Thursday, April 24, 2008

The strange world of the Washington pundit

In college, I wrestled back and forth between wanting to become a political journalist or a lawyer.Then, like many college students, I asked myself, "How can I make the most money?"

Wa-lah! I decided to become a professional academic.

Back then, and even into my first few years in graduate school, I used to pay a lot of attention to what journalists wrote and thought about campaign politics, current events, presidential "crises," world events, and the like. Then I went through a phase of watching the weekend Washington babble-fests, amused by the apparent sincerity of blowhards like John McLaughlin, Pat Buchanan, Fred Barnes, Bill Kristol and the rest of these B-grade Washington celebrities shout their opinions on everything from dolphin-safe tuna fishing to whether the United States should invade this or that country. I thought it was amusing to watch a generation of men -- and they were, as they still are, mostly men -- talk tough about "the use of force" when none had ever so much as suited up to fire a pop gun at sleep-a-way camp. I thought it was amusing for white commentators to insist that racism was a figment of black America's imagination, with Jesse Jackson the be-all, end-all spokesman for black America. I thought it was amusing to watch an affluent group of establishment Washingtonians compete with each other to see who was the most "in touch" with the "common person," lambasting liberals who believed that poor people should have health care or that women should be allowed to vote. I remember once seeing a reliable conservative mouthpiece for the Bush I administration throw a hissy-fit on a flight I was on from D.C. to Chicago because she was a assigned a middle-seat in coach.

"Do you have any idea who I am?" she shrieked to the flight attendant, who did not. "You're just going to have to get someone else to give up their seat. I don't sit in the middle."

After a little back and forth between this down-to-earth working journalist and the flight attendant who, making probably 5% of her salary, was even more down-to-earth than her, the pilot came back and announced to the journalist, who actually just spouted opinions on television, that she could either sit down in her assigned seat and be quiet, or that he would escort her from the plane and file a complaint with the FAA and have her arrested.

She sat down.

By the time I moved to Washington, I had gone from viewing these talking-heads as people with some mysterious lifeline to the inner-workings of politics and government to the equivalent of professional wrestlers or pornographic film actors. There was little or no suspense in the outcome; it was simply a matter of who was playing what role until the program reached the inevitable ending. I remember getting up in the middle of "This Week With David Brinkley," the one show I held out as the exception to the rule because I enjoyed the sardonic detachment that Brinkley brought to observational journalism, to turn off the television. And that was the last time I watched any of these shows. Brinkley knew that Washington politics was fundamentally about self-interested people pursuing their vanity, glory and dreams of power and wealth. He would ask questions or interject, always with that bemused, "I can't believe I'm sitting here listening to this shit,"-type look on his face. But one too many pompous explanations by George Will, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts or some other pretentious, snooty commentator about the difficulties of people "in this town" or "most Americans" of comprehending the complexities of the political world that only they understood finally forced me to give this stuff up. And I haven't watched one of these shows in almost 20 years.

Presidential campaign season is a particularly useful time to learn how little so-called celebrity journalists know about what is going to happen over any given period of time. Not only are they as clueless as the next person, but the questions they raise, the words they invent to describe issues, happenings and probabilities (who, by the way, is responsible for introducing the word "metric" into campaign politics. I never finished Algebra II, and I can tell you it makes no sense as applied to politics). Yet, they seem to have this limitless hold on how campaigns are covered, determining the personality profiles of the different candidates, deciding the difference between a "lie" and a "mis-statement," even when the mis-statement is a clear lie, and who is winning or losing a campaign that is, well, already over.

So, as I mentioned a few days ago, the establishment press has offered the following questions and/or observations on the outcome of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. . . . and the self-delusion is just astonishing.

1. What is Barack Obama's problem with the "white working-class?" Why can't he close the deal?

I would phrase the questions somewhat differently

1a. Why won't "white working-class" voters support a black candidate whose views on the economy are more or less interchangeable with Hillary Clinton? What accounts for this 48 point gap in this demographic's support for Clinton? If Hillary Clinton were running against, say, a white candidate with Obama's views, would the gap be 48 percent?

1b. Why couldn't Hillary close the deal back in February?

Don't forget . . . this is a candidate who enjoyed an overwhelming financial advantage over all her competitors before the primary season started. Hillary also had the advantage in endorsements, campaign machinery and name-recognition. Once voters went to the polls, they voted for Obama over Clinton by consistently healthy amounts. Obama is the underdog in this race, not Hillary. But you wouldn't know it from the coverage.

1c. Why won't African-American voters support Hillary Clinton? Why won't people most like Hillary Clinton -- white, affluent and well-educated professionals -- vote for her?

