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Daily Howler: What should we fear about Campaign 08? Anne Kornblut doesn't seem to have heard
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IT’S THE LOVE BOAT, STUPID! What should we fear about Campaign 08? Anne Kornblut doesn’t seem to have heard: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 31, 2006

THOSE FEEL-GOOD FOLLIES: For the second straight week, Shankar Vedantan has an interesting piece in the Post about the way partisans reason. (To see last Monday’s report, just click here.) Today, Vedantan describes an experiment in which researchers “plopped 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats into scanners that measure changes in brain-blood oxygenation...Each of the partisans was repeatedly shown images of President Bush and 2004 Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.” Uh-oh! What happened inside those Rep and Dem brains when they gazed on the guy they didn’t favor? Vedantan describes the neurology, then offers this pithy summary:
VEDANTAN (7/31/06): In other words, without knowing it themselves, the partisans were jealously guarding against anything that might lower their antagonism [to the other party’s candidate]. Turning up negative feelings, of course, is a good way to make sure your antagonism stays strong and healthy.
"My feeling is, in the political process, people come to decisions early on and then spend the rest of the time making themselves feel good about their decision," psychologist Jonas Kaplan then says.

Yes, it does “feel good” when we ramp up our antagonism against a dastardly rival. And it does feel good when we overstate, or when we analyze weakly (as we think John Dean does in his deeply interesting but deeply flawed best-seller, Conservatives Without Conscience). But overall, we think this is a self-defeating approach for progressives and Democrats. Increasingly, the other side will be holding massive financial power—and increasingly, society’s major institutions will be crafted to serve the other side’s upper-class interests. On our side, we will have the traditional powers of fact and logic. To the extent that we throw these traditions away, we are playing into the hands of the powerful.

By the way, here is a superlative example of careful, logical reading and reasoning. We’ll do much better on our side to the extent that we develop such skills—and then demand, scream howl and insist that the world work from such traditions.

IT’S THE LOVE BOAT, STUPID: When we marvel at the New York Times’ political reporting, this is the type of performance we tend to have in mind.

In this front-page report from Saturday’s Times, Anne Kornblut presents a strange sort of notion: If Campaign 08 is McCain vs. Clinton, it could be a lofty affair. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have developed an “amiable if professionally calculated relationship” in the senate, we’re told. For that reason, the next White House race might not be as “personally vicious” as those in 2000 and 2004. Here is Kornblut’s nugget statement of this underfed notion:

KORNBLUT (9/29/06): Whether [Clinton and McCain’s] friendship is based on anything other than the respect of one political professional for another, or the opportunity to strike a tone of bipartisanship for public consumption, is unclear. But the interplay between the two senators, both well known and both with compelling personal narratives and a knack for infuriating their own parties' bases, could determine the tone of the 2008 presidential race and make it less personally vicious than the last two campaigns.
Surely, the Times recruits its political scribes on distant planets, so other-worldly and quaint is that idea.

Let’s start with the recent history to which Kornblut alludes. As everyone except a Times reporter must know, to the extent that the last two White House races were “personally vicious,” the problem came less from the candidates and the campaigns than from—let’s be gentle—“other sources.” Yes, you could say that Campaign 2000 was “personally vicious;” for twenty straight months, a stream of nasty and bogus claims were made against one of the candidates. But in the main, these endless slanders of Candidate Gore didn’t come from Bush or the Bush campaign; in the main, these slanders came from the mainstream press corps (sometimes, but not always, following the lead of the RNC). The “vicious” tone of that campaign against Gore had been set in stone by June 1999; at that time, Bush had barely begun to campaign, and he barely mentioned Gore’s name until the primaries ended nine months later. By June 1999, a “vicious” campaign was firmly in place. But the nasty dissembling hadn’t come from Bush; in the main, it came from the Washington Post and the New York Times—from Kornblut’s current employer.

Meanwhile, you could say that Campaign 04 was “vicious” too—but there again, the most famous episode didn’t come directly from one of the campaigns. That episode was fueled by an outside group, the Swift Boat Veterans, and it was enabled by the press corps’ weak attempts to deal with their shifting, sometimes daft accusations. Was the Bush campaign tied to the Vets? In some ways, likely yes—in other ways, no. But ask yourself this: If Hillary Clinton is the next nominee, does anyone think we won’t see “vicious campaigns” of various kinds, from a string of outside sources? Does anyone think there won’t be plenty of Swift Boat-style attacks, whether they’re tied to the GOP nominee or not? And by the way: McCain did show, during Campaign 2000, that he is willing to fight a tad too. During the Michigan primary, he ran anonymous “Catholic Voter Alert” phone calls against Bush, then misstated the facts to the press corps, denying that he’d done so. We don’t think McCain’s a vile dude. But he’s been known to scratch and claw a bit too.

Kornblut’s picture of our recent campaigns seems to be written for My Weekly Reader (grades 3 and below). In fairness, she does what her colleagues always do—she pretends that the press corps played no part in the recent events she decries. This is false, but such claims are a rule of the guild. (It’s the law: Press corps misconduct is always attributed to “political opponents” or “late-night comedians.”) And she seems to be typing straight from Mars when she pretends that Clinton could run the White House without being “viciously” slandered.

Final point: Kornblut omits the real question about Campaign 08: This time, will one of the candidates find himself getting “love boated?” The coverage of McCain in Campaign 2000 remains a laughable thing to behold. (At some point, we’ll spend a week on it.) Will the press corps stage this embarrassing gong-show again? Will they “love-boat” Saint John—or maybe Saint Rudy? (He is “America’s mayor,” you know.) It’s the obvious question this time around. But wouldn’t you know it? Straight outta Neptune, a New York Times scribe hasn’t heard.