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Live from New York Ohio: Hillary's SNL Defense

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Anyone who believes that corporate synergy does not work in TV should watch last night’s Democratic debate in Ohio. There we saw Hillary Clinton using one NBC Universal property (Saturday Night Live) to attack another NBC Universal property (MSNBC, the debate host) for its treatment of her. Fielding a question about NAFTA, Hillary–whose aides and surrogates have fiercely criticized media coverage the last few days–complained that she is repeatedly asked the first question at the debates, then referenced last weekend’s SNL opening skit, which showed debate moderators grilling Amy Poehler’s Hillary while tossing softballs to Obama. “If anybody saw Saturday Night Live,” she said, “you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.”

Clinton got in a shot at that ever-popular target, the media. SNL got the kind of political validation it thrives on. MSNBC got free publicity, from an exchange guaranteed to be played, replayed and analyzed by media folks like myself who love to obsess on the importance of media in the elections. Everybody wins! But was it a winning strategy?

Politically, I’m not sure. Clinton’s barb was a little insider-y; it was phrased in such a way that it made most sense to people who have seen the SNL skit and are already familiar with the charges (that the press is in the tank for Obama)–in other words, involved viewers who likely know who they’re voting for already. To a Texas or Ohio voter tuning in for the first time, it may have been sympathetic–who doesn’t love to hate the media?–or it may have seemed confusing (why is getting the first question a bad thing? why is she talking about late-night TV?) or whiny. (Then again, it did prompt Obama to respond that he didn’t “whine” about Clinton attacks against him, which could have been off-putting itself.)

Pop culturally, though, Saturday Night Live returned just when Clinton needed it. For months, she’s been badly outgunned in the increasingly important field of political-entertainment surrogate videos. Obama has run the table with his supporters’ 1984 parody video, the Obama Girl phenom and the will.i.am Yes We Can music video, while Clinton–except for kicking off last summer with a sharp Sopranos parody–has made do with the likes of a lame Behind the Music spoof and, um, this. Now, with Hillary against the wall in a bar fight, SNL handed her not one but two broken whiskey bottles, in the form of the debate skit and Tina Fey’s brilliant “Bitch Is the New Black” endorsement.

Yeah, I know, this is is all a sideshow, it’s has nothing to do with the issues, it’s pop-culture noise that doesn’t matter. Except that it does. Viral-video and comedian surrogates can make points that are too edgy to put in the candidate’s own mouth; they attract free media coverage; they can capture the emotion and arguments of a campaign more viscerally than a stump speech; and as much as people may say that they don’t care about celebrity endorsements, they at least convey an intangible feel of excitement, the sense that people are moved enough by a candidate to create. Whatever it is they offer–buzz, cool, psychological momentum–Clinton needed it, so it was unsurprising, if a little bizarre, to see her spokespeople working overtime to inject SNL into their talking points Monday morning.

But more than the reflected hipness, the SNL debate skit served a longer-running Clinton campaign theme: that it’s been picked on by the media, who have reveled in Clinton’s losses while getting wobbly over hot, charismatic young Obama. And last night was the perfect chance to press the attack, since MSNBC has been the campaign’s chief target, from Chris Matthews’ regular lambasting of Hillary on Hardball to David Shuster’s remark that Clinton “pimped out” daughter Chelsea by sending her on the campaign trail but declaring her off-limits to the press. (More synergy: the squabbles have made MSNBC more talked-about and relevant than it has been in years. The SNL skit did unfortunately spoof a CNN, not MSNBC, debate, but you can’t have everything.)

As I’ve blogged before, Clinton has a legitimate point against the media (somewhat undercut here by having her best defense provided by another major-media institution, SNL). The explanations are endless (Obama’s newness; Clinton’s familiarity; race; sex; journalists falling into Obama’s urban-white-collar demo; the Bill factor; Clinton’s handlers’ aggressiveness with the press corps; etc., etc.). But whatever the reasons, the press, especially pundits, have gone aflutter over Obama’s rhetoric and giant crowds, have made flowery JFK, RFK and MLK comparisons, and have been quick to write off Clinton after defeats. (Though the Obama camp has made the credible counterargument that the press is now overcompensating on the latter point, and that he would have been declared dead if he had lost 11 contests in a row.)

But notwithstanding the SNL skit, the media Obamaphilia has actually been more pronounced outside the debates–on the talk shows and in the pundit panels–than in the debates themselves. Arguably the most contentious questioning last night came when Tim Russert grilled Obama over his unsolicited endorsement by Louis Farrakhan, which has the potential to alienate Jewish voters.

It’s still a tricky bank shot Clinton is trying to play in the few days before March 4: trying to get people to vote for her as a way of voting against the media. But it’s worked before—in recent elections, actually, much more for the Republicans; the Bush campaigns made mainstream-media bashing more of a GOP staple than promising tax cuts. For the Republicans, it’s been a way of motivating the base, appealing to the grievances of loyalists who believe that the condescending media elite have stacked the deck against them.

But there’s a healthy reserve of media resentment in the Democratic party too, running from the Iraq War coverage back to the Clinton impeachment and beyond. If Hillary inherited Bill’s baggage from Lewinskygate, she also inherited the potential goodwill of those Dems who believe that the media was Ken Starr’ accomplice. Strategically, if Clinton’s Job One right now is to keep Obama from stealing voters from her base of loyalist Democrats, playing to their sense of being screwed by the media is one way of keeping them in the fold. When she won in New Hampshire, after all, it was attributed in part to the sense that, in debates with John Edwards and Obama, the boys were ganging up against her. By pulling the media into the debate–and not just any media folks but quintessential Old Boy Russert–she just might have a new gang to run against. (The fact that they often have ganged up on her, of course, helps.)

If Hillary can somehow make her run against the media work–especially if she pulls out Texas and Ohio and her media war gets some of the credit–it would give badly needed credibility to her electability argument. After all, a central part of the case for Clinton is that she’s the best candidate to beat the Republicans at their own tactical games, and some of the most important of those are to work the refs and to get the fans on your side against the refs. Hillary has spent months trying to convince Democrats that she’s the best candidate to beat the GOP. Maybe instead she can convince them that she’s the best candidate to beat the media.