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3 February 2000

The Howler overview: The Merrimack runs through it

Synopsis: Flying home with Manchester musings, the analysts critiqued Uncle Walter.

Presidential race could turn into a nail-biter yet
Walter Shapiro, USA Today, 2/2/00

This Is an Election, Not a Tea Party
Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard, 1/31/00

Hard-Learned Lessons
Ceci Connolly and John Harris, The Washington Post, 2/3/00

Ah, Manchester! Manchester, New Hampshire! Queen City by the Merrimack! One sometimes forgets how much fun it can be to visit Manchester this time of the year. Add in exciting primary voting and you have an unmatchable vacation experience. So we took the analysts to New Hampshire this week to see the miracle of democracy unfold. Every four years, the magic happens. Someone tells Granite State voters he won't raise their taxes. They believe him. Four years later, they're pissed.

Well, it doesn't happen that way every year; when it comes to deriding the New Hampshire electorate, we're still living off 1988. But New Hampshire voters sent a message this week which the scribes are now trying to limn. Flying home on a crowded aircraft—Jack Germond got a window seat, by the way—the analysts excitedly thumbed to the column of their favorite, USA Today's Walter Shapiro. Last Friday night, we engaged in a comedy show with the jesting scribe at Manchester's sprawling Holiday Inn. But the analysts—they call him "Uncle Walter"—now railed at what the sagacious one said:

SHAPIRO: But despite Gore's razor's-edge finish in New Hampshire, it turned out that it was the vice president whom was out of step with the electorate. Even as he cloaked himself in the colors of the Clinton administration prosperity, Gore never got over the perception that he was a synthetic candidate who believed he deserved the Democratic nomination solely because he wanted it so badly.

The analysts were a bit surprised by what their uncle had said. How could Gore, who won the Democratic race, be "out of step with the electorate," they asked us. Looking up with eyes like saucers, they even complained at what Uncle Walter said next:

SHAPIRO (continuing directly): At a time when voters were searching for inspiration, Gore may have paid the price for his attack-dogs tactics in running on the platform: "The other guy's worse."

One of the analysts pointed it out: Gore had been falling substantially behind in New Hampshire polls when he began his critique of Bradley's health plan last fall. Luckily, the plane's "food service" began just then, and we distracted them with bags of free peanuts.

How can it be that the guy who wins is shown to be "out of step" with the voters? The truth is, we were a trifle surprised, in our Granite State rounds, at the animus we discovered toward Gore. As you know, we think that the story of election reporting to date has been the negative coverage of the Gore campaign, and our Manchester ramblings put some meat on the bones of that tired old theory. In particular, we were surprised by a conversation we had with one of the press corps' very best commentators, in which we heard a real tone of disgust toward the perceived dishonesty of the Gore campaign. The theme that you-can't-believe-what-that-trickster-Gore-says was pushed by Bradley in the campaign's closing days, and we think it created the most interesting press issues in the whole Granite State end-game.

Had Gore lied about or distorted his abortion record? Had Gore lied about or distorted the Bradley health plan? The Bradley campaign began saying he had, and it presented a challenge to reporters. As we noted in our comments on the McCain FCC letters, when public figures are accused of wrong-doing they are owed a careful critique of what they have said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/19/00). How did the press corps meet this latest challenge? Tomorrow, we start our incomparable analysis, adding the coverage of the regional powerhouse Boston Globe to our usual mix.

What a week! We had no news channels in our hotel, and you couldn't get the Washington papers. Our media access was cut to the bone. Even then, the problems with coverage piled up as deep as the Queen City's wind-whipped snowbanks. Alas! There is no plow yet invented to sweep away error like the plows that swept those streets clear of snow. Luckily, we do have THE DAILY HOWLER. Tomorrow, an incomparable first report.


Tomorrow: The power to paraphrase is the power to spin. Press coverage of Gore-on-abortion.

What's in a word: When the analysts returned to their study carrels, they hungrily fell on last week's Weekly Standard, and soon the cheers were ringing out over a piece by Andrew Ferguson. Ferguson was scoring this year's endless complaints about hopefuls' "negative campaigning." Ferguson approvingly cited Alan Keyes' statement at the Grand Rapids GOP debate; Keyes defended our "adversarial political system," in which hopefuls critique other hopefuls' proposals. Fergy even went so far as to voice one of our pet complaints:

FERGUSON: In fact, by ideological inclination, most reporters are goo-goos in the classic, League of Women Voters mold. "Partisan" is their favorite epithet. When one candidate makes unfavorable mention of an opponent's record, however mildly, the news story will jump with verbs like "slam" and "attack" and nouns like "blast" and metaphors like "slash and burn."

The silly use of the word "attack" is our pet peeve with today's press corps. (We rarely use the loaded term.) As such, the analysts were surprised and extremely impressed when they read this in the Post just this morning:

CECI CONNOLLY AND JOHN HARRIS: Instead, members of Gore's team said in recent days, his New Hampshire revival showed that their man thrives, personally and politically, when he is doggedly drawing contrasts and "defining the opposition." The implications of this...are a general election strategy based heavily on exhaustive opposition research and unceasing critiques of his opponent's record and proposals.

There! We think that's a grown-up word. Readers can decide for themselves if they think a candidate's remarks constitute an "attack." But let's be grown-ups, boys and girls. Every time Candidate A criticizes Candidate B, it doesn't mean World War III has just started.

By the way: human nature being what it is, scribes sometimes use the word "attack" to describe the critiques of the guy they don't like. In one of the columns we have cited above, the columnist uses "attack" to describe what Gore said about Bradley, then uses "critique" to describe what Bradley said about Gore. That's why journalists—especially reporters—should try to avoid such insinuative language.

Visit our incomparable archives: Ranesh Ponnuru got it right on the topic of "negative campaigning." See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/21/99.