Tag Archives: Machine Politics

Hillary’s Planted Questions vs. My Question at Yearly Kos

I wrote this for today’s Beyond Chron.

If you work for Hillary Clinton and your candidate’s ahead in the polls, your job is to avoid unpleasant surprises – even if it means planting questions in the audience.  Last week, Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff, a 19-year-old college student, attended a campaign event in Iowa – where a Hillary staffer asked if she wanted to ask a question.  When Muriel told them what question she wanted to ask, they said “no” and gave her a typed query – one that would not make news, and allow Clinton to repeat her campaign talking points.  I got to ask Hillary a tough question at the Yearly Kos Convention in August – but Clinton has done her best to avoid such unscripted moments, as her “inevitable” nomination rolls along.  After Muriel got some media attention, the Hillary camp asked her to stop talking to the press.  Kind of reminds me how two Clinton staffers confronted me after my exchange with the Senator.  Hillary’s campaign is running a tight ship, but planting questions to control the message speaks volumes about a candidate we simply can’t trust.

I really feel for how Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff went along with what the Clinton camp asked her to do.  Ten years ago, I was a politically minded college student myself – eager to attend events and talk to high-level politicians.  Right now, candidates in Iowa are swarming the state to win the presidential caucus in January – so being a college student in Iowa is very exciting.  Muriel attended a Clinton campaign event because she wanted to learn more, and was thrilled to be asked if she had a question.  “I thought it was a great opportunity,” she told CNN.  “[Hillary] might be our next President.”

But when the camp asked Muriel before the event what her question would be, they were not happy with what she had in mind.  She wanted to ask how Hillary’s energy plan compared with what her Democratic opponents’ had to offer, but an aide said he wasn’t sure if Clinton knew enough about the other plans to give an intelligent response.  So he pulled out an official binder, tore out a page with 8 pre-written questions – and told her to ask the one that was under the heading “college student.”

The question they told her to ask – “As a young person, I am concerned about the long-term effects of global warming.  How does your plan combat climate change?” – was a softball question that allowed Hillary to give a detailed response about her platform.  Politicians don’t like questions that make the news, because it takes them off-message.  They would rather repeat their talking points that reporters will jot down, and avoid anything that could shift the outcome of an election.  The question they gave Muriel allowed Clinton to do just that.

In fact, it sounds a lot like the first question Hillary got asked at the Yearly Kos Convention that I attended.  That question – “How will you reform No Child Left Behind?” – allowed Hillary to give a long-winded nine-minute response in a break-out session where only 30 minutes were allotted to take questions.  I don’t know if that first questioner was a plant, but it certainly ate up time where Clinton could have been grilled about Iraq in a crowd skeptical about her presidential campaign.

My question at the session put Hillary on the defensive – where she got stuck defending the less pleasant parts of her husband’s Administration (Defense of Marriage Act, Telecommunications Act, NAFTA and Welfare Repeal), and quite a few media outlets picked up on it.  But it’s almost as if I got called on by accident.  Out of five lucky people who asked questions, I was the only one her Internet Director did not call out by name – as he instead addressed me as “the man in the red shirt.”

As Muriel left the Iowa campaign event, she overheard another attendee say that he too had been told by the Clinton camp to ask Hillary his question.  Only four people (out of 200) at the event got to ask the Senator a question, so Hillary’s campaign managed to plant half of the questions – as the national press corps simply looked on.  “The question-and-answer sessions in Iowa are really important,” said Muriel in a later CNN interview.  “But if you’re planting the questions in advance, that takes the voters out of it.”

Muriel said in the interview that she didn’t know if other campaigns pursue such tactics, but that if one does it the others probably do as well.  The Obama, Edwards and Richardson campaigns have all denied planting questions at their events – and I believe them.  At Yearly Kos, Hillary had her Internet Director call on people during the break-out session – whereas the other candidates blindly called on audience members.  John Edwards even allowed follow-up questions.

It’s an unfortunate part of this year’s primary season as Hillary plows ahead with the Democratic nomination under the guise of “inevitability.”  If she can avoid unscripted moments, she will be the next President because no unpleasant surprises means no momentum change for the other candidates.  Her campaign juggernaut is a machine that simply moves in cruise control – even if it means planting questions in the audience.

After they got busted in Iowa, the Clinton camp asked Muriel to keep things quiet.  When she told a college reporter about the planted question, Muriel asked as a courtesy that he notify the Clinton campaign – proving that she does not have an axe to grind with anyone involved.  Suddenly she got a call from Hillary’s Iowa Director of Publicity.  While they politely confirmed Muriel’s account of what happened, their last comment to her was “the campaign would like you to not talk about it anymore.”

Sounds like the contact I had with Hillary’s campaign after my question at Yearly Kos.  On the final night, as the delegates were all drinking at 1:00 a.m. to celebrate a great Convention, I suddenly got approached by two Hillary staffers – a man and a woman – who started a “good-cop, bad-cop” confrontation with me.  The woman thanked me profusely for “asking such a smart question,” while the guy said, “I’m not going to leave you alone until you become a Hillary supporter.”

Needless to say, he was not successful — and after we talked for about five minutes, he yelled “you’re helping the terrorists” and they both walked away.  Apparently, getting unscripted moments is just too much to handle for Hillary Clinton – as her campaign machine chugs along to win the nomination.  Question-and-answer sessions that give the appearance of “dialogue” are treated like TV commercials, and people who break through their machine are “problems” that need to be dealt with.  That is not the type of democracy that we deserve — and are brought up to respect.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To read Paul Hogarth’s self-serving advice on how to ask a tough question, check out this article.  Send feedback to [email protected]