Jeanne Cummings, a former political reporter for the Wall Street Journal who now works at the Politico, displayed an obvious double standard in her appearance on Friday night’s Washington Week show on PBS. Joe Biden’s prediction that a President Obama would be tested quickly with an international crisis was worth dismissing, since it came so late in the campaign, after Obama had already convinced many voters he was a capable leader. But the RNC buying "pricey togs" for Sarah Palin was a political disaster that completely undermined her just-folks appeal. It showed "a huge disconnect. And it has the risk of robbing her of the real strength that she had brought to the campaign."
There’s a professional reason Cummings was so invested in the damage that story did: it was her story. But at what point does another journalist like Ifill ask: so, are you happy that you damaged her strength? Here’s how the exchange happened:
CUMMINGS: It does seem like that Biden at some point was going to do this. He was going to go off message.
IFILL: The fact that he hasn't done it as much as anybody predicted --
CUMMINGS: That’s remarkable. Yes. That's truly remarkable. So there he did it. He fell off message. But he did it at a more opportune time than they could have hoped. Because coming after the debates, when Obama had, in the polls, it indicates made a lot of progress in convincing voter sthat he would be a stable leader and a capable leader of it takes some of the edge off the power of the message that McCain now is trying to wrap all that around.
IFILL: We have to talk about the other unforced error, which was the Sarah Palin price tag, togs, the pricey togs, as they like to call them. Jeanne, you're just doing your job as a reporter, going through some campaign finance reports, and it says, Saks! Neiman’s! Wonder who that’s for? Why is it significant that she's got -- So much money was paid for her to dress well?
CUMMINGS: Well, it's never been done before. No candidate has had an entire wardrobe purchased for them. But what I think is really significant is that her strength was that she -- the whole hockey mom thing was working for her. She was connecting to voters in a pretty significant way with that. And they were -- to the degree they were holding on or making any ground or had a hope of breaking into these working class areas in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it was through that message. And so to learn that she's wearing Neiman Marcus -- in a day spent $75,000, which is more than most of these people make in a year –
IFILL: It's more than she makes, actually. She makes 125,000 dollars.
CUMMINGS: The whole package certainly outdid. But that one purchase in Neiman Marcus was almost double what an average working class family, 40,000-ish might make. That's a huge disconnect. And it has the risk of robbing her of the real strength that she had brought to the campaign.
Ifill may have talked to Cummings before the show about how she just stumbled across this set of expenditures deep in a federal election report. But the viewer at home might suspect that the story was fed to her by the Democrats, which wouldn’t take as much sleuthing.
When Ifill started assessing the Biden gaffe – and played a snippet on the air – she went to Washington Post reporter Shailagh Murray to discuss it, and she also quickly dismissed its impact as something that "didn’t really take hold."
IFILL: What was he trying to say, Shailagh, in that little comment he made?
MURRAY: Well, I think he's trying to say that there are a lot of hot spots around the world and you never know what's going to happen, and that Senator Obama or whoever wins the presidency will be tested.
IFILL: Well, it wasn't whoever wins the presidency, it's this guy will be tested.
MURRAY: That's right. And it was a way for the McCain campaign to seize on the experience argument, something they forfeited when they added Sarah Palin to the ticket. It's a way to bring foreign policy back in the debate. Again, one of these message frustrations of the McCain campaign that -- I mean, this was an interesting comment to seize on. But it didn't really take hold.
Former Time reporter John Dickerson (now with the liberal website Slate) also underlined how this is a big problem for Palin, that as she loved the song "Redneck Woman" and said "thank you" to being called one, her clothes show a real disconnect.