Leading DC reporters analyze White House candidates

PRWeek had a front row seat as the 2016 election took center stage in a panel discussion led by Julie Mason, host of Press Pool on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel. She was joined by Brianna Keilar, senior political correspondent at CNN; Christina Bellantoni, editor-in-chief at Roll Call; and Colleen McCain Nelson, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

(l-r) Brianna Keilar, Colleen McCain Nelson, Julie Mason, and Christina Bellantoni
(l-r) Brianna Keilar, Colleen McCain Nelson, Julie Mason, and Christina Bellantoni

Julie Mason (Press Pool): Brianna, you’ve been covering Hillary Clinton. What are some initial thoughts?

Brianna Keilar (CNN): She hasn’t taken a lot of questions – and that’s become a huge story. Covering her has been like watching the inside of a snow globe. We ask her questions and they really don’t get answered. That will change, but for now that’s what her campaign wants. It’s a do-no-harm moment for them.

Keep this in mind, though. Interviews have proven a particular vulnerability for her. Look at her book tour. People like myself will be following her all over the country asking her questions. We might have to wait a bit longer, but she will have to answer them.

Christina Bellantoni (Roll Call): It’s such a weird shift from the last several campaigns. The candidates don’t need the press the same way they used to. They’re able to present their own messages. They know the press will follow them no matter what.

Colleen McCain Nelson (The Wall Street Journal): The White House now finds itself in a position where everything Clinton does, they’re asked to comment on.

Clinton was in Nevada and talked about immigration. She called it a visible path to citizenship and said she would have gone much further than President Obama with his executive actions. Clinton pretty much said we can do more. The White House has argued they did as much as their lawyer said they could. This is now being fought in court, so actions have been put on hold. Of course, the Republicans say they went too far. But the White House has been put into a corner a bit by Clinton saying they could have done more on immigration and that she would do so.

Keilar (CNN): An issue that disappointed immigration activists was the fact President Obama’s executive action did not include parents of "dreamers," kids who came to the US at a very young age and for all intents and purposes are very American culturally. The White House was very adamant they couldn’t do so, but then Clinton was pushing for it. That really moved her past the Obama line – and her campaign wanted everyone to recognize that it was past the Obama line.

Mason (Press Pool): Let’s look to other candidates. [On May 13] Marco Rubio spoke before the Council on Foreign Relations. He seems to be making foreign policy a feature issue.

Bellantoni (Roll Call): Compared to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Rubio is certainly taken more seriously on foreign policy. He’s trying to stake out his turf. He has gone to battle with both the White House and other Republicans on these issues. He’s trying to walk a fine line of staying competitive with somebody like Jeb Bush while staying on top of these senators.

Once things get to the debate stage, Rubio certainly has a lot to talk about. He has accomplishments. Compared to the governors, he can point out his experience. I’ll say this: he gives a good speech.

Keilar (CNN): The Clinton campaign eyes him with a bit of fear, partly because he’s young. He certainly could appeal to more Hispanic voters, which are a key for her. In a comparison between the two, the sense of new versus older is there. The big question: can he be the GOP version of what Obama was in 2008? Can he navigate this in as savvy a way as Obama did back then? Some voters say President Obama could have benefitted from having more experience. People could view Rubio in that light.

Bellantoni (Roll Call): There’s a bit of that American dream thing with Rubio, right? He famously drank a glass of water while giving his response to the February 2013 State of the Union address. It was a big story. And he repeated a line Obama used in 2007 about how he and Michelle were still paying off their student loans. Americans can identify with him. Hillary Clinton has not faced that debt issue in a long time. She is obviously making a lot of money off speeches now, so that’s another contrast he can point out.

Nelson (WSJ): People in Obama’s orbit, as well as many pundits, see similarities to Rubio’s story and Obama’s 2008 political narrative. It’s the same "people told me to wait my turn, but I reject that" theme.

Some Democrats see Rubio as a threat. They certainly see his appeal in matching up with Jeb Bush. He presents a whole different dilemma for them. Historians talk about how the next president is usually from the next generation. That’s Rubio. With Clinton you would be going a generation back. He gives Democrats pause.

