Two Republican candidates. Two sets of potentially damaging stories. So far, not a great deal of damage. What happened?
In one case, much-anticipated credit-card records from Marco Rubio produced … not a great deal. Mike Allen—perhaps the leading arbiter of conventional wisdom in Washington, with all the positives and negatives that connotes—deemed the records a “nothingburger.” Ben Carson, meanwhile, has shrugged off several stories raising questions about his recollections of the past by attacking the media.
These stories seem to have run into three problems. First, the outlets that pursued them seem not to have understood how they might be received. Second, the abiding distrust of the media on the right ensured they would be met with a degree of skepticism by Republican voters. And third—and relatedly—the sloppy presentation of some scoops served to undermine the better-documented allegations of other stories.
Start with the Rubio story. The Florida senator’s personal finances have been subject to questions for years. This latest story concerned his use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card while he was speaker of the Florida House. Rubio’s team had seemed to resist releasing the records for some time, but once it did, there wasn’t much there. Rubio’s spending was lower than his successor’s, and he says he reimbursed personal expenses—which seems to have been within the rules. Marc Caputo suggested Rubio had even set a trap for the press and candidates by holding back the documents.
Rubio may not be totally out of the woods; there are several different lines of questions about his personal record-keeping, including campaign-finance violations and turbulent real-estate deals. But earlier stories—about his boat, for example, or his speeding-ticket record—have bounced off him harmlessly. One reason is that the expectations have been so inflated that the resulting story ends up being underwhelming. These stories tend to be fairly technical, too, not simple black-and-white cases. Moreover, though, what is the audience that will be swayed by allegations against Rubio? Credit-card debt and the threat of foreclosure are experiences shared by many Americans, and Rubio, just like Richard Nixon before him, has also deftly turned these questions into a populist selling point.
The Carson case is more complex. First, CNN asked some pointed questions about Carson’s childhood. In his book Gifted Hands, Carson portrayed himself as an angry young men, notably in a set piece in which he tried to stab a friend but luckily struck the friend’s belt-buckle instead. On Friday, Politico expressed doubts about Carson’s claim that he was accepted to West Point and offered a full scholarship; the Detroit News piled on. Then The Wall Street Journal found some questionable assertions about his time at Yale.
Then came the pushback. Politico seemed to overstate its case on what Carson had claimed, and it quietly toned down the language in the piece. Carson says that one reason CNN couldn’t find his childhood friends is that he used fictitious names for them (something that another presidential candidate, one Barack Obama, also did in his memoir). His campaign posted a story that partly—though by no means fully—validated one recollection from Yale.
In some cases, the pushback isn’t entirely convincing. It remains the case that Carson was not accepted at West Point, and that all students at the military academy receive full scholarships. The conflicting recollections of Carson and his acquaintances in his childhood and Yale days are peculiar. A stickup that Carson alleged took place at Popeye’s is still hard to pin down. The Journal’s reporting finds that a story about Carson being named the “most honest” student in his class is—ironically—completely uncorroborated.
“You know, when you write a book with a co-writer and you say that there was a class, a lot of time they’ll put a number or something just to give it more meat,” Carson said on ABC this weekend. “You know, obviously, decades later, I’m not going to remember the course number.”
That’s hard to swallow. Carson stood behind the book as factual, and could have checked the statements. Moreover, a president has to choose people he or she can trust and delegate tasks to them; it’s not flattering to Carson’s judgment for him to say he simply couldn’t trust a collaborator. Yet it’s also true that Carson told many of these stories in the context of his career as a motivational speaker, where embellishment for effect and inattention to specifics would be more acceptable than in a presidential race.
That’s not the only audience problem in the Carson-vetting stories. Conservatives remain deeply sensitive to the appearance of bias in the press, a sensitivity that Carson has exploited in responding to these stories. During the last debate, he was asked about his relationship with Mannatech, a questionable supplement provider, and simply denied he had one. That untruth worked on stage, but it was dismantled quickly by reporters, including conservatives ones.
When an outlet like Politico oversells a scoop, however, it drives even conservatives who aren’t big Carson fans or who endorse scrutiny to look askance. Erick Erickson wrote a quick post deeming the Carson revelations major, then struck through the original piece after consideration. Many agreed with this sentiment from The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes:
Both things are true: 1) Ben Carson's candidacy/claims should be subject to media scrutiny. 2) Media far tougher on GOPers than Dems.— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) November 9, 2015
The extent to which the media is or is not tougher on Republicans is probably impossible to determine definitively, and some liberals claim the opposite. (NBC counted the many stories about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers during Obama’s 2008 campaign, though that’s not enough on its own to settle the matter.) For political purposes, though, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true that the press is harder on Republicans; what matters is that many conservatives firmly believe it, and that this conditions their response to questions about Carson, especially sloppy ones.
Vetting of both Carson and Rubio will continue. The steady stream of reports documenting discrepancies in Carson’s record shows no sign of abating, and there may be a tipping point at which the weight of exaggerations and errors starts to harm him.
But for the time being, Carson is at the top of the polls. The former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon was once mentioned on The Wire. Perhaps the media should take a lesson from another Baltimore folk hero on that show: If you come at the king, you best not miss.