Would A Primary Challenger Improve Hillary Clinton's Press Coverage? It Didn't Help Al Gore

Hillary Clinton's race for the White House might be historic in more than ways than one. Not only would a successful presidential campaign usher in a new era of a female president, but if Clinton ends up running unopposed during the Democratic primary season it would represent a modern-day first for a non-incumbent or a non-sitting vice president. 

That prospect has generated endless hand-wringing among journalists who seem nervous about covering a Democratic primary season where there are no serious Clinton challengers. But instead of acknowledging their professional desire for a story to cover ("The media wants a fight, they love a fight," notes Democratic strategist Joe Trippi), some journalists have presented their agita as concern for Clinton's political well-being. They stress that an uncontested primary would hurt her chances in 2016. And specifically, commentators suggest Clinton's press coverage would improve if she had a Democratic opponent.

The argument goes like this: If a primary challenger steps forward, the media's harsh focus would move off Clinton and onto her opponent who'd be the target of equally vigorous scrutiny.

“She needs someone else in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination -- someone to divert the news media,” wrote Richard Cohen at the Washington Post. He stressed that currently, “Clinton's chief opponent is the press. It covers her like the proverbial cheap suit, if only because it has no one else to cover.” The New York Times cited a Republican strategist who suggested “an absence of top-tier Democratic campaign rivals would hurt Mrs. Clinton because the glare of the news media spotlight intensifies when a single person is in it.”

In other words, the current campaign dynamic of the press squaring off against Clinton and essentially acting as her opponent in the absence of a challenger is bad news for her, which is why she'd benefit from a capable opponent. 

Bonus: Having a challenger would supposedly force the press to cover substantive issues as two or more candidates battled over ideas.

That all sounds logical, in theory. But somebody might want to ask Al Gore if that's what happened during the 2000 campaign when he was the prohibitive Democratic favorite and faced a single challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley.

Ask Al Gore if the emergence of Bradley's campaign meant the former vice president's caustic press coverage suddenly lightened up as reporters scrambled to dissect Bradley with equal vigor; if Bradley's presence meant the press obediently focused on the issues instead of obsessing over trivial campaign gotcha and claims of character flaws.

They did not.

In reality, Gore's at-times brutal treatment from the Beltway press corps during that election cycle may have hit its low point during the Democratic primary season. Looking back, virtually every defining character attack on Gore delivered by the campaign press started during the Democratic primary season when, according to today's wisdom, the media should've been cutting Gore a break and focusing on his opponent.

Instead, the press was too busy swooning over Bradley and reportedly toasting his “artful languor” and his emphasis on “substance, not style.”

Rather than serving as a distraction for the press, Bradley served as a vehicle -- as a rallying point -- for journalists to express their open disdain of Gore in 2000, who was “variously described as'repellent,' 'delusional,' a vote-rigger, a man who 'lies like a rug,' 'Pinocchio.'” according to Vanity Fair.

Today, Clinton can probably relate to Gore's corrosive campaign coverage. That's not the only similarity between Clinton's current political standing and Gore's back in 2000. In both instances, the Democratic primary fields were quite limited, and in both cases there were lopsided leaders. And did I mention both were saddled with awful press?

During the 2000 contest, the press was completely open about its contempt for Gore. In the pressroom at the first Gore/Bradley debate at Dartmouth College, “Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd,” reported Eric Pooley at Time.

Recalled Jake Tapper, then a reporter for Salon: “The reporters were hissing Gore, and that's the only time I've ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event.”

It was from that almost frantic gotcha environment that reporters smeared Gore with fictitious attacks that did real damage to his electoral chances. And they did it during the contested primary season:

*Al Gore claimed to have “invented” the Internet.

*Al Gore claimed the romantic lead character in Love Story was modeled after him.

*Al Gore claimed he “was the one who started” the campaign to cleanup of the toxic contamination in Love Canal, New York.

None of those widely repeated Gore gotcha stories were true. Still, the notion persists today that a challenger would change the press dynamic for Clinton.

“Without a major opponent, she will have no moments of victory providing positive momentum along the way,” wrote U.C.L.A. political science professor Lynn Vavreck in a New York Times column. “She won't have little bursts of added momentum to drive positive news coverage.”

Note that in 2000 Gore threw a shutout -- he won every primary contest against Bradley, and won each contest, on average, by huge margins. (Bradley was only competitive in a handful of New England states.) But instead of being portrayed as a winner, Gore was depicted as a phony.

Apparently the claim that the press loves a winner doesn't apply to leading Democratic candidates.

Having a primary opponent did nothing to improve Gore's press coverage during his 2000 run. Given the media's often-contemptuous treatment of the current Democratic frontrunner, I suspect the same would be true for Hillary Clinton.