In 2008, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman -- channeling progressive bloggers including Media Matters fellow Duncan Black -- described the “Clinton rules,” in which “pundits and some news organizations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent.” Pointing to press coverage of Whitewater and a distorted comment from then-presidential contender Hillary Clinton as examples, he warned that this pattern threatens to “distract voters from the issues.”
To some extent, the Clinton Rules waned as Hillary Clinton entered the Obama administration and rose to new heights of popularity. But as a potential Hillary Clinton presidential campaign looms, a revival of those rules can be seen in the uproar over “Hillary's Hit List,” an excerpt from a forthcoming book on Hillary Clinton by Politico's Jonathan Allen and The Hill's Amie Parnes that both publications published January 12.
The excerpt reveals that shortly after Clinton dropped out of the 2008 presidential race, two longtime campaign aides assembled a detailed, ranked list of “who had endorsed Hillary, who backed Barack Obama, and who stayed on the sidelines.”
Allen and Parnes seem torn between trying to grab attention and acknowledging that this behavior is absolutely commonplace in politics. The story's lede describes a “political hit list” -- language that suggests the Excel spreadsheet was somehow unusual -- and uses highly-charged words like “treacherous,” “betrayal,” and “traitor” to describe listees who had opposed Clinton.
But the reporters also note that the list's creation was “standard operating procedure for any high-end political organization” and “a necessity of modern political warfare.” In the penultimate paragraph, they write:
It would be political malpractice for the Clintons not to keep track of their friends and enemies. Politicians do that everywhere. The difference is the Clintons, because of their popularity and the positions they've held, retain more power to reward and punish than anyone else in modern politics. And while their aides have long and detailed memories, the sheer volume of the political figures they interact with makes a cheat sheet indispensable.
In other words, every politician has such a list, but the Clintons' list is longer and more detailed because they've dealt with more people over lengthy careers in politics at its highest level.
Notably, as even Fox News' Howard Kurtz has noted, in 2,600 words on this alleged “hit list,” there is no mention of even a single instance of retribution from the Clintons against anyone on the list. Indeed, according to a Kurtz source, the document was created to ensure the Clintons could reward those who had helped them, not punish those who hadn't.
These facts haven't prevented a media firestorm over the article. While some reporters have pointed out that Allen and Parnes have uncovered an unsurprising political exercise, others were quick to portray it as a significant development that gets to the supposedly vengeful character of Hillary Clinton.
For NBC News' Domenico Montanaro, the story ties Hillary Clinton “to a culture of payback and bare-knuckle politics.” CNN's Christiane Amanpour said that it was “probably overblown,” but nonetheless troubling because the Clintons “do have a reputation.” Time's Zeke Miller warned that while it “makes sense” for the Clintons to have such a list, it “also reinforces the worst that we learned about the Clinton from the '08 campaign, the politics, the overly competitive side of it that maybe -- that turned a lot of people off just a few years ago.”
And of course, Fox News was quick to deem the list a Nixonian “enemies list,” compare it to the allegations of actual political retribution taken by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration, and host an actor from The Godfather to compare Hillary Clinton to a mobster.
Remember, this entire firestorm was triggered by the revelation that the Clintons do something described as a more detailed version of “standard operating procedure.” The Clinton Rules are back.