Posts about Politics

We’re hiring a manager, not a spiritual adviser

In the interest of blog openness, here’s why I’m voting the way I am Tuesday:

Two things trouble me about the Obama campaign: First, its reliance on empty rhetoric: “Change” and now “yes, we can.” But change how? Can do what? And second, the candidate’s lack of experience is an issue. I fear that we could end up with Jimmy Carter: a well-meaning incompetent, as it turned out, rather than the Second Coming of the Kennedy; there’s just no way to know now. Worse, we could end up with someone who tries to backfill the rhetoric and defines change in ways we didn’t bet on.

I hear people saying that Obama’s impressive oratory gives them something to believe in. That sounds nice. But that, too, is dangerous. I don’t want to hire a spiritual leader for the White House. We have someone now who thinks he stands on spiritual principles and backfilled his definition of them in disastrous ways.

No, I want to hire a manager: tough and experienced and practical. That is what we need, especially now.

We have supposedly disdained the selling of the president, the productizing of politics. But we fall for it, like we fall for celebrity news. The Infotainment Rules blog draws that parallel nicely:

The Obama campaign more and more begins to resemble a celebrity marketing campaign, as I mentioned here:

“The way Barack Obama is being covered by the media and the blogosphere, he’s not a political candidate anymore–he’s a celebrity. He doesn’t have political followers–he’s got fans. He doesn’t have a political platform–he’s got a one-word slogan–”change” [which works, 'cause "change is good," just like Nissan says, right?]. He makes narcissists feel so good about themselves.”

So: the slogan has changed–now it’s “Yes, we can”–but the marketing pitch is the same: Obama’s the one.

Quoth Oprah.

I am reminded unfortunately of the scene from The Candidate in which Robert Redford sits in back of his car mouthing the words he’s been delivering in random order. I just went out to buy the DVD. Here’s what he says: “Ladies and gentlemen. The time has passed. Got to be a better way. I say to you can’t any longer, oh no, can’t any longer play off black against old, young against poor. This country cannot house its houseless, feed its foodless… They’re demanding a government of the people, peopled by people. Our faith, our compassion, our courage on the gridiron… The basic indifference that made this country great. And on election day, and on election day, we won’t run away. Vote once. Vote twice for Bill McCay.”

I am also reminded of the final scene, in which the victorious Redford asks, “What do we do now?”

I have no doubt that Barack Obama is a decent, smart, and well-meaning politician. But don’t forget that he is a politician. And I fear that turning yourself into a slogan is an essentially cynical political act. Since the start of his campaign, except for a brief period in the middle, he has lacked the courage to be specific in his oratory.

Hillary Clinton has been specific, sometimes to a fault. She is, as debate moderators rudely enjoyed pointing out, not as likable. She is certainly not the orator Obama is. But where others see a lack of change because she has lived in Washington and the White House, I see experience and a potential to get things done. I agree with her on issue. I respect her. So I’m voting for her in the morning.

: See also the transcript of Howard Kurtz’s show this weekend on the media’s complicity in wanting to turn the Obama story to Camelot, the Sequel.

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy.

It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline.

You see John F. Kennedy’s daughter and his brother get up and say this person sounds, feels and looks like my brother or my father. It’s a very powerful story. Ted Kennedy is more symbolic. He’s not just a senator from Massachusetts, he’s also the last one of the Kennedy brothers. So…

KURTZ: So you believe basically it deserves all this blowout coverage because of the symbolism involve? Brief answer.

CILLIZZA: You know, I don’t know if it deserved it, Howie, but I do think it was an important story as it related to Ted Kennedy saying, yes, this person resembles my brother.

KURTZ: OK.

CILLIZZA: If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

I’m not going for a fairytale storyline or a rousing slogan. I’m looking for someone to run the government. I want a manager. Managers don’t make good celebrities.

Davos08: Condoleeza Rice

Condoleeza Rice addresses the opening of Davos. She talks about ideals and optimism and I wasn’t going to blog that; it sounded like boilerplate.

But then she said this: The United States is said not to deal fully with its past. “To which I say good for us. Too much dwelling on history can become a prison.”

That is a bold statement that slaps our enemies. It puts the line not between east and west but between past and future.

She says that America has no permanent enemies. We are engaged in relations with Syria and Vietnam as well as China and she says any talk about a renewed cold war is “hyperbolic nonsense.” She also says that America “has no desire to have a permanent enemy in Iran.”

