Presidential Election Coverage: Eleanor Clift
September 15, 2012 —
Eleanor Clift is a founding board member of the IWMF and a contributor to Newsweek and the Daily Beast web site. She writes about politics and policy in Washington, and the partisan clashes that are the result of divided government. Clift is also a panelist on the syndicated weekly talk show, “The McLaughlin Group”, as well as the author of several books.
A seasoned witness of the U.S. democratic process, she attended the 1972 Democratic National Convention as a secretary for Newsweek magazine, and quickly moved up the ranks to become a political reporter and Newsweek’s White House Correspondent. She has covered every presidential election since President Carter which makes her an invaluable source for expert insight into this year’s presidential elections.
IWMF: What aspects of the 2012 presidential election do you find most interesting?
Clift: I find it very interesting that Obama is managing to stay even with his opponent in a struggling economy when – by all conventional wisdom – he should be easily defeated. At the same time, the Republicans have moved far to the right and yet they’ve nominated a moderate person … at least once upon a time he was moderate. The Republican Party is trying to figure out how to position itself to win. If the Republicans don’t win this election, they might conclude they weren’t conservative enough and might even move further to the right. So if President Obama wins, I think a legitimate question to ask is how he will accomplish anything over the next four years if the Republican Party is the same Party it’s been for the last four years.
IWMF: Issues that are of particular interest to women, such as the various aspects of women’s reproductive health, are playing an increasing role in this year’s election campaigns. Is this controversy a step forward because it turns the spotlight on women’s issues, or is it a step backward because some of the debated opinions are perceived as reactionary?
Clift: Rights that have been given, can be taken away. People who vote need to be mindful of that. I noticed with great interest that Mitt Romney’s sister was reassuring women the other day that if he is elected he will do nothing that would tamper with Roe v. Wade. However, if he is President and is able to nominate a Supreme Court Justice, there will be a lot of pressure on him from his party to nominate someone who looks like they would vote with the conservative block. And they only need one more vote to overturn Roe. Is that a step forward or is it a step back? The Republicans have reopened questions that people didn’t think were under consideration anymore. A lot of women thought this has been settled. But I think it is healthy for these issues to be out there in such a spotlight so that people know what’s at stake in this election.
IWMF: Presidential elections are very polarizing. How hard do you find it to toggle back and forth between being a reporter sharing facts objectively and being a pundit sharing your personal opinion?
Clift: I actually don’t find it hard although once I started doing “The McLaughlin Group” on television, I was no longer just an ordinary beat reporter. I think viewers and readers have difficulty when they see my byline on what’s supposed to be a straight news story and then they see me offering opinions. They understandably can’t separate the two. But I think the lines have gotten so blurred in recent years … Back when I first started in journalism, if somebody worked for a political candidate it was considered very difficult to switch careers and become a reporter. Now people do that routinely. I think it’s possible to be fair in writing a story and I strive to be fair to both sides.
IWMF: Some believe that televised presidential debates do little in changing the outcome of presidential elections while others are convinced that debates do more to sway voters than all the ads money can buy. What do you think?
Clift: I think the debates are very important. They could very well swing an election one way or the other if somebody really breaks out and has a wonderful performance or if someone has a terrible gaffe. Just look back over the history of the debates. When Jimmy Carter was running, Gerald Ford agreed to debate him. Debates were not standard procedure and Ford didn’t have to do that and I think Carter remained grateful because he did go on to win that election. So when he was challenged by Ronald Reagan, his advisers told him “You shouldn’t debate a Hollywood actor” but Carter agreed to debate Reagan. It was one debate and in that one debate, Reagan reassured the public that he wasn’t the “crazy cowboy from the West”, that he was the genial, grandfatherly type. Many people believe that this debate helped him achieve the credibility that he needed to win that election. Gerald Ford on the other hand, when he debated against Carter, made a gaffe about Poland saying that Poland was a free country, and he was mocked for that. It’s a high-risk stage that can lose it all or win it all, and in some cases, it can be a determining factor. The first debate in this election season is going to be on domestic issues and the economy. The second debate is going to be town-hall style with voters asking questions and the third debate is going to be on foreign policy. So I think the first debate is really the critical one. They’re talking about having the two candidates sit at a table with a moderator between them and having 15-minute issue pods to encourage at least some more in-depth conversation, not so much debate. I think that’s better than having them stand like wooden soldiers behind the podium. And I think in this election, people are just overwhelmed with information and ads. The debates give them an opportunity to sit down and watch the two candidates on a television screen – it breaks through all the clutter. I think the debates can have a major impact this year.
IWMF: Until this year, only one woman has ever moderated a televised presidential debate – and that was 20 years ago. In your opinion, why do women have such a hard time breaking this glass ceiling?
Clift: It’s a high-stakes performance and the two campaigns get to veto people suggested by the Presidential Debate Commission. They want somebody who has a proven reputation and who doesn’t seem to lean too far to one side or the other. That pool of people is not that great especially in this polarized media that we live in now. I would love to see Rachel Maddow moderate a debate and I am sure she would be totally fair-minded with everyone but there is no way she would get picked because she is too identified with one side of the political equation. So I am not necessarily going to scream gender bias. I came up in this profession when women were not allowed to write or report for Newsweek … I have seen some pretty amazing changes in my lifetime.