Go take a look at the county-by-county returns for all these "critical" states in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. You'll find that Obama is winning in blue counties and Hillary is finding votes in red counties. In other words, the Democratic base is voting for Obama in disproportionately high numbers and conservative, sometimes Republican, voters are voting for Hillary. Why?

2. Why won't the media give Hillary a fair shake?

This is the perhaps the craziest complaint of all.

2a. Why don't the media ask Hillary real questions and hold her as accountable for her peripheral associations in the past and present as they have Obama?

Is there a sane person in the world who believes that Jerimiah Wright should determine the outcome of this election anymore than Hillary's association with commodities speculators, Richard Scaife or previous service as a board member of Wal-Mart?

And can you imagine what the press and the Clinton campaign would have done to Obama had he fabricated the Bosnia story? Hillary got a free pass on that one. Really, if you can't trust someone to tell the truth at 3 p.m., why in the world would you want that person making decisions about life and death at 3 a.m.? This wasn't a "mis-statement." It was a lie.

3. Barack Obama is weak because he lost California, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Does anyone seriously believe that Obama will lose California, New York and New Jersey in November? And if Pennsylvania voters aren't willing to vote for Obama over McCain in November, then go back and answer 1a or 1c. If voters would rather choose a white candidate who "welcomed" W's endorsement over a black candidate who will make a better effort to address the needs of working-class voters across the board, then give them a shovel.

4. He also "lost" Texas and Ohio.

He didn't lose Texas. Besides, Texas is going to vote for Hillary in the general? Ohio? See 1a and 1c.

5. North Carolina "doesn't count" because the demographics overwhelmingly favor Obama.

5a. Why do states with a significant African-American population "not count?" Hillary was up by around 25 points in Pennsylvania with a month to go. She won by 9.2 percent.

6. Indiana is the real test.

6a. Of what? George Bush won by 20 points over John Kerry in 2004. The last Democrat to carry Indiana was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Before that, it was FDR in 1936. Indiana is one of the most consistently Republican states in the history of presidential politics. Sorry, folks, Indiana matters about as much for Democrats as Vermont does for Republicans. This is a media-contrived phenomenon to sustain interest in a race that is over.

7. A Democrat must pull Republicans in order to win in November.

Yes and no. Democrats must pull independents to win. I don't want a Democrat to campaign as McCain-lite. This has been Hillary's strategy as of late . . . suggesting that her opponent isn't tough enough to win.

8. The superdelegates should end the Democratic primary now.

Hillary once had what appeared to be a nearly insurmountable lead among superdelegates. In January, she led Obama by almost 100 superdelegates. Now, she leads by about 25. Barring a fantastical finish by Hillary -- she'll need approximately 80% of the remaining votes in the primary process to best Obama across the board -- she will trail Obama in the popular vote, delegates pledged and states won. For the superdelegates to come in after eight months of campaigning and tell the winner that his votes don't count will depress the Democratic electorate and increase the chances of a McCain victory. Turnout, not winning Republicans, is the Democrats best ally. African-American voters will take this reversal especially hard, and it will difficult not to agree that the prime motivation is overturning Obama's victory is race, not his "competitiveness" against McCain.

9a. Will someone ask Hillary Clinton these questions?

"Mrs. Clinton, do you believe that you can be the first Democratic nominee since 1964 to win the presidential election without the turnout and support of African-Americans? Why do you believe you have such a hard time connecting with black voters of all income and education levels?"

Now, about that crazy preacher . . .

1 comment:

tres_arboles said...

Great post. I followed my heart and a smart, pretty girl to Washington, DC after college in the 80's. Got a job tending bar on Water Street in Georgetown. I used to watch the saturday morning television pablum to "source-up" for my weekly over-the-bar conversations with regular customers, many of whom were in politics professionally. It didn't take long for me to realize that the punditry were on the DC party circuit with the same people they purported to cover, making them de facto illegitimate as anything other than mouthpieces.

Kudos to Rachel Maddow of Air America radio (and increasingly, the "TV machine" as she calls it) for working the points you bring up in your post, Greg. Unfortunately, Rachel's intelligence and authentic analysis is wasted in a panel of blowhards on MSNBC. When recently trying to make the point that Obama's appeal has been growing among blue collar, so-called Reagan dems (I've always hated that one), evinced by data from PA, she was shouted down with the rejoinder that "he got killed in the suburbs" blah, blah, blah.

Is it possible that with the rest of the news is so bad right now, the media are complicit in elongating the Demo primary because of the entertainment value? Pretty friggen cynical if that's the case.

David, Seattle