Don't call it a comeback: it's the context, stupid

The press always creates the very reality it's supposed to be covering, at least to an extent. But the presidential-nomination process takes this dynamic to breathtaking heights. Consider these headlines on yesterday's New Hampshire primary: "Clinton upsets Obama; McCain Wins" (NYT); "Comeback Kids: McCain Bests Romney, Clinton Tops Obama" (Fox News); "Surprise! Hillary takes New Hampshire" (Slate).

Waxing dramatic over McCain's win makes sense: after all, a few months ago, his campaign was flat-out imploding, and Mitt Romney was the longtime New Hampshire frontrunner. But Clinton is a radically different story. Yes, after her Iowa loss--and in light of new polls that showed Obama opening up a big N.H. lead--most people expected a second straight Clinton defeat yesterday. Still, "comeback" is a stretch. "Upset," meanwhile, is flat-out absurd.

Remember, if you can, that Clinton's been the Democratic frontrunner for a couple years; that she only lost to Obama by single digits in Iowa; that she was supported by most of New Hampshire's Democratic establishment; and that her still-popular ex-president husband was working the hustings for her in the Granite State. To turn Clinton into a political version of Rocky Balboa, you've got to ignore this stuff and focus on the past few days of a multi-year campaign. Of course, no one ever accused the mass media of having an overly long attention span.

What makes the current flurry of "upset"/"comeback" coverage especially striking--and especially lame--is that we've gone down this thematic road in the not-too-distant past. And we did it with Hillary's husband. In 1992, Bill Clinton led Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire by double digits. Then came Gennifer Flowers (remember her?) and the accusation that Clinton dodged the draft to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Clinton's lead evaporated, and he lost to Tsongas by eight points.

His campaign, however, had an ingenious response: they dubbed Clinton the "Comeback Kid," a catchy moniker that turned a loser into a winner. "[W]e managed to win in New Hampshire by losing by 8 points," James Carville recalled in a recent Globe guest column. "The press did not care that local boy Tsongas had won the primary; they were fascinated that Clinton had come in a relatively close second."

Sixteen years later, the same thing is happening again—but in far more egregious fashion. Bill Clinton, after all, entered the '92 race as a political unknown; Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination until last week. So let's be absolutely clear: Clinton didn't "upset" Obama yesterday, and whatever "comeback" she made comes with a gargantuan asterisk. That's the truth—no matter how many times the media say otherwise.

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