Change: The emptiest word in politics

I’m sick of hearing the word “change.” Last night, during the Democratic debate in New Hampshire, we heard it 90 times. Change, change, change. Blah, blah, blah. It’s an utterly empty word. Meaningless. The worst of political rhetoric. The worst of political bullshit. Pure spin. Cynical marketing. Juvenile pandering. ‘I’m change.’ “No, I’m change.’ ‘Are not.’ ‘Am, too.’ Nya, nya, nya.

Oh, just shut up and do something. Or at least say something. And don’t say “hope,” either. Say something about the economy (note that on Facebook — which is overwhelmingly and disproportionately in Obama’s camp — the users wanted to hear a lot more about that). And health care. And education. And technology. And Iraq. And energy. And the environment. Or just tell us what change means.

glassplate.jpgGod bless Charlie Gibson last night — the best moderator on any debate so far, I’d say — who pointed to the emptiness of change when Barack Obama and John Edwards bragged about doing in those evil lobbyists and stopping them from corrupting democracy by buying legislators meals. Charlie pointed out that the only change in the rule is that they can’t buy lawmakers meals while sitting down. Here’s the solution to that: a one-handed a plate-and-glass holder.

And the truth is that we don’t really like change all that much. Corporations, universities, governments, and marriages are built around avoiding change. We fear change.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s plenty we should be changing, starting with this primary system that is drowning us in rhetoric and advertising and attacks, not to mention undue influence given to the ministates of Iowa and New Hampshire (I say we should hold a national primary no earlier than July). We need to get health care. We need a broadband policy. We need an energy policy. We need so much. It’s not change. It’s the work of government.

Here’s a cloud — and what an appropriate metaphor that is — from the transcript of last night’s Democratic debate (thanks to Tagcrowd). I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that “think” is bigger than “change.”

created at TagCrowd.com

TechCrunch, a stop on the way to the White House

If you ask me — and you didn’t, so I will — it’s pretty damned incredible that Michael Arrington and TechCrunch is getting interviews with presidential candidates: McCain today; Romney earlier. It’s just a blog. It’s just a tech blog. But it’s powerful and has an important audience in a critical industry. So candidates are paying attention. That and 10Questions and the YouTube debates are evidence of a political process that’s just beginning to open up.

The devil Drudge

Maybe I’m more aware of this because I’m a Hillary supporter, but it does seem as if the New York Times is taking any opportunity to swipe at her. Yesterday’s page one carried a story that was shocked — shocked, I tell you — that the Clinton campaign might actually be feeding stories to the dreaded Drudge Report.

….But it was a prime example of a development that has surprised much of the political world: Mrs. Clinton is learning to play nice with the Drudge Report and the powerful, elusive and conservative-leaning man behind it. . . .

That people in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign orbit would tip off the Drudge Report to its fund-raising numbers is in part a reflection of her pragmatic approach to dealing with potential enemies, like Newt Gingrich or Rupert Murdoch. . . .

The site is a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge’s targets of choice — some of it delivered with no apparent effort to determine its truth, as politicians of all stripes have discovered at times.

Would they be equally shocked if Rudy Giuliani or John McCain tried to get good publicity from, oh, the New York Times?

And it’s not as if the Times doesn’t benefit plenty from
Drudge. Last I checked, Drudge was the single largest nonsearch referrer to both the Times and the Washington Post. And I’ve heard executives from major publications and blogs say that they wouldn’t piss off Drudge because he sends them so much traffic.

So why are they so shocked that Clinton might try to get a favorable link? What’s the news there? Or is it an opportunity to slap Hillary while she’s up? Just asking.

Editing the Times

Here’s an exchange between Adam Nagourney of the Times and me over campaign coverage.

On Tuesday, I took out after Nagourney for his Times story presenting the impression that Obama is winning over Iowa youth even though the polls, which he quotes, do not back up that hypothesis. I posted a comment on his story (though it never showed up there) and also crossposted it here. Nagourney responded the next day (though being crazed with the Networked Journalism Summit, I had no time to reply until now). Here is his article and here my criticism (with my comment at the end). Here are his response to me and mine to him:

* * *

Hey Jeff:

Here’s my feeling on this: My job is about getting information out to the public, from what I see and learn on the campaign trail, and trying to put it in as much perspective as possible. In this case, it looks like something MIGHT be going on with Obama and younger voters, based on anecdotal evidence (turn-out at his rallies, conversations with younger voters, the make-up of his campaign staff), but also because his campaign is clearly trying to work it (the Iowa High School program is pretty neat.) To me, journalistically, I want to make sure I get that information out to readers – but with all the statistical and historical information that makes clear that this remains very speculative right now.. (Also, keep in mind, I wrote that for one of our Web columns, where we have more flexibility in voice and tone – hence the phrase, ‘polls aside.” — which was important I think in communicating to readers that this is not some breathless announcement story.)