Bellantoni (Roll Call): Rubio took a bit of a risk as he gave up his Senate seat to do this. Rand Paul, in contrast, is running on both ballots. This will be a massive open-seat free-for-all in Florida, one of the most competitive states in a Presidential election, when you’re looking to motivate Hispanic voters and get turnout for a top swing state.

Mason (Press Pool): Let’s move on to Jeb Bush, who recently demonstrated the pitfalls of being rusty with the press. Christina, what happened?

Bellantoni (Roll Call): In an interview with Megyn Kelly, he was asked about the Iraq War. He initially said he would have authorized an invasion as his brother did, but later claimed he misheard the question and walked his answer back. What he missed in the question was the part about "knowing what we now know." It was actually a plausible mistake, but it looks terrible because you would have to think his campaign would have done a lot of runs with him preparing to answer that exact question. He looked stunned.

Nelson (WSJ): There are some answers you must have ready to go. Sure, reporters complain that candidates are scripted and never speak off the cuff, but sometimes you at least need to have the thought in your head about what you might say to a question you know will be asked.

Mason (Press Pool): Let’s talk about Martin O’Malley. He really wants Elizabeth Warren supporters. What is the story there?

Keilar (CNN): Warren has a lot of support, though it is still believed she is not running. O’Malley went to New York to meet with progressive thought leaders – the ones that support Warren – and pitched them, but he’s being crowded out by Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of Sanders, I don’t know if there is a pathway for him to win, but there is certainly a pathway for him to exert so much influence. And people don’t question whether Sanders has adjusted his positions. With O’Malley, though, he’s shifted since he was Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor. In fact, his legacy in Baltimore is the bigger issue for him.

Clinton’s camp certainly has its eyes on Sanders. They’re not dismissing him.

Nelson (WSJ): Tad Devine is behind the Sanders campaign. This is someone that has remained a long-time Democratic consultant. He has a lot of friends and connections. He has run races in New Hampshire and all throughout the Northeast.

Mason (Press Pool): One of the things I love about Sanders is he brings so much authenticity to the process.

Nelson (WSJ): He believes what he’s saying. That shouldn’t be an anomaly, but in some ways it is. He just seems to be in it for the cause and to make the case for his issues. If he doesn’t win, perhaps he can pull Clinton to the left.

And it’s interesting now because Clinton will now have to debate these other candidates even if they’re polling at only 6% or whatever. She will have to stand on stage with Sanders and answer to him. That should be interesting.

Mason (Press Pool): What about Scott Walker?

Keilar (CNN): A conservative activist recently told me Walker is so intriguing because he is battled-tested in Wisconsin. He has had these fights he should have lost and came out on top. So many people are curious how that transitions into campaigning.

At CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] this year, he did bumble by talking about those fights in Wisconsin and comparing it to battling terrorists or ISIS. You don’t really want to mention union members in the same breath as ISIS. But it’s a lesson learned. Democrats look at him in the polls, see he does well nationally, and they are concerned about him.

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Clinton obviously stands out among the candidates because she has a legitimate chance to become the US’ first female president. Beyond the historical impact, what would she bring to the role of particular note?

Keilar (CNN): When Obama ran the first time, he really drove home how he was going to be the candidate everyone in Congress would work with. Clearly, he has had problems with this.

As for Clinton, she did very well on this front as a senator. She did a lot of bipartisan work. She got to know everybody. The Clintons have been collecting favors across the country for 25 years, Democrats and Republicans. There is reason to believe she might be able to work better with Congress.

Bellantoni (Roll Call): I look to a recent poll that certainly encouraged the Clinton team. You look at her, see the long record, and automatically think everyone would view her as a throwback. However, when voters were asked to identify the candidate of the future, many picked her because the idea of having a female president is very future looking in the US. It’s also widely seen as very positive.

Back when Obama first ran, the prospect of him becoming the first black president was certainly seen as a positive by many. You can’t underestimate the concentration of enthusiasm over something historical such as that, even though some people might say they don’t want there to be a female president.

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