THEIR MASTERS VOICE: Good grief! In the midst of his standard snark, Dana Milbank gives us a portrait today of the press corps in its full glory. Yesterday, Candidates McCain and Obama addressed the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In this passage, Milbank describes what happened just before McCain spoke:
MILBANK (4/15/08): McCain's moderators, the AP's Ron Fournier and Liz Sidoti, greeted McCain with a box of Dunkin' Donuts. "We spend quite a bit of time with you on the back of the Straight Talk Express asking you questions, and what we've decided to do today was invite everyone else along on the ride," Sidoti explained. "We even brought you your favorite treat."
McCain opened the offering. "Oh, yes, with sprinkles!" he said.
Sidoti passed him a cup. "A little coffee with a little cream and a little sugar," she said.
Having asked him all those questions, they brought him his favorite treat.
Fournier and Sidoti are professional journalists. Maybe they can engage in this kind of funnin and maintain their professional perspective. But the journalistic performance of the past dozen years suggests that many in their cohort cannotthat this performance involves some very bad judgment. A bit later on, Milbank scores the days competition:
MILBANK: McCain got a standing ovationan honor Obama did not receive when his turn came two hours later.
As a general matter, weve learned not to trust the things Milbank says about what goes on in a room. But this is a fairly clear-cut descriptiona description of very bad judgment.
First, they brought him his favorite treat. Then, at the sound of their masters voice, they gave a standing ovation.
McCain has long been a press corps darling, as major journos have long acknowledged. Obama, of course, has also gotten good press in the past year or so. Milbank summed things up this way: On the same day, the two media darlings of the presidential election cycle came to address their baseand McCain easily bested his likely opponent.
If Milbank can be trusted, there was a difference. One hopeful received a standing Oand one other hopeful did not. And one man got his coffee, sir, just the way he likes it. But then, this has gone on for a very long time, even as Major Dems were being savaged by this same cohort. Liberal leaders rarely complained about either part of the deal.
WHY WE LOSE: The Pope is going to convene some huge masses in the next week or so. But the break-away Cult of the Offhand Comment has been staging some mass actions also.
Barack Obamas offhand comment in San Francisco was, in fact, poorly framed. (For our money, some of his subsequent clarifications have been a bit clumsy as well.) But that offhand comment cant show us his soul, and it doesnt merit the obsessive scrutiny to which it is being subjected. Wed prefer a loftier discussiona discussion of what Obama, Clinton or McCain might actually do to affect the prospects of small-town Pennsylvanians. But as you know, theres a Hard Pundit Law about White House campaigns: Thou shalt not talk about matters of substance! Barred by law from discussing such matters, journalists turn their attention to (lets cite Milbank this morning) haircuts, fancy shirts, family incomesand to fleeting remarks, made in passing, recorded on scratchy devices.
Obamas statement was poorly framed. Who knowsit may even reveal part of the way he thinks about some of these matters. But our biggest columnists have had several days to ponder the meaning of his remarks. The comments they make in their columns today were not composed in an off-hand manner. These comments represent their considered opinionthinking which is often not grand.
Why do Democrats and progressives sometimes get tagged as elitists? Why not let liberal columnists show us? We start with Richard Cohen, explaining what has been wrong with Hillary Clintons reaction to Obamas remarks. In this passage, Cohen reveals an unfortunate facthe doesnt even seem to understand what elitism is:
COHEN (4/15/08): [Clinton] turned Obamas statement into an affront to gun lovers everywhere, which it just might be. But since when is Hillary Clinton a gun lover, a hunter or even a weekend skeet shooter? She is apparently none of the aboveat least she will not say when she last fired a gun. The truth, if a guess is allowed, is that she does not give a damn about guns and hunting, and when she brings up her "churchgoing family" and "Our Town" values, they are expressions of treacly nostalgia and not the life of incredible affluence and situational morality she now enjoys.
Whatever one thinks of Clintons reactions, Cohens presentation is thoroughly clueless. Theres no requirement that a Democratic pol give a damn about guns and hunting or be a weekend skeet shooter; the problem begins when Democratic pols seem to look down on those who are. In the main, elitism isnt a question of what you do; its a question of what you think and say. But right beside Cohen in the Post, Gene Robinson bungles this simple point too. You cant be more clueless than these guys:
ROBINSON (4/15/08): Clinton bristled, though, when a reporter had the temerity to ask at a news conference when she last attended church or fired a gun. "That is not a relevant question for this debate," she said. "We can answer that some other time. This is about what people feel is being said about them. I went to church on Easter. I mean, so?"