The alternative would have been not to write anything at all, and sit back and feel like a jerk if Obama, say, sweeps through Iowa and New Hampshire and exit polls show it’s because it was because of a sudden surge of under-30 voters.

Hope that answers your question.

Adam

* * *

Adam,

Thanks so much for the reply.

Of course, it’s your job to get information out to the public. But it’s also your job to judge that information. You had an impression. But the polls simply didn’t back up that impression. So is that impression information? Is it news, worthy of running in the Times? And is covering your flank — so you don’t feel like a jerk, as you say — sufficient cause to shove this round peg into that square hole?

In any case, this remains a horse-race story and I’m among those who are tired of them and, indeed, think they can be a perilous addiction. For they are too much about betting, entertainment, and ego: covering one’s rear in hopes of being the one who called it right. But what value does that really give us? What does that tell us about the candidate? What knowledge or news does that provide to help us vote? Not much, I’d say.

I’d point you to this post, inspired by a Politico blog item that noted the syncopation between the polls and the media’s narrative: Clinton was ahead in the polls but Politico had the impression that national media’s narrative gave Obama the mo’. Now that all this coverage is digital and searchable, it’s not hard to test that hypothesis as I did here. Note also the six-month candidate coverage chart on Daylife (where, full disclosure, I am a partner); the service gathers and analyzes coverage from thousands of news sources. It shows that Clinton’s coverage has not broken away from Obama’s until last month. Media impression is only now catching up to voter reality.

So return to your story. Without the facts — and polls are about as close as we get — one is left (I was left) with the question: Why did you do the story? Seeking your motive is a reasonable question since you’re the guy who controls that news hole into which was shoved this dubious peg.

So if writing in a web column gives you more flexibility in voice and tone, then I say run with it. Be transparent. Bloggy, even. If Obama impresses you, say so. If you think his high-school program is really neat, then print that. Make that the reason for the story. For without that, we are left to wonder: Is this wishful thinking? Please tell us.

Now please allow me to speak more as a former editor than as a blogger and say that there are plenty of ways I think you could have attacked this story that wouldn’t have required the taffy stretching. A few ideas:

You could have focused in solely on that high-school program and reported the hell out of it, talking with the strategists who created it, the operatives who facilitated it, and the students who followed this Pied Piper and those who didn’t. Then I still would have seen the Obama campaign’s dogged pursuit of youth. I’d still like to know about the programs of the other candidates, though.

Or you could have gone to rallies for Obama and Clinton and done a census of age. It’s even something you could have crowdsourced: Get volunteers to ask 100 random, truly random people their age. Get a fact. Contrast that with the polls. Talk with the young people in both places. Tell me why they like either candidate. Why they don’t like the other. Let me hear them speak.

Or go to a mall and find 100 random youth yourself. Ask them for whom they’re voting and why and whether any actions of the campaigns have influenced them.

Or do a statistical analysis of past campaigns and show how much impact the youth vote had on victory since, say, 18-year-olds got the vote. Then look at the relative support of Clinton and Obama and explain why it is or isn’t wise for the Obama campaign to be going after youth.

Or poll young people about the issues and stands that matter to them — if, indeed, youth speak at all monolithically — and analyze the candidates’ stands next to that to see who should be more appealing (this approach having the fringe benefit of actually discussing a few issues in addition to the obvious, Iraq).

And if Iowa’s caucuses are, as you report, unlikely to be affected by the youth since they swing so old, then maybe picking another state might be more productive.

Journalistically, to paraphrase you, doesn’t replacing reportorial generalities and rhetorical questions with reported facts get more information out to readers and voters?

I’ll be blogging this, too. I don’t know why my comment didn’t end up attached to your story. If you with to reply, I’d hope you’d do so in one or the other of our comments.

- Jeff

[I should have added in my reply to him -- in the interest of transparency -- that I am likely to vote for Clinton.]

