The media makes inevitability narratives, and the media can just as unilaterally break them. Pundits and political observers fabricate them out of little more than their own hack impressions of “What It Takes” and “The Way to Win,” to cite but two headache-inducing, faux-authoritative surveys of the postmodern campaign.
The fallout from last week’s Democratic debate in Philadelphia furnishes perhaps the neatest set piece yet for students of the press’ strained yet ever smug effort to contain the electoral process within the hermetic four walls of the pundit green room. The whole billowing works were set in motion by Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s pre-debate announcement to The New York Times that he was about to launch some aggressive new fusillades at his New York colleague Hillary Clinton, who had pulled more than 20 points ahead of the field in at least one national poll. NBC debate moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams took the cue and teed off one Hillary-baiting question after another, inviting the rest of the field to lay into the trademark bobs, weaves and difference-trimmings of the front-runner, and all but daring Mrs. Clinton to respond vigorously in kind.
And the news was that, for once, she didn’t. For all of Mrs. Clinton’s careful burnishing of her own tough-minded credentials as a seasoned leader, she consistently retreated to cautious, rote recitations of her positions on the alternative minimum tax, Social Security funding and identification programs for illegal immigrants. In each instance, her message played out in the same basic form: This is a complicated issue, and while I sympathize with others wrestling with its fearsome complexities, my own delicate grasp of them forbid a leader as responsible as me from announcing a simple stand.
Mrs. Clinton’s defenders—and the campaign itself—initially responded to reports of her subpar showing by branding it the result of a gender-based “pile-on.” But the real thuggishness on display was the broader media scripting of the event. Mrs. Clinton was ultimately being punished for behaving exactly as the press expects someone in her position to: Any front-runner trying to conserve a commanding lead lives in mortal terror of a gaffe, an off-message aside or any other stumble yielding fatal advantages to the opposition. So naturally, they grow terminally cautious, guarded and calculated in describing their views in any public setting. Indeed, it was the media’s own incessant marveling at how tightly Hillary held to this serenely noncommittal front-runner’s script that had fueled all the “inevitability” talk in the first place.
But of course the media’s other contradictory impulse is for the anointed “inevitable” candidate to trip up somehow, and expose “vulnerabilities” apparent mainly to the theater-minded members of the pundit corps. Then they can rally to their other pet narrative: The front-runner turns suddenly mortal, and the ritual coronation then suddenly morphs into a “story”—even though all that’s really being reported is the press’s own self-infatuated romance with its own “expectations game,” “the invisible primary,” and sundry other such gossamer notions.
Indeed, shortly before the Philadelphia debate, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study of early campaign coverage showing that fully 63 percent of coverage in all media outlets rallied to “political and tactical” matters—i.e., the rote pirouettings that candidates perform to maximize their own media salability, and thereby their buzz among likely voters in the absurdly front-loaded primary system. Coverage of issues, meanwhile, consumed just 15 percent of airtime and column inches—even though one might well think that one of the only benefits of an elongated campaign season would be more time for candidates to thrash out and refine substantive policy disputes in public forums that could engage more sustained voter interest. [Survey results here: http://www.journalism.org/node/8187]
But that approach would of course short-circuit the media’s own autoerotic fixation on its own campaign dominance, which (like Rudolph Giuliani) it pursues in blatant contradiction of simple standards of veracity or consistency. Just consider the debate’s lead subtext, which had Mr. Obama shedding his transcendental nice-guy image to come out punching. It is a flagrant instance of the media urging on exactly the opposite course of action on the field’s best-positioned challenger: Per the pre-debate scripting, Mr. Obama, unlike Mr. Clinton, must reinvent himself to redirect the campaign’s momentum. In Mrs. Clinton’s case any such feint of self-reinvention is by definition shifty and evasive; in Mr. Obama’s case, it is by definition authentic. And sure enough, come Sunday, the panelists on the political chat shows were clucking knowingly about Mrs. Clinton’s “authenticity problem.”
Of course, if anyone has an “authenticity problem,” it’s the media commentariat. Endorsing the notion that candidates swathed in the many layered inanities of the media’s horse-race scripting can divulge something true and revealing about their leadership instincts or core beliefs is akin to believing that NBC marketers are airing a million or so Bee Movie cross-promotional spots because they think it’s just flat-out hilarious.
Indeed, the ultimate victory the Obama camp may be taking out of the Philadelphia fracas is that the candidate may have laid aside any lingering about his own authenticity. Senior aides note, after all, that their candidate’s more intensive tour through this elongated, media-saturated primary season may be a strategic advantage: “Barack will say this—he’s had to build this campaign on Broadway, with all the bright lights glaring,” says one source close to the Obama campaign. “There’s been no offstage calibration.”
And after trailing for so long behind a front-runner pitching her message beyond the party’s primary base, toward the general election, Obama strategists are now keen to make a similar case against the Hillary camp. “What Democrats have before them is a clear choice in who the standard bearer’s going to be for the general,” the Obama-connected source says. “Will it be someone in the general who’s going to make clear distinctions between us and the Republicans? Or will it be someone who calculates their stands for political reasons, and will allow the campaign to muddy up the distinctions between us and the Republicans?”
Mr. Obama is obviously up to mounting a much more content-driven appeal to voters—and has indeed been admirably direct in developing one in the “retail politics” forums of Iowa and New Hampshire. But as he steps up his attacks on Mrs. Clinton’s “calculating” nature, his campaign is also plainly figuring out a wholesale tactical plan as well, knowing full well that substance is not the sort of thing to play too long on Broadway.