Um, so the issue isn't whether you regularly sit in a church pew or even occasionally go hunting, but whether you can manage to seem like the sort of person who does? I think I need a shot and a beer, too. Just give me whatever the lady's drinking.
Thats right, Dumb-*ss! The issue isnt whether you go to churchthe issue is whether you look down on those who do! We think Obama is being thrashed too hard for a single off-hand comment. But Cohen and Robinson show no sign of understanding the basic shape of this problem. But then, this is a typical failing of liberal elitesof people who have never given a thought to the feelings or views of the small-town rubes who keep screwing up our elections.
In fairness, Cohen and Robinson are hardly alone. All around the liberal world, weve seen thinkers in the past few days who seem to have no earthly idea what elitism even consists in. (Click here for Theda Skocpol. We think Joshs own post makes basic sense, though we wouldnt agree with every viewpoint.) Here is Robinson, making another characteristic error:
ROBINSON: Clinton spent the weekend bashing Barack Obama for not seeming to be enough of a regular guynot for any actual deficit of regular-guyness, mind you, but for giving the impression that such a deficit might exist.
The former first lady, whose family has made $109 million since her husband left the White House, then made a show of demonstrating that she's actually just a regular gal. The point wasn't really to convince anyone that she, Bill and Chelsea commute between their two lavish mansions in a five-year-old Ford F-150 pickup with a gun rack and a "Jesus Rocks!" bumper sticker. Her aim was to prove to the nationor at least to Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania and Indianathat she's better at feigning regularness than Obama.
Little there comprehends the problem. But in the highlighted passage, Robinson does what a string of liberal thinkers have done in the past few days (including Cohen, in the passage weve quoted); he suggests that a person with a high net worth is somehow automatically part of this problem. This, of course, is very similar to the claim that John Edwards cant possibly care about poverty since he lives in a very big house. In the highlighted passage, Robinson shows that he doesnt have the first idea what elitism even consist in. Elitism isnt a question of the how much money you have. Its a question of how you behave toward others who may have less money.
Truly, it has been embarrassing to watch some liberals attempt to come to terms with this matter. Just as an obvious matter of fact, condescension toward average people has plagued progressive movements at least since the late 1960s, when Dr. King stopped being the public face of progressive change and various Middle America-trashers took his place in the public imagination. (Abbie Hoffman, for instance.) In his brilliant public ministry, Dr. King confronted people who turned dogs and hoses loose on children; blew up churches where children were praying; threw him in jail on tortured pretexts; and eventually chased him down and killed him. But quite aggressively, Dr. King refused to deny the soul of the Bull Connorsof those who behaved in such fallen ways. Within a few years, it became possible to tag progressivism with the face of those who loudly showed the world how much they hated the mores and life-styles of their horrible mommies and daddies. From that day to this, progressive politics has been damaged by a sometimes-accurate perceptionthe perception that progressives and liberals are a bunch of snooty snobs
In fact, progressives sometimes are snooty snobs. We love to display our cultural and moral superiority to those whose values or instincts may differ. We love to call them xenophobes, vigilantes and racists. We love to ridicule their religion (just read the comments whenever Amy Sullivan posts). Indeed, Bob Herbert starts off this mornings column by giving vent to this very instinct. This is exceptionally sloppy expositionand its probably very bad politics:
HERBERT (4/15/08): Maybe Barack Obama felt he couldn't afford to give the correct answer.
He was asked at a fund-raiser in San Francisco about his campaign's experiences in the run-up to next week's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. One of the main problems, of course, is that he hasn't generated as much support as he'd like among white working-class voters.
There is no mystery here. Except for people who have been hiding in caves or living in denial, it's pretty widely understood that a substantial number of those votersin Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and elsewherewill not vote for a black candidate for president.
There is no mystery here, Herbert says, betraying the confidence of the elitist. (In his first sentence, he modestly acknowledges that he knows the correct answer.) And then he makes a sweeping (if imprecise) assessment of the souls many people; a substantial number of Pennsylvanians wont vote for Obama because of his race, he says. Later, he leans down from the mountaintop, saying this: No one has an obligation to vote for Mr. Obama, and it's certainly not racist to vote against him. Gee, thanks! But wouldnt you know it? Right at the start of his piece, he seems to say something quite different.
