A Kick in the Pants
From The New Criterion.
February 29, 2008.
The plodding of the platitudinous and the vaunting of the vapid had left me with little to be excited about during this year’s primary election campaigns. I had long since ceased to be able to sit through what are laughably termed the "debates" which seemed to be on television every other evening in prime time. In these circus-like affairs, the performers’ task was and is to expel into the chamber and a propos of nothing as many as possible of their focus-group-tested "talking points" while emitting the occasional scripted "one-liner" so as to appear "likable" and at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of the potentially lethal "gaffe." True, an occasional virtuoso of this admittedly difficult task might appear. Mr Obama seemed to be one such. As Gail Collins of the New York Times rather amusingly (and revealingly) framed it, "Barack Obama turns out to have a positive genius for making moderation sound exciting."
Speaking in generalities about the need for bipartisanship while deftly avoiding anything controversial (and therefore partisan) is "moderation" only in the eyes of the media, to whose self-interested penchant for moralizing political conflict Mr Obama, like most other candidates this year, has been constantly appealing. In other words, Miss Collins’s enthusiasm for him was basically tautological. Mr Obama was the candidate of the media because he was the best at saying what the media want to hear. But was this rhetorical skill one that anyone could reasonably look on as a qualification for the leadership of the Free World? Perhaps not, but who cared? Joe Trippi, who was working for John Edwards, claimed to have found in his polling data the fascinating bit of information that fully twenty-five per cent of Mr Obama’s own supporters didn’t think he was qualified to be president.
Can this really be true? I’m afraid it can. It would certainly explain the Obama campaign’s mindless emphasis on "change" — as if there won’t be change, and maybe more change than we want, whatever happens. But "change" was good enough for the media, as it was for so many Democrats, because for the best part of eight years neither have had any coherent political program except to oppose, often with an unseemly loathing and ridicule, President Bush. Their dislike of the President is the other side of the coin of Obamaniacal messianism and the reason why the only qualification that anyone from the media consensus really cared about in the new president was that he (or, of course, she) should not be the old president. I call that setting the bar pretty low. Of course it is better if he or she should also be seen to be the not the old president — which perhaps gives an unfair advantage to both a black man and a woman over poor Mr Edwards.
But it makes for an awfully boring politics, mired in symbolism and inappropriate moralism. I was not even much thrilled by what the media saw as the shock of the New Hampshire primary — in spite of the undoubted entertainment value in the fact that the guy who piled up a whopping two per cent of the vote there, Dennis Kucinich, was asking for a recount. Amusing as it was, this was a slender reed on which to rest my hopes of something worth reading the news for. But then, on the same day as Mr Kucinich’s blockbuster announcement, I found in the Washington Post something that made me sit up with a sharp intake of breath. Rudy Giuliani was running an ad in Florida that was "going negative" not on his fellow Republican candidates, nor on the Democrats nor even on President Bush. He was going negative on the media.
With pundits and politicos handicapping the campaign like the Super Bowl, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s at stake. An economy in peril. A country at war. A future uncertain. The media love process. Talking heads love chatter. But Florida has a chance to turn down the noise. And show the world that leadership is what really matters.
Well sure. But that’s not the kind of thing you can say. Is it? I mean, I could say it, but no candidate can. At least not if he expects to win. The conventional wisdom is that such a plea is a mistake — a losing gambit if not itself a gaffe. Not only does it pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel — and videotape by the container-load — but ordinary Americans will see it as tantamount to whining, the act of a sore loser who blames his defeat on the referee. I would have said so myself, even though it is obvious to me that the referee hardly even bothers anymore to disguise the fact that he is playing on the Democratic side. The GOP simply has to suck it up. It is the handicap they play with, and have been playing with for a generation or more.
The daring of the former mayor’s tactic matched the daring of his overall strategy of sitting out, to all intents and purposes, the early contests — including the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, hitherto thought all but crucial to victory — and focusing his resources on the Florida primary of January 29th. His supporters have always said that Mr Giuliani had the guts to lead, but this seemed brave to the point of foolhardiness. By the time you read these words, we will probably know whether or not his desperate gamble has been successful, but there is more than his own electoral fate at stake in the matter. Even those voters who do not support Mr Giuliani but who share his dislike of the media consensus ought to be rooting for him in Florida. For if his strategy works, it could radically change the way the primary season is seen in the future. We won’t have the same sort of circus atmosphere around Iowa and New Hampshire that we have seen more than ever this year, and the hype-factory, now focused on the "historic" implications of electing either a black or a woman president, might even be permanently disabled. Next time the media try to sell us on the proposition that we’re about to elect a messiah, people will just laugh.
