HOW OUR SIDE LOSES ELECTIONS: What follows will diverge from our usual topics. But it seems to us that the liberal world worked hard last week to lose the current White House election. The data are already rolling inand we show few signs of understanding them.
To keep within our normal parameters, lets start with the Lieberman-Kerry match-up on yesterdays Meet the Press.
We think Tom Brokaw showed poor judgment in staging this surrogate match-up. (In our view, Brokaw has been amazingly bad in his month on Meet the Press.) The optics here were fairly clear: All Republicans favor McCainand so does a big famous Democrat. It would be fine to stage a debate, as others have done, in which Lieberman promotes McCains stance on Iraq while Hagel promotes Obamas; theres facial parity in such a battle. But we think yesterdays match-up was poorly conceived. By its nature, it was more prejudicial than probative, in a way which favored McCain.
That said, the two solons debated, for half an hour. And uh-oh! We thought Lieberman massacred Kerry, especially in the first ten minutes, in which Kerry did what our side did all last week: Yelled eek-a-mouse about the idea that McCain would have run that vile, naughty ad. That adthe ad with Britney Spears in it! Good heavens! Dear Jesus! How dare he?
In our view, liberal reaction was foolish all week. On Sunday, we thought Kerry got massacred as he boo-hooed, blubbered, wept and wailed about that naughty ad. Almost surely, David Gergen then made matters worse with his view of another McCain ad.
What happened last week when McCain ran that ad? Instead of laughing at the ad and saying it showed that McCain is a fly-weight, we did what we most love to dowe started a fight about race, casting ourselves as the high-minded party and squealing, shrieking, complaining and yelping about McCains misconduct. Josh Marshall was one who leaped to this stance, insisting that the use of Spears and Hilton was racialand racially troubling. Yesterday, the results began rolling inand only a certain kind of liberal could be surprised by the numbers. At TPM, Josh posted the following e-mail. Later, he had to clean up what the e-mailer said about Tapper (same link):
E-MAIL TO TPM (8/3/08): Disquieting Rasmussen numbers this morningMcCain's crying racism worked. 53 percent of Americans, including the same percentage of whites and half of all Democrats, think that Obama's "dollar bill" remark was "racist." Only 22 percent think the Paris Hilton ad was racistmost of those being black people, of course (only 18 percent of white people took this view).
The good news this morning? God Bless David Gergen! Reallyhe was on This Week and said (check the video or transcript for exact wording), "When McCain's camp calls Obama The Messiah and The One. he's really calling him uppity. I'm from the South, and we understand what that means. That's code." Jake Tapper looked like he had been pole-axed. Donna Brazile knew what he was talking about, of course. But GS, George Will, and Tapper had to be bluntly told the way the world works by Mr. Blandly Bi-partisan....
That Rasmussen survey is only one measure, and no single survey can be definitive. In fairness, its hard to know what regular people think the word racist means in this context. But lets be frank: You have to be especially clueless to be surprised by those disquieting numbersto be surprised that McCains approach worked and complaints about the Spears ad didnt. Indeed, regarding the Hilton/Spears ad, were amazed that 18 percent of white people called it racist. Were amazed that the numbers that high!
Yes, those numbers may be distressing. But you have to be exceptionally clueless to be find the numbers surprising. And yes, this is the way a certain type of liberal has lost elections down through the years. It was amazingly foolish to start yelling race about that silly blip of Spears. When people like Josh insisted on this, they massively took the bait from McCainin a way the McCain campaign most likely never dreamed possible.
It was amazingly foolish to scream and yell about that Spears/Hilton adexcept to say that its foolishness shows that the GOP wants to distract you. It was especially dumb to discuss it in terms of raceto discuss its alleged dog-whistlesince thats a claim that will almost surely strike most undecided voters as far-fetched, improbable, odd. It wasnt smart to react that wayunless we dont care who wins in November. If we only care about being right (in our minds), then that reaction made good sense, of course.
In past decades, liberals and lefties did this sort of thing quite often, as you might recall reading Nixonland. This week, we rushed to take the bait again, displaying our high-minded ways.
Earth to liberals: In that Spears/Hilton ad, McCain is calling Obama a lightweight. Its what Walter Mondale did to Gary Hart when he mockingly asked, Wheres the beef? Its what experienced candidates do when confronting inexperienced challengers. Unfortunately, we reacted in lightweight waysby yelling race and seeking reliefand the numbers began to move. Its how our side has lost elections at various times in the past.
