false, malicious characterization of the letter by Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. You might think reporters would have learned by now not to take what people like Mr. Chaffetz say at face value. Apparently not.

Nor is it just the news media. A few years ago, during the peak of deficit-scold influence, it was striking to see the various organizations demanding deficit reduction pretend that Democrats who were willing to compromise and Republicans who insisted on slashing taxes for the wealthy were equally at fault. They even gave a “fiscal responsibility” award to Paul Ryan, whose budget proposals gave smoke and mirrors a bad name.

And as someone who still keeps a foot in the academic world, I’ve been watching pressure build on universities to hire more conservatives. Never mind the way climate denial, attacks on the theory of evolution, and all that may have pushed academics out of the G.O.P. The fact that relatively few conservatives teach, say, physics, is supposed to be grossly unfair. And you know some schools will start hiring less qualified people in response.

Which brings us back to Mr. Comey. It seemed obvious from the start that Mrs. Clinton’s decision to follow Colin Powell’s advice and bypass State Department email was a mistake, but nothing remotely approaching a crime. But Mr. Comey was subjected to a constant barrage of demands that he prosecute her for … something. He should simply have said no. Instead, even while announcing back in July that no charges would be filed, he editorialized about her conduct — a wholly inappropriate thing to do, but probably an attempt to appease the right.

It didn’t work, of course. They just demanded more. And it looks as if he tried to buy them off by throwing them a bone just a few days before the election. Whether it will matter politically remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: he destroyed his own reputation.

The moral of the story is that appeasing the modern American right is a losing proposition. Nothing you do convinces them that you’re being fair, because fairness has nothing to do with it. The right long ago ran out of good ideas that can be sold on their own merits, so the goal now is to remove merit from the picture.

Or to put it another way, they’re trying to create bias, not end it, and weakness — the kind of weakness Mr. Comey has so spectacularly displayed — only encourages them to do more.



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