The anti-media ad’s "unspoken subtext," wrote Howard Kurtz pleonastically for the Post, "is that the media have denigrated Giuliani's strategy of trying to survive a string of early losses while husbanding his time and resources for Florida’s Jan. 29 primary." Of course the "unspoken subtext" of that remark is that Rudy has nailed it. Here he was saying that what ought to interest us about the campaign was leadership and not the media’s obsession with "process," and then this smart-alec media guy comes along and says that his statement is itself really about the process! Je reste ma valise, as Terence Rattigan might say. "There may also be a touch of payback for the press criticism about his mayoral tenure and messy personal life," Mr Kurtz went on, sticking up for the honor of his profession. "The Florida ad is a veiled appeal to the state's voters not to be swayed by journalistic prognostications about his chances."
Well, well, where would we be without such media shamans to tell us the secrets that lie behind the veil of appearance? Yet there was good reason why the reaction of the media to the former mayor’s criticism might have sounded as if they had been touched on a sore spot. For hadn’t New Hampshire just shown why voters should not be swayed by journalistic prognostications — whether they were about Mr Giuliani’s chances or anyone else’s? Having swooned with delight that the anointed one, Mr Obama, had seemed to score a first-round knock-out in Iowa against Hillary Clinton, who was beaten into third place by Mr Edwards, they had proceeded with unseemly haste to write Mrs Clinton’s political obituary, only to see her come roaring back — or at least sniffling back — five days later.
If it did nothing else, the New Hampshire result reminded us of the extent to which the stories that the media have to tell us nowadays are stories about the media themselves — which, I take it, was part of Mr Giuliani’s complaint against them. Sometimes, as in the case of the National Intelligence Estimate that I wrote about last month in this space (see "Sense of Superiority" in The New Criterion of January, 2008), the media deem it politic to keep quiet about their own role in the story. But sometimes, as in the case of Mrs Clinton’s surprise victory, they throw discretion to the winds and frankly acknowledge what is otherwise only implicit, namely that what really matters to them is their own role in the drama. "How could we have been so wrong?" they wailed for days afterwards. Endless post-mortems produced a host of persuasive theories as to how the polls had strayed so far from their usual reliability.
Some said it was "the Bradley effect" in New Hampshire. The failure of the black Democrat, Tom Bradley, to defeat the white Republican, George Deukmejian, for the governorship of California in 1984, in spite of a substantial lead in the polls, led psephologists to conclude that pollsters’ interviewees had lied about their voting intentions. They had wanted their interviewers to think that they had enlightened racial attitudes, but in the privacy of the voting booth they could change their minds anonymously and vote for whom they really wanted, whether for racial or for other reasons. Since then, other black candidates have polled less well on election day than they did in pre-election polls, but the gap in recent years had appeared to be closing. Or it could have been a "reverse Bradley effect" in Iowa where the balloting is done in public and could have artificially inflated Mr Obama’s support, which then reverted to a truer level in New Hampshire.
But in a persuasive piece of analysis in The Times of London, Daniel Finkelstein showed that the real reason for the disparity was what the German political scientist, Elisabeth Noelle- Neumann has called the Spiral of Silence. Evidence that people in New Hampshire had lied to the exit pollsters suggested that the media’s coronation of Mr Obama and dismissal of Mrs Clinton after Iowa had made them ashamed to admit they were supporting the latter. That the media themselves had affected the outcome could not have come as welcome news to those who are obsessed with the myth of media "objectivity," and the fact was hardly mentioned on this side of the Atlantic. But it did not really conflict with the most popular explanation, which was that Mrs Clinton’s briefly tearing up in response to a sympathetic question from a woman who later turned out to be an Obama voter somehow "humanized" her and won the sympathy of voters who had thought her too cold and unfeeling. Another reason why voters might not have liked to admit that they changed their vote at the last minute was that they had changed it over something so trivial as a self-pitying tear. At any rate, it would be nice to believe that there was even that much shame in the electorate over a vote for the celebrity culture, for Oprah Winfrey’s modus operandi, if not for her candidate.