Remember, once more, before you get mad: This only matters if you care who wins. If you want this to be a graduate seminar, go aheadknock yourselves out.
More on the topic: More on this topic follows, below. On our side, we think this was a foolish weekunless we dont care about winning.
HERBERT, MEET DOWDAND MEET NARRATIVE: We agreed with major parts of Bob Herberts column on Saturday. For example:
Spare me any more drivel about the high-mindedness of John McCain, Herbert wrote. As a general matter, we strongly agree. But then, we started asking, in 1999, why pundits insist on driving the tale of McCains brilliant character.
We also agree with the first two parts of the following paragraph:
HERBERT (8/2/08): Whatever you think about Barack Obama, he does not want the race issue to be front and center in this campaign. Every day that the campaign is about race is a good day for John McCain. So I guess we understand Mr. McCains motivation [in saying Obama played the race card.]
Well stay away from definitive judgments about McCains motivation. But we agree, whole-heartedly, that race is dangerous for Candidate Obama. (See the post above.)
But waittheres more! [I]ts frustrating to watch John McCain calling out Barack Obama on race, Herbert wrote. We agree with that sentiment too. Obamas misstep last week was basically trivial, and McCain rode it hardall the way to the bank. McCains record on race is spotty, unimpressive. Its frustrating when he gains this advantage.
But we disagree with something Herbert said in this columnand we thought his claim was striking. And sure enough! One day later, Maureen Dowd drove home our point for us! Question: Is Obama being insulted mainly or wholly due to his race? Thats the charge that Herbert madejust before he said that discussions of race are dangerous to Obama.
Is Obama being insulted mainly or wholly due to his race? We agree somewhat with the start of this passagebut with little that follows:
HERBERT: The racial fantasy factor in this presidential campaign is out of control. It was at work in that New Yorker cover that caused such a stir. (Mr. Obama in Muslim garb with the American flag burning in the fireplace.) Its driving the idea that Barack Obama is somehow presumptuous, too arrogant, too big for his britchesa man who obviously does not know his place.
Mr. Obama has to endure these grotesque insults with a smile and heroic levels of equanimity. The reason he has to do thisthe sole reasonis that he is black.
Is the racial fantasy factor out of control? We wouldnt put it that way ourselves, but we thought the New Yorker showed very poor judgment when it published that cartoon cover. Race is a suspect category in the law. In our view, it should be a suspect category in humor and publishing too.
On the other hand: Does a racial fantasy factor explain the fact that Obama has been tagged as presumptuous, too arrogant, too big for his britches? Does Obamas race constitute the sole reason hes been subjected to such grotesque insults? This claim might seem to make perfect senseif youve lived on Mars for the past dozen years. But in fact, Candidates Kerry and Edwards and Gore were tagged in remarkably similar ways. In fact, this is the way Democratic nominees get tagged in modern elections.
Is Obama presumptuous, too arrogant? With minor variations, thats the way all Dem nominees now get taggedby Republicans, and within large chunks of the press corps. With minor variations depending on circumstance, its the standard put-down of Dem nominees. We think its striking that Herbert doesnt seem to know this factor doesnt want to discuss it.
Just how standard is this put-down? Just consider Maureen Dowds treatment of Obama and Kerry.
In yesterdays Times, Dowd offered her latest wail from inside the walls of Versailles. The lady gazed upon Obamaand saw a proud, haughty man:
DOWD (8/3/08): Obama bears a distinct resemblance to the most cherished hero in chick-lit history. The senator is a modern incarnation of the clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious Mr. Darcy.
Like the leading man of Jane Austen and Bridget Jones, Obama can, as Austen wrote, draw the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien. ...he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased.
As she gazed on this Dem nominee, Dowd thought of Pride and Prejudice. But then, thats precisely where her thoughts turned four years ago as she gazed on proud, haughty Kerry! Heres what our biggest Antoinette said then, about that Dem presumptive:
DOWD (3/18/04): The election is shaping up as a contest between Pride and Prejudice.
Mr. Kerry is Pride.
