Hacking Away

There have been a few feints to the left and right but no third party in America has ever amounted to much of anything. Sure they exist – a Libertarian Party and a Green Party and a Socialist Party and so on – but no one pays a bit of attention to them. At best they’re occasional spoilers. Ross Perot running as a whatever did manage to drain enough votes from the Republican side, assuring that Bill Clinton would become the next president, not the incumbent, George H. W. Bush – the somewhat sensible Bush. But Ross Perot was never going to become president, nor was Ralph Nader, who similarly drained enough votes from Al Gore, assuring the second Bush would become president – the rather dim and goofy Bush. It could be argued that the 2000 election wouldn’t have ended up being decided by the Supreme Court had a few hundred thousand or more Nader votes, specifically those in Florida, gone to Gore, erasing any nagging uncertainty and making all the recount stuff moot. That’s best left to forensic statisticians, if there are such things. It’s enough to know we’re stuck with two parties – our rather predictable Republicans and Democrats. There will be no return of the Bull Moose Party or the No-Nothings. Yes, at times the current Tea Party is royally pissed at the old-fart establishment Republicans and tosses one of them out on their ear, but in the end, Tea Party folks are just Republicans, on steroids. They’re the True Believers, taking basic Republican ideas – small government and minimal taxes – far too seriously. They’re absolutists, but even Ronald Reagan raised taxes when he had too, and the government is set up to force at least a little compromise for anything to get done. They aren’t the next third party and the very first third party in America to amount to anything. There will never really be one.

That leaves us with what we are accustomed to – the same old same old, two parties that defend their positions, such as they are, subject to change, and work to perpetuate their existence. Mostly they do the latter and we’re all used to it, and we’re used to the party hacks, those who defend whatever just happened, even if their guy just said or did something outrageous. This year, with the Republicans, the problem is their Senate candidate in Missouri, Todd Akin – the man who said no woman could get pregnant from rape, at least legitimate rape, as it was physically impossible. He heard that their lady-parts just shut down if they’re really being raped, not just secretly enjoying it. Akin also maintains there’s a real problem with so many doctors everywhere performing abortions on women who aren’t pregnant, and also holds that Medicare and Social Security are totally unconstitutional. He’s a bit of an embarrassment. It’s not just the nonsense. Even the Tea Party crowd likes their Medicare and Social Security, as long as they get it and the wrong people don’t. The Republican Party asked Akin to drop out – his positions would kill their reputation as being even halfway sane – but he wouldn’t. Now they’re rallying around him. Party hacks do that. He may be a total jerk but he’s their jerk.

That was a tough one but the party must perpetuate its existence, and party hacks are there to take the stink off the steaming pile of crap one of their own just dropped. Anything can be explained away, somehow. Just keep saying the guy really meant something else after all, or that at least he meant well even if the specifics were absurd, or that he has a good heart underneath it all, which is all that really matters. No one will believe any of that, but eventually they might. Endless repetition can work wonders.

The Republicans are far better at this than the Democrats, as seen with the first presidential debate, where Obama was far too passive and detached and Romney came off as way cool and kind of presidential, even if most of what he said was factually wrong and the reverse of all his previous positions. The Onion offers a nice mock post-debate interview with Romney:

“I’m lying a lot more, and my lies are far more egregious than they’ve ever been,” a smiling Romney told reporters while sitting in the back of his campaign bus….

“The best part is, it’s really easy to lie,” said Romney, who added that voicing whatever untruths come into his mind at any given moment is an easy thing to do because all it requires is opening his mouth and talking. “For example, if someone accuses me of having a tax plan that makes no discernible sense, I just lie and say that I do have a tax plan that makes sense. I also say there is a study that backs up my plan. See that? Simple!”

The debate was like that. Obama didn’t challenge Romney much and Romney is now on a roll, but the problem is that it’s not just Obama. It seems the Democrats don’t have enough party hacks to say Obama really did do well, and it’s not in their nature to do that sort of thing, which E. J. Dionne captures nicely here:

I was talking with an old friend who is with one of the nonpartisan polling outfits (and who also happens to be a very good and fair-minded pollster). We were discussing the large shifts in some of the polls on the presidential election and the feedback he receives whenever he puts out new numbers that make one side or the other unhappy. He offered an observation so priceless that it needs to be widely shared.

