Fans of obscure nineteenth century British aphorisms – not the clever quips from Oscar Wilde, who was Irish anyway – tend to like William Shenstone. He was that odd fellow who once said that the world may be divided into people that read, people that write, people that think, and fox-hunters.
It’s a British thing – those brutal and cruel, or sporting and aristocratic fox hunts, have been an issue for ages. On this side of the pond we don’t concern ourselves with such things – for ritual blood sport NASCAR and the NFL will do just fine, thank you very much. But of course the Shenstone quip can make Americans smile, as the world can be divided into those who do a lot of reading, to try to understand what the hell is going on, which is endless research, and those who try to explain things to themselves, and to others, by writing things down in this order or that, which is careful analysis and re-analysis, and those who don’t get around to either but do think long and hard about issues, and those who just go out and do mindless things, because one ought to do something.
Fox hunting will do, or a preemptive war with Iraq for no reason anyone could settle on. As Marge Simpson says to a befuddled and worried Homer, trying in his odd way to think things through – “We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it.” Cartoons can be useful. And this Shenstone four-part division is a useful model. Most of our political discourse has become little more than tossing insults at each other and basically pits the researchers and analysts and thinkers against the doers. We elected George Bush twice – maybe – and he was the fox hunter sort – just do something and ignore the pinheads who want to consider all the implications and write all those analyses and reports and think deeply and that crap. We liked that. The writers at The Simpsons had Marge Simpson speak for America, for better or worse. We may not be a nation of fox hunters, but Sarah Palin tells us she is fond of shooting wolves in the wilds of Alaska with a high-powered rifle from a speeding airplane. That’s close enough. People get it.
So here we go again with the midterm elections, but with an odd twist. The fox hunter sorts, the doers, don’t even want to talk. On Tuesday, October 5, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC did an hour on the Delaware senate race – following the Democratic candidate at events and chatting with him, and finally finding the hidden and unmarked campaign headquarters of the Republican candidate, Christine O’Donnell, and being asked to leave. That was odd – O’Donnell has no events, speaks to no constituents in any forum at any time, publishes no schedule and just runs slick television ads. And her hidden campaign headquarters, with no signage at all, is off-limits to everyone. The theory seems to be that people know where she stands, and what she thinks, and there’s no point in even talking about it. It’s kind of the John Wayne Media Strategy – the cowboy rides in on his white horse and takes care of the bad guys, shoots’ em dead, and rides off into the sunset without saying anything – because talk is useless, and talk is for schoolmarms and sissies. People that read, people that write, people that think – they’re useless twits.
And that actually may be a media strategy – Chris Weigant calls it The New Tea Party Media Strategy: No Media – and mentions how Christine O’Donnell was going to appear on two nationally-broadcast Sunday political chat shows, Face the Nation on CBS, and Fox News Sunday, and just cancelled. She has been taking a lot of crap for all the foolish things she had said over the years, which Bill Maher had on tape, and it was clear she should lay low for a bit. Any media advisor would have told her she really didn’t want to be asked about her dabbling in witchcraft or her crusade against masturbation or how she might have taken campaign contributions to pay the rent, as she’d never had a job and there were tax issues. Let it pass. She said she wanted to go to a picnic with potential voters, but Chris Weigant suggests something else seems to be going on:
Fox News didn’t really buy this explanation, which is truly saying something. But it really should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention this election cycle, because this appears to be the new Tea Party media strategy – Don’t talk to the media. Ever.
And he wonders whether that will work or not, and is the way things will be from here on out, even if it’s not that new:
The original “stonewall the media” campaign happened before the Tea Parties existed, it bears remembering. Sarah Palin was announced as the Republican nominee for Vice President, and then went into hiding immediately after the balloons dropped at their convention. She was obviously in intense media-coaching sessions, which (to put it politely) didn’t exactly take hold. She gave two interviews to test the waters, one on ABC and then a particularly memorable one with Katie Couric on CBS. As a result, she didn’t give a whole lot of other national media interviews from that point on.