He has a tendency toward striped-trouser smugness, Dowd moronically said. To drive home her point, she then quoted Kerry saying something about NASCARsomething hed never said:
DOWD (3/18/04): Even when he puts on that barn jacket over his expensive suit to look less lockjawand says things like, ''Who among us doesn't like Nascar?he can come across like Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet's pretentious cousin in ''Pride and Prejudice.'' Mr. Collins always prattles on about how lucky people would be to be rewarded by his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, with ''some portion of her notice'' and to receive dollops of her ''condescension.
No, the proud Mr. Kerry had never made the comment Dowd quoted in that passage. But so what? The manufactured quote-that-wasnt helped us see how pretentious he was! And, of course, as the year dragged on, it ran four additional times in the Times. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/6/04, with links to prior reports.
Lets review. In 2004, Candidate Kerry was said to be proudsmug, condescending, pretentious. In 2008, Candidate Obama is said to be proudpresumptuous, haughty, above being pleased. (Four years earlier, Candidate Gore was endlessly played as the smartest kid in the classas someone who thinks hes better than you, just as Lady Hillary does.) And Herbert, reporting directly from Mars, thinks the sole reason for this portrait of Obama must be his race! Weirdly, he says this in the same column where he says Obamas chance for election is endangered by discussions of race.
Lets spell out the basic shape of current presidential politics. Lets try to guess why people like Herbert seem a bit clueless about it.
As has long been noted, voters prefer Democrats on most major issues; this has been the case for years. For that reason, Republicans have largely built White House campaigns around alleged issues of character. Especially in the Clinton-Gore era, the mainstream press corps played along, giving loud voice to comic-book claims. (Al Gore was raised at the Ritz!) Today, Obama is said to be haughty, pretentiousmuch like the others before him.
In the process, punishing narratives have locked into place about those haughty Dems. (John Edwards had a big house!) If youre didnt finish fifth from the bottom when you were in collegeif you actually know what youre talking aboutyoure slammed for gross condescension. At present, this is how White House elections get decidedand liberal elites have done an extremely poor job explaining this bull-roar to the public. But, for reasons unknown, Herbert thinks it must be all about race when this theme is now dumped on Obamas head.
Weve banged on Herbert a lot in the past year; we only single him out today because Saturdays claim seemed so perverse. In our view, its much as weve described in the past: Herbert played along with these themes when they were aimed at the Clintons and Gore. Now, when these themes are aimed at Obama, he seems to think its all brand new.
But then, theres a certain type of liberal who loves nothing so much as taking the high-minded stance about race. Would these liberals rather be right (at least in their own minds)? Or would they rather let Obama be president?
What Herbert said that was accurate: Quoting Herbert again, from Saturdays column: Whatever you think about Barack Obama, he does not want the race issue to be front and center in this campaign. Every day that the campaign is about race is a good day for John McCain. That isnt necessarily true, of course. But libs and Dems should keep that warning in mind.
Same damn narrative, eight years back: From Herberts column, two days after Bush and Gores crucial first debate. Anyone notice a narrative here? Here we see these trivial themes played out eight years ago:
HERBERT (10/5/00): If he can somehow force himself to stop sighing and interrupting and behaving condescendingly in front of the television cameras, Al Gore may yet get elected president.
But Vice President Gore never wins easily. He may have the experience and most of the issues on his side, but he can't keep his superciliousness in check. He just can't do it. So there he was on Tuesday night sighing loudly with disdain, or smiling contemptuously, or smugly, as Governor Bush did the best he could with this answer or that.
Earth to Al Gore: This turns people off.
But Mr. Gore seems to feel the need to pour it onto offer not just his answer to a given question, but to show us everything he knows about the topic. He doesn't seem to realize that in the real world, people hate Eddie Haskell.
The vice president's boorishness gets in the way of his message and almost certainly pushes some voters into a more favorable view of Mr. Bush, who benefits from a more conversational tone and the demeanor of an ordinary guy.
Was that Herbertor did Maureen Dowd write that? According to Herbert, Gore was condescending, supercilious, contemptuous, disdainful. He was smug and boorishjust as Kerry would turn out to be! By contrast, Bush was more of an ordinary guy. Incredibly, Herbert even said that Bush did the best he could with this answer or that, even though many of his statements and charges were grossly, baldly inaccurate. Eight years ago, Herbert was applying these RNC frameworks to the smug, supercilious Dem. Today, these same frameworks get applied to Obamaand to Herbert, its all about race.
He says this even as he says that discussions of race could doom Obama. But then, our side is almost impossibly feckless. Its how John McCain could still win.