“When you give conservatives bad news in your polls, they want to kill you,” he said. “When you give liberals bad news in your polls, they want to kill themselves.”

That sums it up. Democrats don’t hack for their guy and deny all bad news. Republicans do. The unemployment rate finally drops below eight percent? The Bureau of Labor Statistics must have cooked the books. The polar ice caps are melting and we’ve had the hottest years on record, one after another? All the scientists are lying, in a vast conspiracy to undermine free-market capitalism, which they’ve always hated. Obama signed three free-trade agreements and doesn’t give a damn about gun control at all, making no move, ever, to restrict access to any kind of guns? Not true – he signed no agreements and he wants to take away your guns. A list of such things could go on and on. Give conservatives bad news on anything and they fight back. Give liberals bad news and they turn inward. It must be something they did wrong.

Heather Parton (Digby) doesn’t like where this leads:

Teaching kids to be unselfish, to share with those in need is so basic to raising decent human beings that it makes me almost unbearably sad to realize that we live in a society in which millions of people are growing up to scream “suck it up whiners” instead and yell “yeah” when someone asks if a sick man without insurance should die.

Our culture is sick. Deep inside.

She’s watched too many party hacks at work, as the Republican debates to which she alludes are all party hackery – defending whatever as long as it’s not what those other guys believe.

As Dionne notes, the issue where this was shown most recently was in the reactions to Obama’s disaster of a debate and the sudden reversal in all the polls showing he might well lose in November – causing a lot of wailing and moaning on the left. Then, to make matters worse, no one assumed the role of party hack, defending Obama.

Kevin Drum argues that’s the problem with Democrats, that there’s a hack-gap between the parties:

Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.

My conservative readers may scoff at this notion, but rarely has the hack gap been on such febrile display as it has since last Wednesday’s presidential debate. Ask yourself this: can you even imagine Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tearing their hair out over a weak debate performance by Mitt Romney the way that liberals have been over President Obama’s? I can’t.

Liberals simply need more hacks:

Obviously Obama wasn’t at his best on Wednesday. But when the debate was over that wouldn’t have mattered. Conservatives would have started crowing about how well Romney did. Liberals would have acknowledged that Obama should have confronted Romney’s deceptions more forcefully, but otherwise would have insisted that Obama was more collected and presidential sounding than the hyperactive Romney and clearly mopped the floor with him on a substantive basis. News reporters would then have simply reported the debate normally: Romney said X, Obama said Y, and both sides thought their guy did great. By the next day it would barely be a continuing topic of conversation, and by Friday the new jobs numbers would have buried it completely.

That didn’t happen, because liberals just aren’t built that way. They prefer to look inward and panic:

As near as I could tell, the entire MSNBC crew was ready to commit ritual suicide right there on live TV, Howard Beale style. Ditto for all their guests, including grizzled pols like Ed Rendell who should have known better. It wasn’t just that Obama did poorly – he had delivered the worst debate performance since Clarence Darrow left William Jennings Bryan a smoking husk at the end of Inherit the Wind. And it wasn’t even just that. It was a personal affront – a betrayal of everything they thought was great about Obama. And, needless to say, it put Obama’s entire second term in jeopardy and made Romney the instant front runner.

These folks were the opposite of party hacks, actually making things worse:

What’s amazing is that, as near as I can tell, hardly any liberal pundits held back. Aside from paid campaign workers, no more than a handful decided to pretend that Obama had done well because, hey, that’s how the game is played, folks. Those refs aren’t going to work themselves, after all. Instead it was a nearly universal feeding frenzy.

Liberals and conservatives really are different:

Most conservatives simply wouldn’t have been willing to slag their guy so badly. Liberals, by contrast, almost seemed to enjoy wallowing in recriminations. It was practically an Olympic tournament to see who could act the most agonized. As a friend just emailed me a few minutes ago, “I can’t tell you how many liberals I’ve had to talk off the ledge today.”

