While the Republican and Democratic candidates battle it out in the early states in their respective primaries, the main battle royale looms in the general election later next year. But that fight won’t simply be waged by the eventual nominees of both parties. A host of accompanying Super PACs, party infrastructure and national strategists will help shape the final outcome. One of the key figures on the Democratic side will be David Brock, the head of Correct The Record.
Brock, often a controversial figure in national politics, was a conservative writer and journalist early in his career and became a key critic during Bill Clinton’s first term. In the later 90’s he shifted to the left and renounced his past work for the right-wing media machine. He founded the liberal Media Matters organization in 2004 and has been heavily involved in national Democratic strategy ever since. Brock also founded American Bridge, the liberal tracking organization, and is involved in the leadership of two main liberal Super PACs, Correct The Record and Priorities USA Action, both of which back Hillary Clinton in the primary.
Starting Line sat down with Brock last month for a wide-ranging interview on Clinton’s prospects in the primary and general elections, the main messaging themes for 2016 and what it’s like to debunk Republican misinformation in the digital age. The transcript of the interview has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
How do you feel about Hillary Clinton’s standing in the primary?
She’s in a very strong position – I think she’s in a strong position to win every primary at this point. There were some bumps in the road over the summer with the email story that seemed to not want to go away. So the effect of that was she was out there a lot talking about the issues she wanted to run on but it was hard to cut through the clutter … The more that people actually see what’s in the emails, they see that the content is benign. The theory that she set the system up to hide what’s in the email doesn’t make sense when you see what’s in there.
How long do you think the Democratic primary will go on?
I think it goes til somebody wins. I don’t think the [Clinton] campaign is taking anything for granted. Just because they’re in a good position now, confidence doesn’t mean over-confidence. They’ve built a good organization there. I was in New Hampshire, even before she started to turn the polls around there people were not over-confident, but confident to deliver New Hampshire there. So I think if [Sanders] doesn’t make a mark in the two first states – that seems to be his best place to do so. He’ll have made a point, but not a real race.
If Clinton wins the nomination, what happens with the Sanders supporters? What does she need to do to bring them back into the fold for the general election?
The good part of what’s going on is that Senator Sanders is generating energy and interest, particularly with young people who may not have come into the process at all. So they’re going to tune into the debates to see Senator Sanders, but they’ll also see Hillary Clinton. There’s some real contrast between the two candidates, but she’s been the real progressive champion in the race, she’s been the progressive champion for 30 years. The more people see of her in these [debates], the more she’ll be able to capitalize on some of the energy he first attracted. One of her challenges will be how to corral that and win that support for herself. I think she’s got the record and the platform to do that.
Looking ahead to the general election – what would Clinton need to do to replicate the Obama coalition and how do you avoid the problems Democrats had in the two recent midterms?
We haven’t had the problem in the presidential years that we had in the midterms. It seems each presidential cycle that goes by there are fewer and fewer real people up for grabs, and it becomes a question of how to motivate and turn out your own supporters. I think people, possibly because of the history-making aspect of President Obama’s election, it hasn’t really sunk in yet how much history is going to be made here …
I think she has to obviously perform well with the Obama coalition, but they also have to look for places to possibly add to that in case they lose some of that somewhere. So I don’t think there’s any reason she can’t keep the vast majority of her support. If you look at where she did well in the primaries in 2008, there’s the potential to put even more votes in play, and possibly rack up even larger margins. Arkansas, Missouri, West Virginia [could be targets]. At least make the Republicans spend money there.
What do you see as the main messaging themes that the presidential election will be fought over?
[Back in the spring of 2013] at least eight Republican organizations, Super PACs were formed before she was even declared to try and tarnish her record and her reputation. The first phase of that the effort was designed to tire her out, tire people out on her, with the hopes that she wouldn’t get in the race. For the second stage they tried to set the stage for a more significant primary challenge to emerge. That failed too. I think where we’re going to be by next summer is continued attacks on character and efforts to gin up scandal as a way to de-mobilize our base and dampen enthusiasm from our own people. I don’t expect the email thing to go away, but if it’s not that, it’s something else. For whatever reason, Republicans are addicted to the idea that there’s a silver bullet out there somewhere that’s going to stop first President Clinton and now Hillary Clinton, rather than debate the issues, which is what voters want to hear about.
The second part of what they knew a while ago was that, with exception of a few things with Trump, no matter who gets this nomination you basically know what the platform is already. It’s more tax cuts for the 1%, it’s take away your healthcare, take away your Social Security, start a war in the Middle East again, and you build a wall. And those aren’t very popular positions right now. So that forces them off of the substantive and onto the personal. No matter who gets the nomination that’s the dynamic you’re going to see anyway. The Koch Brothers are going to spend a billion dollars to elect whoever that is again, with the exception of Trump, who doesn’t need their money. That money is purchasing an agenda for them. Part of the job Democrats have to do is to better educate voters about what all this money is buying.
What have Democrats learned, if anything, from those two midterms?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know if anybody’s really solved that problem yet. There’s an ongoing effort at various ways of looking at 2014 to figure out what went wrong. I don’t think it’s that complicated at the end of the day. The [Republicans] all effectively used President Obama and tied him to every candidate out there. There was more money spent – the Koch Brother money goes farther in the midterms than it does in general.
When the elections are nationalized in those presidential years we certainly did better because there’s more of a theme. You had candidates in ’14 some of whom hung with Obama, but at the same time trying to move away from him, and even disown him in a few cases, so it was a confused picture.