But, being in the middle of a presidential campaign, she did continue to make appearances before adoring crowds (bigger and more adoring than John McCain’s crowds), and did participate in a single debate with “Can I call you Joe?” Biden. Her debate performance was a lot better than many had predicted, I should at least mention.
And there’s the other guy:
Earlier this year, Tea Party candidate Rand Paul – immediately after he clinched the Republican nomination for Senate in Kentucky over an “establishment” GOP candidate – had a few disastrous media interviews of his own. He then became the first Tea Party candidate this year to pull out of a scheduled Sunday morning appearance on national television. Other Tea Party candidates have followed this “run away from the media” strategy (in Sharron Angle’s case in Nevada, quite literally running away from the media at times), to varying degrees.
Of course the media is upset, but Weigant suggests that’s just whining:
They’ve acted as kingmakers and gatekeepers for so long, and they’ve been blind to the rise of the “New Media” outside their elite ranks, that they now have a vastly overinflated perception of their own importance.
But you do have Sarah Palin so charmingly telling O’Donnell to shun “lamestream media” – do Fox News of course, and maybe Rush Limbaugh, but that’s it. People will know where you stand. They’ll vote for you. You’ll win.
Bu the question is what happens if this works? Weigant adds this:
The Tea Partiers, as a whole, are not big fans of the mainstream media. But then again, few people are these days. In fact, one thing (possibly the last thing) people on the Left and people on the Right do actually agree strongly on is their disdain for the media in general. The Right sees most of it as the “Liberal Media,” and the Left sees virtually all of it as the “Corporate Media,” but the contemptuous attitude – and the depth of this feeling – is similar on both sides.
Up until now, political campaigns (especially those running as “underdogs”) have courted the media. Candidates, as a rule, love getting interviews. The bigger the better. In normal times, a Senate candidate from a state so small it only sends one representative to the House would love to be interviewed on national television, even for a single soundbite on the evening news. A full-scale interview on one of the prestigious Sunday shows is normally the gold prize for a campaign. There’s a reason for this – it is free. Campaigns have a limited amount of money (unless your last name happens to be “Whitman”…) with which to communicate to the voters. They spend lots of this money on advertising. But getting the candidate on the news costs not one thin dime, and may indeed reach more people than a single ad buy.
But times have changed:
Again, following on the path pioneered by Sarah Palin, now candidates are refusing to do interviews because of the “Gotcha!” nature of answering serious questions from professional journalists. At least, that’s the perception. All media types are suspect, and therefore only media outlets or personalities which qualify as part of the echo chamber of “safe and accepted thought” surrounding your particular political position are even worth talking to. Everyone else in the media can be ignored, because the chances of them putting you in a negative light are so high. Again, this is the perception, from the Tea Party candidate’s point of view.
Of course, this effect becomes more pronounced the “fringier” the candidate happens to be. Joe Miller, newly-nominated Republican Senate candidate from Alaska, did appear this week on a Sunday show. He’s a bit more solidly-grounded than Christine O’Donnell, with a fairly impressive résumé, even though he is also identified as a Tea Party candidate. He faced questions about his extreme positions (unemployment insurance being unconstitutional, for instance) and gave the standard sort of dodge-and-weave answers which are par for the course from any politician.
Christine O’Donnell isn’t Miller – the risk of appearing foolish was too high. The Maher tapes were big trouble. But there may be even bigger trouble:
While O’Donnell’s antics certainly provide lighthearted moments for Lefties, journalists, and late-night talk show hosts, one has to wonder whether this is the future of political campaigning. Even if O’Donnell loses (as is widely expected), Rand Paul certainly looks like he’s going to win his race. And even Sharron Angle is still neck-and-neck with Harry Reid. So snubbing the media may start to look like a reasonable thing to do for prospective candidates.
We’ve already seen a slow migration towards the polarization of media appearances. Sarah Palin counsels “appear only on Fox News” to Tea Party candidates, to get their message out most effectively. Some Democrats have championed the idea of Democrats refusing to appear on Fox News, because of its inherent right-wing bias. Republicans feel the same way about MSNBC (if not most of the media universe as well). I’d be willing to bet a hefty amount that Rand Paul is the last Republican candidate to appear on Rachel Maddow’s show for a long, long while, for instance (at least during an election season).