The Peter Pan of politics

Here is another example of either lazy or agenda-laded — or both — political reporting in the Times: Adam Nagourney’s exercise in apparent wishful thinking as he muses on Barack Obama attracting young voters. On Obama:

He has clearly struck a chord among younger voters. And his campaign has made what seems to be the most sophisticated effort of any of the Democrats to reach out to them, taking steps like sending recruiting teams to Iowa high schools and trying to ensure that New Hampshire college students who might be out of state on primary day get absentee ballots.

What will this mean in the end?

Now that’s a rhetorical question. Clearly, Nagorney doesn’t know and so one wonders why the story was done. The impression was certainly out there that Obama had younger supporters and that’s the premise of the story. But Nagourney’s first fact belies that:

The truth of the matter is that every four years – as sure as a sunset – stories appear about a surge of interest among younger voters in presidential politics, typically predicting a jump in turn-out that will benefit one campaign or another. It rarely turns out to be true: the percentage of voters under 30 in the total electorate was basically unchanged between 2000 and 2004– 17 percent, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls. Polls taken by The Times and CBS News last month suggest that there is no difference in the level of support between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton among younger Democratic voters, though they view Mr. Obama slightly more favorably.

One wonders again why the story was done, then. But Nagourney goes on to sell his now-questionable premise:

But could this finally be the year – and this the candidate – that produces the ever-expected burst of interest among younger voters? Polls aside, the kind of crowds Mr. Obama is drawing – and a walk through his campaign headquarters in Des Moines – certainly suggest that some young people have taken a strong interest in his candidacy.

Polls aside. Facts aside. History aside. Damnit, he’s determined to write this story, to push the image of Obama as the political Pied Piper. He moves to meaningless observations:

At 46, Mr. Obama has just the slightest streak of gray hair, no creases in his face and works out every day to keep trim. Democrats may debate whether his youthfulness makes it tough for him to come across as presidential; at the least, it means that he does not come across as parental, at least not to the newly voting age crowd.

The story is utterly uninformative. And I have to wonder whether there is an agenda here: another slap at frontrunner Clinton or an effort to boster the flagging Obama. In either case, I wish that we could have a dialogue with Nagourney over this story to ferret out the motive and method behind stories such as this.

I posted this comment on the story:

In one breath, you quote polls saying that there is essentially no difference between Obama and Clinton in youth’s support of them.

In the next breath, you try to argue that Obama is the youth candidate with little more to back up your contention — is it a wishful one? — than your vague, generalized observations about his hair and fitness and tactics, still unproven.

Why was this story written? What is the news here?

Even as . . .

Add this to your file of what’s wrong with newspaper coverage of presidential campaigns.

Today the Times reported that Hillary Cliinton beat Barack Obama in fundraising — in dollars and people. But they had to get in digs against — that’s what they call balance, you see — and they did it in this bullshit paragraph:

Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising success came even as some Democratic elected officials continue to have concerns about her electability and the possibility that a Clinton candidacy next November would drag down fellow candidates for Congressional and state races.

Name those Democratic elected officials, please. There’s nothing else in the story quoting these people. There are no links online to the stories that say that. There’s no particular reason given why that is relevant in this story. A lot of things are happening “even as” this is happening.

Now I’m trying to get away from blog-v-msm, but I do think that if a blogger wrote this same report, he would likely have said, “I’m still concerned about Hillary’s electablility. . . .” And that where this really came from: the reporter or editor wanting to throw in that dig, believing it’s balance or just not wanting to give Hillary a positive story. So they hide behind those phrases: “even as . . .” and “some officials have . . .”

And then there’s this sentence:

Few analysts or Democratic officials predicted it, and several of them said yesterday that there was new pressure on him — and another top contender, former Senator John Edwards — to compete more aggressively with Mrs. Clinton.

Well, duh. What does that tell us that we couldn’t quite easily figure out ourselves?

And in the end, of course, none of this is about issues or doing the job of president. It’s a horse race story.

: By the way, I wonder why this story was suitable for over-the-fold treatment on page one of the Times but I couldn’t find it on the home page online and it wasn’t even above the fold on the politics page.

: Oh and about that electability, see this from the latest Washington Post poll, which shows stunning results for Clinton:

Despite rivals’ efforts to portray her as too polarizing to win the general election, a clear majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, said Clinton is the Democratic candidate with the best chance on Nov. 4, 2008. The percentage saying Clinton has the best shot at winning is up 14 points since June. By contrast, 20 percent think Edwards is most electable and 16 percent think Obama is, numbers that represent a huge blow to the “electability” argument rivals have sought to use against her.