Drum just isn’t sure this makes any difference, or so he hopes:

The polls were always going to tighten up a bit after the huge post-convention, post-47% run-up for Obama, so I don’t attribute as much of his recent poll decline to the debates as most people do. Obama has plenty of time to come back, and the fundamentals – his incumbency, the economy, and Romney’s stiffness as a candidate – still suggest a modest Obama win in November. But if I’m wrong, and this does make a big difference, it will be 100% attributable to the hack gap. Without that, Obama’s debate performance would barely have registered. This was a completely avoidable debacle.

In short, party hacks may be a pain in the ass, but if any of the folks on MSBNC had at least given it a go, the debate would have been a big yawn.

That’s an interesting theory, and one of those pundits on MSNBC, Joan Walsh, thinks that it’s dead wrong:

Can Drum truly believe that mainstream media reporters take their cues from liberals on TV? Some 58 million people watched the debate; maybe a few million watched MSNBC afterward. Could Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz really define Obama’s debate performance as poor in the absence of evidence that it was, well, poor?

It was what it was. You tell the truth, even if Rush Limbaugh and the folks on Fox News don’t. They’re hacks. She isn’t.

Drum answers that:

Do mainstream reporters take their cues from liberals on TV? Normally, no – but this isn’t a normal news story. It’s an explicitly partisan event, one where news reporters would normally be required to cover it straight: Obama said X, Romney said Y, blah blah blah. If both sides insist that their guy did well, that’s about all the mainstream folks can say. But when Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz and Joan Walsh all deliver stinging denunciations of Obama’s performance, this gives them permission to report as fact that Romney won. Even liberals agree! And that’s how things eventually congealed. This is a fundamental point about how the modern media works, one that we fail to understand at our peril.

And talking heads on television really can define Obama’s performance, like it or not:

I admit that the evidence here is thin, but the polling I saw suggests that viewers polled during the debate thought it was about even; viewers polled right after the debate though Romney had won; and viewers polled a little later still thought it was a rout. I can’t think of any good explanation for this aside from the effect of the talking heads right after the debate and the firestorm of liberal criticism that quickly turned into a feeding frenzy of outrage. And generally speaking, I’d say there’s plenty of historical evidence that media coverage of presidential debates has much more impact than the debates themselves.

Yet this man is still a liberal:

For the record, I should note that I’m making an observation here, not an endorsement. Walsh says, “Certainly if Drum thinks it’s my job to be Sean Hannity in lipstick, repeating David Axelrod’s talking points every night, that’s not a job I’m interested in.” Me neither! Nonetheless, there’s a clear price to be paid for this, and I think we saw an unusually dramatic demonstration of it last Wednesday.

Drum also argues one might actually look at the debate:

Have you ever heard the old saw that the best way to judge a presidential debate is to watch it with the sound off? Well, I think that’s just about the stupidest piece of folk wisdom I’ve ever heard. It’s not just that this reduces debates to theater criticism. It’s worse than that. It’s not even good theater criticism. After all, would you watch a play or a movie with the sound removed and then write a review for your local newspaper? Of course not. You can’t possibly judge a play without hearing the actual dialog.

The same is true for presidential debates. Sure, demeanor matters. If Obama hesitated too much, seemed unsure of what he wanted to say, and inserted too many ums and ers into his sentences, then by all means ding him for it. But what I’d really like liberals to focus on is the actual content of the answers Romney and Obama delivered. And on that score it’s hard for me to believe that Obama deserved the shellacking he got. Maybe you think he should have attacked Romney harder. Maybe you think he should have called out Romney’s evasions more crisply. But those are fairly modest criticisms. On a substantive basis, Romney consistently evaded, distorted, and in some cases outright lied. And Obama called him on it. It’s right there in the transcript in case too much steam was blowing out of your ears in real time to hear it. That’s what I wish liberal talking heads had focused on: the actual content of the debate. On that score, yes, Obama could have done better. But it wasn’t an epic disaster.

