The Media’s Made-Up Catfight Between Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren

Here comes the return of the ‘“Dems in Disarray” narrative.

Hillary Clinton at PA Election Night on April 22, 2008
National Journal
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Emma Roller
July 7, 2014, 12:15 p.m.

On Sunday, Ed­ward Klein wrote what was sup­posed to be an ex­plos­ive story in the New York Post set­ting up the “blood feud” between the Oba­mas and the Clin­tons in 2016. Klein is the au­thor of Blood Feud, a new book doc­u­ment­ing the (al­legedly) frosty re­la­tion­ship between the Oba­mas and the Clin­tons. Klein’s book cur­rently sits at No. 2 in The New York Times’ list of non­fic­tion best­sellers­—right be­hind Hil­lary Clin­ton’s own book, Hard Choices.

In his Post story, Klein re­ports that Pres­id­ent Obama “quietly prom­ised” to fully sup­port Eliza­beth War­ren if she de­cided to run for pres­id­ent, and he in­struc­ted Valer­ie Jar­rett to “con­duct a full-court press to con­vince War­ren to throw her hat in­to the ring.”

On Monday, The Wall Street Journ­al al­ley-ooped Klein’s thes­is with its own story pos­it­ing that Clin­ton is try­ing to dis­tance her­self from the Oba­mas “in tone and sub­stance.” The evid­ence? A less cheery tone about the eco­nomy, and this money quote:

Bill Whalen, a re­search fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and former chief speech­writer for Pete Wilson when the Re­pub­lic­an was Cali­for­nia’s gov­ernor, sug­ges­ted that Mrs. Clin­ton’s dis­tan­cing strategy at least partly re­flects Mr. Obama’s lackluster pop­ular­ity.

This type of sourcing is com­pletely ir­rel­ev­ant and guar­an­teed not to pro­duce any real news, just pot shots (it’s not Whalen’s fault; if you give a mouse a cook­ie, etc.). But the nar­rat­ive that Klein et al are craft­ing is ba­sic­ally Dems In Dis­ar­ray, 2.0—a theme that re­lies on re­ports from both con­ser­vat­ive and lib­er­al voices that are short on facts and long on spec­u­la­tion.

It’s true that Clin­ton and Obama don’t ex­actly have a Vul­can mind­meld—but they nev­er have. Check the 2008 Demo­crat­ic primar­ies. That doesn’t mean Clin­ton is “dis­tan­cing” her­self from Obama. It means that Clin­ton and Obama have al­ways held fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent views on some top­ics (such as for­eign policy), and now is a con­veni­ent time in the news cycle to talk about them.

The re­ports of an im­pend­ing War­ren-Clin­ton cat­fight are also over­blown. War­ren has re­peatedly said, “I am not run­ning for pres­id­ent,” while avoid­ing a Sher­manesque state­ment about wheth­er she will be run­ning in the fu­ture. In 2003, War­ren called Clin­ton a hy­po­crite for al­ly­ing with cor­por­ate in­terests on a bank­ruptcy bill. Since then, however, War­ren has pub­licly en­dorsed a Clin­ton can­did­acy. “All all of the wo­men—Demo­crat­ic wo­men, I should say—of the Sen­ate urged Hil­lary Clin­ton to run, and I hope she does. Hil­lary is ter­rif­ic,” War­ren told ABC in April.

Klein also doesn’t at­trib­ute any of his juicy tid­bits to a source un­til the 10th para­graph of the story—and all of his sources are, nat­ur­ally, an­onym­ous. In the story, one “Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion source” tells Klein that War­ren, like Obama, “wants to trans­form Amer­ica in­to a European-style demo­crat­ic-so­cial­ist state.” But, rul­ing out some ser­i­ous Deep Throat-level sub­ter­fuge, it’s hard to be­lieve that a source with that neg­at­ive a view of Obama would have the clear­ance level with­in the White House re­quired to ac­tu­ally know that.

Klein does not ex­actly have the repu­ta­tion of Wood­ward and Bern­stein. In the past, Klein has sug­ges­ted that Hil­lary Clin­ton is a les­bi­an. His sup­port? Clin­ton at­ten­ded Welles­ley, an all-wo­men’s col­lege, and has friends who are gay. Klein has some­what of a fix­a­tion on power­ful wo­men—he’s writ­ten one oth­er book about Clin­ton, along with a book about Katie Cour­ic and three sep­ar­ate books about Jack­ie Kennedy.

Me­dia Mat­ters has called Klein a “smear ped­dler” and a “con­spir­acy the­or­ist,” and points out that even con­ser­vat­ive pun­dits such as Bri­an Kil­meade, Rush Limbaugh, and James Taranto have called Klein’s sourcing in­to ques­tion. (All of these ac­cus­a­tions raise the ques­tion: If the Clin­tons are as de­vi­ous and coldly stra­tegic as Klein paints them, wouldn’t they have fer­reted out his sources by now?)

And then there’s the cri­ti­cism Klein has got­ten from the left. When his last book, The Am­a­teur, came out in 2012, White House spokes­man Eric Schultz had this to say: “Ed Klein has a proven his­tory of reck­less fab­ric­a­tion in or­der to sell books. Nobody in their right mind would be­lieve the non­sense in this one.”

Un­like Klein and his ilk, left-lean­ing news out­lets haven’t settled on a uni­fied War­ren-versus-Clin­ton nar­rat­ive. Last Au­gust, Daily Kos ar­gued that a Clin­ton-War­ren primary chal­lenge would be ter­rif­ic for the Demo­crat­ic Party. In Novem­ber, Noam Scheiber wrote a much-shared cov­er story for The New Re­pub­lic call­ing War­ren “Hil­lary’s Night­mare” (since then, he’s writ­ten an­oth­er cov­er story call­ing Clin­ton the in­ev­it­able Demo­crat­ic pick).

It’s a good rule that when there is a news va­cu­um, pun­dits will hap­pily fill the void with “truthy” the­or­ies about 2016. But un­til you see pho­tos of War­ren and Clin­ton brawl­ing out­side a Geor­getown bar, you’d do well to take these re­ports with a big block of Hi­m­alay­an salt.

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