Are there people in Pennsylvania who will vote against Obama due to race? Presumably there arealthough, in fact, theres plenty of mystery about how substantial the number might actually be. But at least since the late 1960s, many progressives have behaved just as Herbert does here. Its our first instinct! We start by attributing the worst possible motives and attributes to wide numbers of everyday peoplepeople whom weve never met. What exactly does Herbert mean when he says a substantial number of Pennsylvanians wont vote for Obama due to his race? Theres no way to know for surebut his formulation seems to take everyone in. This formulationthe first thing he offersquickly makes everyone suspect. There is no mystery here, he saysalthough, of course, there is.
Unfortunately, many progressives simply cant understand the nature of this decades-old problem. They cant understand why its bad politics (and basically foolish) to ridicule people for being religious. They dont see why its bad politics this week to build jokes around the word gun-toting. A few months ago, they didnt understand why it was morally obnoxious (and vastly stupid) to accuse everyone in sight of being a slobbering racist. Sergio Bendixen, for exampleso accused for answering a question hed been asked about a delicate subject. They could tell that Bendixen was a big vile race manand that others had conspired with him!
To all appearances, some men get into comedy so they can ridicule women from a stage. Similarly, some people seem to become progressives so they can forever parade about, telling the world about their moral superiority to all the unwashed rubes. For them, progressive politics is about name-calling. A movie is playing in their heads. In this movie, they and their friends are the very good people. Mommy and Daddy are not.
Wed be inclined to say that this political/moral problem began to afflict progressive movements in the late 1960s. And uh-oh! In the last few days, conservative columnists have sometimes shown that they know this terrain rather well. This morning, George Will goes back to FDR to illustrate this liberal problem. We wont necessarily go along with his assessment of Adlai Stevenson. (He works from a few offhand comments here.) But as a general matter, we think hes uncomfortably close to the mark as he describes liberalism's transformation since Franklin Roosevelt:
WILL (4/15/08): What had been under FDR a celebration of America and the values of its working people has become a doctrine of condescension toward those people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them.
When a supporter told Adlai Stevenson, the losing Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, that thinking people supported him, Stevenson said, "Yes, but I need to win a majority." When another supporter told Stevenson, "You educated the people through your campaign," Stevenson replied, "But a lot of people flunked the course." Michael Barone, in "Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan," wrote: "It is unthinkable that Roosevelt would ever have said those things or that such thoughts ever would have crossed his mind." Barone added: "Stevenson was the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class American culturethe prototype of the liberal Democrat who would judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting."
Many shirts-and-skins players will reject any words spoken by Will and Barone. But in this matter, Will and Barone are uncomfortably close to rightand Robinson and Cohen seem largely clueless. But then, conservatives have long understood these matters better than progressives have, thereby gaining electoral advantage. Often, they have overstated or misstated particular claims, with mainstream journos playing along. (How dare Kerry go wind-surfing?) But they seem to understand the terrain better than liberal counterparts.
Elitism isnt about what you do. It isnt about how much money you have. (FDR was wealthy.) Its about the things you think and say about those small-town or working-class rubes. Some progressives have shown, again and again, that they simply cant understand this distinction. Will Obamas remark cost him votes? We dont know; we hope they wont, although were beginning to get concerned about his rookie mistakes. But if they do, it will be because there have been so many such remarks, by so many other people, remarks which often werent off-hand comments. This has been a major problem for many years; some liberals still seem to lack the first clue about what the problem consists in.
FOR OUR MONEY: For our money, Clinton is hitting Obama too hard about this matter. But then, we think Clinton herself got hit too hard when she was painted as a slobbering racist because (for example) Sergio Bedixen answered a question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/19/08), or because Bill Clinton mentioned Jesse Jackson. (It was a dog-whistle! They could just tell! There was no mystery there!) Understandably, many progressives are crying today about the rough treatment Obama is getting. But some of them acted like ciphers back then, as the Dem campaign turned around. Well guess that theyre seeing some payback.
We think you know what happened back then. The shirts could just tell that the skins were racists, as they reliably can.