Drum wants his fellow lefties to obsess about content, and the Republicans giggle all the way to the White House. They know better. Party hacks perpetuate the party.

There are other ways to look at this, especially with the Biden-Ryan debate coming up, and at The New Republic, Amy Sullivan offers this:

A public service announcement for worried liberals: There will be a debate on Thursday night between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. Biden will say “literally” a lot. Most of the time, he will not be using “literally” correctly. He may even tell a story about his dad sitting on the edge of his bed and calling him “Joey.” That does not mean the Democratic campaign should pack it in and forfeit the election. For his part, Ryan will try to avoid answering tricky questions by saying he doesn’t want to “get all wonky” on us. Moderator Martha Raddatz may tell him to go ahead and walk us through the math. That is not a game-changer that seals victory for Obama.

I know the temptation to weigh in on every utterance of the debate is strong. During last week’s debate, many of you barely waited until the opening statements were over before declaring on Twitter that Romney had “won” that portion of the evening. As the debate continued, journalists who had cynically predicted earlier in the day that the press corps was eager to change the narrative of the campaign rushed to embrace a new narrative for the campaign. Yes, Obama was surprisingly listless and restrained. But what would have happened if he had actually committed a gaffe? Would Twitter have gone silent as hyperventilating liberals everywhere passed out?

Twitter, the new technology, may actually be the problem:

It seems quaint now that media critics used to complain about pundits going on air right after a speech or debate to broadcast their unconsidered thoughts and opinions. Now the pontificating happens in real-time via Twitter. The tin-foil hat kooks were wrong – no one is trying to read our thoughts. Given the means to express them, we voluntarily offer up every idea that flits through our brains.

That’s not Twitter’s fault, any more than earlier concerns about insta-punditry were the fault of televisions. It is our fault for believing that because we have the means to share every thought with the world that we should. That’s what G-chat and Skype-chat – or if you want to be really old-school, your spouse on the couch next to you – is for. You are allowed to take a breath and reconsider before hitting “tweet.”

The first thing that comes to mind is not always the best thing, and she kind of agrees with Kevin Drum:

If the debate performances were reversed, he argues, conservatives would have talked up Romney’s virtues anyway and asserted that he came out a winner. It’s hard to disagree with that, especially after watching conservatives spend several days after the RNC trying to insist that “real Americans” absolutely loved Clint Eastwood’s brilliant skewering of invisible Obama.

But I think there’s something else going on with liberals, who often use Twitter as much to enhance their own intellectual reputations as to critique their opponents. Criticizing their own guy allows them to prove that they are smarter than him, that they see missed opportunities the candidate was just not sharp enough to take. If pointing those out ends up hurting their candidate, well, that’s just the price a liberal pays for being intellectually honest.

Twitter allows for an instant ego trip. No pundit can resist that, or resist showing that he or she isn’t a hack. The urge is understandable:

These days, a journalist’s career often depends on developing their own brand, and the people love sparkling wit and analysis delivered at light-speed. What’s more, our employers often require it of us as well, encouraging us to live-tweet conventions, major speeches, and debates. I’m not encouraging liberals to embrace hackdom, insisting that 2+2=5 and that Obama has suddenly become a world-class debater. Nor do I think journalists should abstain from Twitter, although a little moderation would go a long way.

I’m suggesting we all take a deep breath. In the course of writing an article, I set down a lot of ideas and then delete some of them. Sometimes I pitch a blog post and then while trying to write it I discover that my initial argument just doesn’t hold up. There is value in examining an idea or opinion to see if it holds up beyond the moment in which you become aware of it. The problem with putting all of your thoughts out on Twitter – or even in a panicky blog post reacting to the most recent poll – that you understandably become more wedded to your ideas once you have broadcast them. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of like-minded peers in your Twitter feed and you end up with the nervous breakdown by MSNBC stars that followed last week’s debate.

She suggests counting to ten first. She suggests that Xanax might help too. If you have a big ego and a deep fear of being seen as a hack, best not choose to be a fool instead. Leave that to the folks on Fox News. Democrats don’t do that sort of thing.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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