Depending on how things work out, and depending on future candidates, this trend could become much more prominent in 2012. At the presidential race’s level, candidates will likely still make appearances everywhere they can manage, due to the “nationwide” nature of the audience a candidate can reach – for free. If Obama is the Democratic nominee (as seems more than likely) he will likely appear on Fox for at least one interview. But say, just for the sake of argument, that Sarah Palin is the Republican nominee. She’s already on the Fox payroll, so she’ll definitely appear there as often as they’ll have her (even if she has to quit for the campaign). But I doubt she’d bother with a whole lot of other media interviews.
And then you have a trend:
Below the presidential level, this strategy may become more and more common. “I refuse to talk to the mainstream media because they will distort my message beyond recognition!” could be an easy sell to a lot of people. Not to end this inconclusively, but if this trend does continue, and if media interviews become polarized to friendly news outlets only, I’m not sure exactly what it’s going to mean for American democracy.
It means everyone’s gone fox hunting.
And just to compound matters, see Amanda Terkel here:
There are few traditions more central to political campaigns than debates between the candidates. In the biggest races, they’re nationally televised events that journalists, pundits, activists, and the public eagerly anticipate and relentlessly cover. On the local level, they’re community gatherings where residents are able to get to know their would-be leaders.
But what’s becoming all too common is a debate over debates. Some incumbents refuse to debate their challengers, while some challengers request an unrealistically high number of face-offs. There are candidates who refuse to speak to the press, candidates who back out of debates after a disastrous mishap, and candidates who continue to argue about the issue even after events are agreed upon. This trend isn’t restricted to any one party, nor is it always the incumbent who refuses to engage.
According to an analysis conducted by the Huffington Post, nearly one in three of 76 competitive and currently active U.S. Senate candidates have made headlines this election season for either refusing to debate or expressing a palpable aversion to participating in such forums. Similarly, the same can be said for nearly one in four of 87 gubernatorial candidates whose re-election hopes remain alive.
And there’s a special subset, this year’s self-funded candidates:
Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman in California and Rick Scott in Florida have both independently set election spending records by funneling millions of dollars from their personal fortunes into their campaigns. The former eBay CEO and former Columbia/HCA chief have also both come under intense media scrutiny for avoiding reporters and running away from debates.
Rick Scott was involved in that Columbia/HCA Medicare billing fraud case – HCA ended up paying fines and settlements that came to 1.7 billion – but he escaped direct charges. Still you can see why he might not want to be asked questions.
But that’s the exception, and Amanda Terkel reports that there is the rule.
“Refusing to debate is a tired but traditional tactic employed by almost every political incumbent in American politics,” Republican political strategist Mark McKinnon told the Huffington Post. “The standard scenario: (1) Challenger calls on incumbent to multiple debates; (2) incumbent claims busy schedule serving voters they represent; (3) challenger keeps pressure on suggesting incumbent is afraid to show up; (4) incumbent finally agrees to single debate held on a night and station that no one watches; and (5) incumbent wins reelection. We can only hope that voters have become hip enough to the game that they demand their representatives debate early and often. It ain’t the law, but it sure as hell ought to be an obligation.”
On the left, Democratic strategist Paul Begala agreed in the benefit of debates. “I think having debates is always good,” he said. “There are few potentially unscripted moments in a campaign, and I think people ought to know. I understand when you don’t want to give credence to your opponent, blah blah blah – but I think that’s really kind of dumb. You know, the truth is, you’re an incumbent? You’re in trouble. And you ought to be able to go out there and defend yourself. So I always like debates. I’ve never liked to debate about debates. I’ve wasted more time in my life in debate negotiations… If the candidate can’t handle a simple interaction with the opponent, how are they going to handle the pressures of office?”
And now things are slightly different:
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) is refusing to hold any debates with former Houston mayor Bill White, even though the two are locked in a very tight race. Media outlets around the state are urging Perry to accept the challenge and pointing out that every single governor in the past four decades – except Perry – has met with newspaper editorial boards. “Texas voters need a debate to make the most informed decisions in the governor’s race,” wrote the Houston Chronicle. “They deserve the direct, face-to-face confrontation on the issues a serious debate provides.”