When trying to shoot down negative Clinton stories, what has been the story that just won’t die?
If you look at the polls, it would probably be fair to say that Republicans have had some success with a combination of Benghazi, emails and the Clinton foundation of trying to create the impression there’s a trust issue with Hillary. The subtitle of the book I wrote was “The Right-Wing Plot To Derail Hillary Clinton and Hijack Your Government.” I wrote that a year ago, and now it’s like the onus isn’t on me anymore, with Kevin McCarthy’s [comments].
So I say that with a little caution, though, because when you really look at these polls and who’s really being moved, Democrats trust Hillary Clinton. So the question is going to be for those who don’t have their mind made up, are they going to let the Republicans tell them what to think about Hillary Clinton or not? And if they don’t, I think she’s got a very good shot with them.
How do you combat the trust issue?
The only answer is to see more of her in settings where she is herself and people will pick up and go by the impressions of what they see. I’m pretty confident when they see her in these settings, in the debates, in her Congressional testimony, in town hall settings, then I think that gradually starts to repair itself. There’s not one magic thing you can do, really.
You’ve been involved with media and journalism for a long time. With the explosion of so many independent online news sites a voter can just listen to what they want to hear. How does that make it harder to debunk negative stories on your end? How do you kill things that keep living on the internet?
The range and the breadth and the depth of what we have to follow, we launched Media Matters in 2004 and it was much easier then to get a handle on what was being said in a given day and a news cycle. It used to be that weekly magazines were weekly magazines. Now they’re networks and blogs, and they’re constantly posting content. It’s a constant struggle to prioritize. And you can only do that through the recognition of patterns. It’s perceptible over time. One of the things we try to do is flag something that’s false or wrong or problematic in some way before it has metastasized to a point where it’s conventional wisdom. So somewhere along that food chain you try to interrupt it.
You can figure out through the process of analyzing and monitoring which of the top right-wing sites are feeding certain Fox News shows. Over time you learn and get better and you try to go as low on the food chain as you can to nip something on the bud. Once it’s on Fox, well then the Fox viewers are exposed to it, but you still have a chance from blocking it from spilling over into the mainstream conversation.
But you also have to go into it knowing you’re not going to answer everything. Even if you answer everything, there’s no such thing of it really going away totally. That’s part of the challenge of the environment we’re in. With the glut of information comes a glut of misinformation. The upside to me is that no one media outlet has the power it did 10 years ago. I think on balance that’s probably a good thing. On the other hand, no one institution has the credibility either. So people can pick and choose their news to fit their own prejudices. When they do that on the right you can live in the whole alternative reality of conservative television and never meet anything that challenges that.
Is that a lost cause? Can you get back some of those people?
To some extent it is a lost cause. Our model was never predicated on the idea that you were going to convert the Limbaugh listener or the Fox viewer. What we were trying to do was to discredit those outlets as sources of information. For one, for the rest of the press. When we started this things on Fox were replicated on CNN all the time. Everyone was looking over their shoulder because Fox has a successful business model. That is where I think we had our biggest effect. That’s not to say from time to time Fox doesn’t correct itself. It’s such a successful business model, that if they changed that they’d go out of business. So you’re not really changing their behavior, you’re changing how others view them. That can be done by the constant documentation of those outlets.
The other effect of the monitoring is the Republicans have to own what goes on. When Rush Limbaugh calls Sandra Fluke a “slut,” if they’re going to say he’s a leader and a voice and a face of the Republican Party in some way, they have to own that. Even though we’re not going to make Rush Limbaugh more responsible, we’re going to have some accountability and repercussion for what he says.
On the Republican side, their echo chamber has sometimes been problematic for them in that it pulls their base too far to the right that they reject more electable candidates. On Democratic side, there’s not as much of that echo chamber. Should Democrats have that, or could that make Democrats too radicalized and make it difficult to win elections?
The cultures are so different that the media consumption habits are different. It’s true that on the conservative side the net effect of what some of these outlets are doing is not all an upside. Increasingly, the desire to play to the conservative audience, which is largely a commercial desire, can be at odds with what is smart politics. In 2012 everybody from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to Rick Perry to Newt Gingrich had their Fox moment. Fox played a role in prolonging that primary to the detriment of Romney. It played a role in boxing Romney in and pulling him farther to the right, and making it harder to win the general election.
They were one of the engines behind the Tea Party, and now the Tea Party can’t be controlled. So if you’re Roger Ailes, you have to make this a successful business, but if you want to play a role as a responsible strategist for the Republicans, those things are now frequently at odds. And if you look at what’s going on on talk radio at how some of the Republicans are being savaged by their own people, it’s helping to stoke the fear and anger and rage and therefore total unpredictability with what’s going to happen with this field right now.
How do you make Republicans pay in the general for what they say in the primary?
Even the presence of the people in the field, and the attention they’re getting, they’re doing real damage to the Republican brand. The effort to out-Trump Trump on immigration – he may not get there, but he’s having a real effect in the general. I think a lot of that will stick with them. Just go to the video tape. We’ve got it all on video.
Do we even need trackers anymore with so much of candidate events being captured on video anyway?
I think it’s still having an effect, but over time you have to re-visit it. It won’t be as cutting edge as it was. If you cast a wide net and do it comprehensively, you get things that might slip through the cracks otherwise. With the tracking, it’s almost less the big gaffes than it is the inconsistencies in the ways they say some things. We may not know what we have today until you say something three months from now that’s totally different. It’s more like intelligence gathering at this point.
by Pat Rynard