Op-Ed Columnist - Desperately Seeking Seriousness - NYTimes.com: Maybe the polls and the conventional wisdom are all wrong, and John McCain will pull off a stunning upset. But right now the election looks like a blue sweep.... Yet just six weeks ago the presidential race seemed close, with Mr. McCain if anything a bit ahead. The turning point was the middle of September, coinciding precisely with the sudden intensification of the financial crisis after the failure of Lehman Brothers. But why has the growing financial and economic crisis worked so overwhelmingly to the Democrats’ advantage?
As someone who’s spent a lot of time arguing against conservative economic dogma, I’d like to believe that the bad news convinced many Americans, once and for all, that the right’s economic ideas are wrong and progressive ideas are right. And there’s certainly something to that. These days, with even Alan Greenspan admitting that he was wrong to believe that the financial industry could regulate itself, Reaganesque rhetoric about the magic of the marketplace and the evils of government intervention sounds ridiculous.
In addition, Mr. McCain seems spectacularly unable to talk about economics as if it matters. He has attempted to pin the blame for the crisis on his pet grievance, Congressional budget earmarks — which leaves economists scratching their heads in puzzlement....
But I suspect that the main reason for the dramatic swing in the polls is... Americans have rediscovered the virtue of seriousness. And this has worked to Mr. Obama’s advantage, because his opponent has run a deeply unserious campaign. Think about the themes of the McCain campaign so far. Mr. McCain reminds us, again and again, that he’s a maverick... a free-floating personality trait... [not] tied to any specific objections on his part to the way the country has been run for the last eight years. Conversely, he has attacked Mr. Obama as a “celebrity,” but without any specific explanation of what’s wrong with that — it’s just a given that we’re supposed to hate Hollywood types. And the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate clearly had nothing to do with what she knew or the positions she’d taken — it was about who she was, or seemed to be....
[Y]ou can’t blame Mr. McCain for campaigning on trivia... it’s worked in the past.... Bush got within hanging-chads-and-butterfly-ballot range of the White House only because much of the news media, rather than focusing on the candidates’ policy proposals, focused on their personas.... And let’s face it: six weeks ago Mr. McCain’s focus on trivia seemed to be paying off handsomely....
The McCain campaign’s response to its falling chances of victory has been telling: rather than trying to make the case that Mr. McCain really is better qualified to deal with the economic crisis, the campaign has been doing all it can to trivialize things again. Mr. Obama consorts with ’60s radicals! He’s a socialist! He doesn’t love America! Judging from the polls, it doesn’t seem to be working. Will the nation’s new demand for seriousness last? Maybe not — remember how 9/11 was supposed to end the focus on trivialities? For now, however, voters seem to be focused on real issues... right now... reality has a clear liberal bias.
I think Paul is wrong. Yellow-dog Republicans I know who are... shall we say... familiar with what they call the spin machine and I call the Slime Machine are... bewildered.
George W. Bush was not a friendly guy you would like to have a beer with, they say--but we had no trouble getting the media to paint him as one. Al Gore was not a serial liar, they say--but we had no trouble getting the media to paint him as one. John Kerry was not a flip-flopper and was a genuine war hero, they say--yet we had no problem getting the media to paint him as a flip-flopper and to spend hours and hours talking about how maybe the swift-boat crazies were right. By contrast, they say (not me), John McCain is a genuine and honorable war hero who at every stage does what he thinks is right for the country no matter what partisan allegiances are, and who lets the chips fall where they may--yet the media story on McCain is, they say, that he is a befuddled old man who has let unscrupulous and dishonorable Republican sleazebags seize control of his campaign. By contrast, they say (not me), Barack Hussein Obama is an inexperienced blank slate on whom all of the different factions of the Democratic Party have projected their fantasies--yet the media present him as the cool thoughtful smart moderate one when they should be presenting him as the risky one who just happens to give a good speech.
What is going on, they ask? Why have things changed? Why--though they do not put it this way--did Republican slimemasters have such an easy time getting the media to tell unfavorable lies about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 1990s, about John Kerry and Al Gore in the 2000s, about George W. Bush in the 2000s, and yet now Republican slimemasters are having such a difficult time getting the media to tell what they see as the truth about John McCain and Barack Hussein Obama in 2008?
I have two theories:
(1) Economic conditions shape voter preferences, and media personalities take their interpretive keys from voter preferences--their narratives don't drive but rather reflect coalescing voting patterns. Consider Sam Wang's charts of the 2004 and 2008 elections:
Voter preferences don't seem to be well-tied to the media narratives of who is "winning" the campaign. Republicans lead in the spring. Democrats lead in early summer. The race comes back to neutral in August. And then in September and October swing voters make up their minds based on whether they think the economy is doing well. So under this theory nothing much has changed.
(2) Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush were in the business of running the Nixonland con on the American people--of persuading voters that politicians like the Clintons, Gore, and Kerry who advanced policies that were in voters' interests were in fact strange and untrustworthy elitists who spent their private time laughing at middle Americans. Because the Nixonland con feeds into the press's cynical front-page predisposition, they are happy to observe, snicker, and assist. By contrast, John McCain was in the business of running a different game--not persuading the American people that Democrats were elitists who laughed at them but instead persuading reporters that he, John McCain, was a uniquely honorable non-political politician. When McCain switched to running the standard Republican Nixonland con on America he upset the previous narrative about John McCain--and rubbed reporters' noses in the fact that he had been running a con on them for the previous decade. While the press is happy to observe, snicker, and assist in cons run on others, it is outraged by cons run against itself. Hence the fact that reporters who still echo the "McCain is an honorable man, not a normal politician" line are now sneered at and scorned by their peers.
I think voters would like to be serious, but don't know how. And the media doesn't provide them with a way to be serious--serving as trusted intermediaries to tell Americans about candidates' likely policies and their likely effects is the last thing from reporters' minds. Recall New York Times editor Jill Abramson's sorry excuse that the Times hadn't run stories about issues because the reporters competent to cover policy substance were all dragged off to write about the financial crisis.
Paul is optimistic about the future of the press corps. I am not. I think that the Republican slime machine and their friends the Heathers in the press corpes will be back--that this year the normal rules of political-journalistic slime have been temporarily interrupted.
We do, I think, still live in Nixonland. The words of Guy Fleegman are still our best guide to the future.