Usually when the media have not been smart — or been not-smart — their predictions and assumptions have been made far enough in advance that they can assume people will have forgotten about them. After all, the point of a prediction by the media — as opposed to one by a bookie or a stock tipster — is to sound smart and knowing at the time it is made, not to produce anything that people can actually use. Or to win money, except in the sense that more people will presumably want to buy the news-product of those who are clever and clued-in. But in this case, the predictions had been both emphatic and unanimous, and the currency of intelligence, like that of other precious commodities, is debased when it becomes generally available. All of a sudden it became smart to know why yesterday’s smart tip as to the workings of the "process" was really so dumb. But it was all because the predictions had been made in the previous four days, and so they were fresh in people’s minds. They hadn’t had time to be forgotten as had, for instance, last winter’s predictions of futility and failure for the Bush administration’s "surge" in Iraq."
This was another thing that there was increasing evidence the media, like the newly installed Democratic majority in Congress, had been not-smart about. But they had been non-smart about it, for the most part, months ago, so there was some hope people would forget about what they had said, or at least leave them wiggle-room to deny that they had really said it. That’s why it was almost as surprising as Mayor Giuliani’s attack on the media when the Washington Post editorial page chided the Democratic presidential candidates for failing to recognize the progress wrought by the surge and criticized those who "instead offered. . . an exclusive focus on the Iraqi political failures — coupled with a blizzard of assertions about the war that were at best unfounded and in several cases simply false."
It might have seemed a little unfair of the Post to blame the Democrats, since the politicians’ denials were hardly surprising when so many in the media as well had either ignored the progress made by the surge or denied that any had been made. When John McCain, aboard his campaign bus in New Hampshire, ventured to mention this progress to Katie Couric of CBS news she actually corrected him: "You supported the surge and the surge was designed, ideally, to increase security so political reconciliation could take place. And as far as I can tell, Senator, political reconciliation still hasn't gotten very far, so can you truly say the surge was fully successful in term of what it was designed to do?"
Ideally, eh? The word was as revealing as Gail Collins’s "moderation." The media have grown so used to thinking of political matters in ideal terms they are prone to forget that they also have a practical dimension, let alone that it is the practical alone which really counts. So much of the opposition to the Bush administration has been carried on at the ideal level — ideally it should have known about the absent WMDs, for instance, or about the lack of connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 or about the dangers of insurgency or about the right troop levels — that practical success hardly seemed to matter. This must have been at least part of the reason why the media response to the surge’s accomplishments was silence. There was obviously little interest in reporting anything that could appear to be a success for the Bush administration and even less in advertising their own mistake about the surge or in holding the Democrats to account for their opposition to it.
Small wonder, then, if their presidential candidates thought they could get away with simply denying (a) that there had been any success and/or (b) that, although some success had occurred, they had ever scoffed at the idea that there could ever be any. The Post helpfully jogged their memories:
Mr. Obama acknowledged some reduction of violence, but said he had predicted that adding troops would have that effect. In fact, on Jan. 8, 2007, he said that in the absence of political progress, "I don't think 15,000 or 20,000 more troops is going to make a difference in Iraq and in Baghdad." He also said he saw "no evidence that additional American troops would change the behavior of Iraqi sectarian politicians and make them start reining in violence by members of their religious groups." Ms. Clinton, for her part, refused to retract a statement she made in September, when she said it would require "a suspension of disbelief" to believe that the surge was working.
Mr Obama even went so far as to claim that the security situation in Iraq had been improved not by the surge at all but by the election of the Democratic congressional majority in 2006! Ideally, of course, there was nothing to stop him or any others from among the President’s legion of critics from believing this — any more than there was to stop them from believing that bi-partisanship and unity, peace and prosperity, are to be had for the asking. The success of the surge was just one more hard question that the media were becoming well-practised in not asking. Moreover, having for so long treated the Iraq War as a test not of the courage and fortitude and determination of our leaders but instead of their prescience, the media were now obviously in a position of some vulnerability when their own powers of foresight had been shown to be wanting.
You can see how irritation at the extreme unfairness of this state of affairs might have goaded Mr Giuliani, evidently going down for the third time, into an injudicious tussle with the media that he couldn’t hope to win. But he has always been the anti-media candidate. Alone among the contenders for the nomination of either party, he has made no effort to ingratiate himself with them or with the celebrity culture they seek to impose on our politics. He does not speak their language or engage in the sort of mealy-mouthed banalities that, to them, make Mr Obama so beloved. He does not cry or otherwise seek to appear more "human" by attempting to make political capital out of his feelings. As a result he is disliked by them only less than President Bush himself. Clearly, he has no chance at all of becoming the nominee. But, oh, what a glorious dream of the kick in the pants to the media such a nomination would be! Since living in an ideal world is all the fashion these days, I’ll cling to it just a little longer.