There are far too many House incumbents who are flat-out refusing to answer their challengers – Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Steve King (R-Iowa) to name a few. In fact, since taking office in 2003, King has never formally debated an opponent. “We’ve got men and women standing in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq, facing bullets and land mines, and he certainly can stand in a room and answer questions and discuss the issues,” said Democrat Matt Campbell of his opponent. King has countered that Campbell has not “earned” the right to debate him.
Now that’s a twist. The other guy has not “earned” the right to debate the good guy. How does one earn that right? No one knows.
Terkel has more stories – Tennessee, Virginia and so on. It’s a trend. But it begs the question. Do politicians need the media anymore?
Steve Benen had argued that the “traditional” press model, where reporters interview candidates for office and then write stories about them, is just withering away:
The traditional model is quickly being replaced, and for the first time, we’re finding multiple statewide candidates – Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Nevada’s Sharron Angle, for the example – who simply ignore reporters’ questions and blow off interview opportunities. The fear, of course, is that reporters might ask them to explain their extreme policy positions.
At the presidential level, anyway, this trend has been ongoing for decades. It started with Nixon, took off under Reagan, and by the 1990s was in full swing. Presidents learned that they could get away with talking to the press less (or blowing them off with media-training-honed non-responses) and talking directly to the public more, and they’ve been increasingly taking advantage of this ever since.
Rand Paul and Sharron Angle may be avoiding the press right now, but keep in mind that it’s early days for both of them and it’s not all that uncommon for candidates to lie low for a month or so after they’ve won a primary anyway. And Palin is a special case: at the moment she’s not running for office. She isn’t obligated to talk to anyone she doesn’t want to.
A better example than either Paul or Angle (or Palin) is California’s Meg Whitman. She’s not an extremist and she’s not just taking a break to regroup after a tough primary. In her case, she actually spent an entire primary largely declining to talk to the press. It was a pretty amazing performance. How did she get away with it? Easy. She just did it – and then spent $80 million of her Silicon Valley wealth to blanket the airwaves with attack ads.
That works too, but now Politico’s Jonathan Martin reports that things are getting very odd:
It’s mostly, but not entirely, a Republican phenomenon… As of Friday, Colorado Republican Senate hopeful Ken Buck had gone nine consecutive days without holding a public event… Tea party darlings Rand Paul of Kentucky and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware both surged to primary victories thanks, in part, to national media exposure, but after their own comments got them into trouble, they abruptly canceled post-primary Sunday show appearances and have largely avoided doing non-Fox national TV…
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his GOP challenger, tea party favorite Sharron Angle, do carefully controlled public events and are loath to face the kind of scrutiny that would come in a free-flowing press conference or debate setting… “Angle’s strategy seems to be: Let the [mainstream press] do what it wants – I have Fox, conservative radio, my ads and Karl Rove,” [Jon] Ralston said, alluding to the former Bush adviser’s independent group, American Crossroads. …
In Wisconsin, the campaign of GOP Senate hopeful Ron Johnson, a first-time candidate who has made some verbal miscues but who leads three-term Sen. Russ Feingold in the polls, has ignored requests from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to share his daily schedule.
And Kevin Drum adds this:
I expect to see more of this, though I suppose it depends a lot on how these bubble candidates do. Meg Whitman followed this strategy during the Republican primary in California and it worked fine, but she’s abandoned it during the general election because it obviously won’t work against a well-known Democratic opponent in a blue state. But for conservative candidates especially, who can rely on specific conservative channels to get their message out (Fox, talk radio, deep-pocketed independent expenditure groups), this strategy may represent the future of campaigning.
Is that the future of campaigning? Maybe the world can be divided into people that read, people that write, people that think – and candidates for office about whom you know all you need to know, as they are highly-paid regular contributors on Fox News, under exclusive contract – so shut up and vote for them. There will be no debates and no campaign appearances. What were you thinking?
It seems things have changed.