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TWO TAKES ON JOE KLEIN! Broder and Atrios look at Joe Klein. Neither dude is worth your trouble: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 11, 2006

TWO TAKES ON JOE KLEIN: We encountered two takes on Joe Klein this morning. In the Post, David Broder types a Perfectly Standard Presentation about Klein’s new book, Politics Lost–a report in which Broder looks ahead to John McCain’s appearance at Liberty University. We’ll grade Broder’s report tomorrow. But then, there’s also this take by Atrios, and it’s not worth your time either:
ATRIOS (5/10/06): Oh, did I forget to tell you that Joe Klein is that biggest wanker in the history of wankerdom and that he is always wrong about everything?
As we’ve noted, Klein’s new book is definingly laughable–a near-perfect product of millionaire pundit culture. But is Klein “always wrong about everything?” Obviously no, he is not (a few parts of his book are even important). And it can’t be good for progressive values when we teach young liberals to reason this way–to engage in the type of pseudo-angry pseudo-reasoning which is now widely found on the web.

Is Joe Klein always wrong about everything? Perhaps Ate was only being ironic–but we wonder if his readers know that. (Comment 5 to his post: “Fuck Bush!”) For the record, here are some of the things Klein is “wrong about” in the pages of Politics Lost:

The “southern strategy:” In Politics Lost, Klein trashes the GOP for its cynical “southern strategy.” And he praises the Democratic Party for having taken the honorable approach:
KLEIN (page 18): Equally important for the long-term interests of his party, the [1968] Nixon campaign intended to move the Republicans down-market from their Wall Street/Main Street business base into more fertile demographic fields, making a coded racial appeal to working-class whites, especially in the South...Nixon began the tectonic shift of the South from fervently Democratic to fervently Republican (apparently, Southerners don’t do tepid)–a landmark political transformation caused, at bottom, by the Democratic Party’s honorable decision to support the civil rights legislation that desegregated the region. The Democrats have been swimming upstream ever since...
It’s hard to see how Klein is wrong there. (Indeed, his remark about “swimming upstream” deserves much fuller analysis.) Later, he returns to this theme:
KLEIN (page 91): [The Democrats] came by their dilemma honorably. They opposed racial segregation. They chose to support the civil rights movement. A great many Republicans, especially conservatives, did not–a historic moral disgrace the party has yet to overcome.
Ouch. According to Klein, the GOP committed an “historic moral disgrace” in the Nixon years. To Atrios, this is all wrong.

The Reagan era: Klein admires some of Reagan’s strengths. But, after criticizing Reagan’s “welfare queen” comments, he offers these views of the Gipper:
KLEIN (page 83): Reagan never asked anything of the American people. The habits of citizenship–the service, sacrifice, and discipline that had characterized his own “Greatest” generation–were allowed to fade under the narcotic haze of the Great Affluence. Worse, civic irresponsibility was encouraged. Reagan’s belated embrace of supply-side tax cuts–just in time for the 1980 election season!–made a mockery of his own stated belief in fiscal conservatism. He had intellectual arguments for all these positions...But those arguments were short-sighted and insidious, and the Reagan style of leadership would contribute mightily to the trivialization of American politics.
All so wrong, just as before.

The Atwater era: Things got “worser” after that, in the era dominated by Lee Atwater, the “entirely feral human being” who ran the 1988 Bush campaign. Nugget? With Dukakis leading Bush in the polls, “Atwater decided to run a campaign” which turned out to be “the darkest, emptiest presidential campaign in history (at least, to that point).” Had Atwater lived to run Bush’s 1992 re-election effort, he “undoubtedly would have” run “a homophobic campaign” against Clinton, Klein judges.

The current president: And how about the current president? Klein describes Candidate’s Bush’s reaction after losing the 2000 Granite State primary:
KLEIN (page 149): [T]he tactical decisions that flowed from the New Hampshire loss were scurrilous. What followed, in South Carolina, was one of the most disgraceful campaigns I have ever witnessed. Bush and his minions did a clandestine demolition job on John McCain.
As he continues, Klein directly blames Bush (and Karl Rove, by name) for the widespread rumors about McCain’s mental stability; for the widespread claims that McCain’s wife was a drug addict; and for the widespread claims that McCain “was the father of a race-mixed child.” But then, according to Klein (page 150), Bush is “heinously adept at sequestering his behavior in political campaigns from the rest of his life.” For Candidate Bush, “there was only one rule: whatever it takes to win.” This leads to Klein’s account of the history-changing Bush-Gore debates–the history-altering sessions which eventually sent the U.S. into Iraq:
KLEIN (page 157): The three Bush-Gore debates were singularly dispiriting affairs...[Bush] was prohibitively simplistic, demagogic, and quite often wrong on the facts. When he famously accused Gore of “fuzzy math,” he was wrong: Gore numbers were absolutely correct. But Bush paid no price for his inaccuracy and he proceeded to be creatively wrong on a series of issues...Soon, every time Gore made an effective argument Bush dismissed it as mumbo-jumbo from the nation’s capital.
Bush was “demagogic”–“creatively wrong.” Where does Klein get these odd notions?

As in his columns, so in his book; Klein is often perfectly right–and a few of his themes are even important. (More to come, later.) The oddness of this book–and of pundit culture generally–involves his reaction to the facts he states. For example, he carefully fails to ask why Bush “paid no price” for his demagoguery at those debates, and, for some unknown reason, he is clearly more upset with Gore–for sighing at Bush’s demagogic misstatements–than he is with Bush for having made them. And uh-oh! According to Broder, “[Klein’s] plea is for authenticity”–yet Klein routinely seems to praise Republicans, including Bush, for their success at fooling the voters. In short, it’s the utter lack of any real seriousness which makes this book so definingly awful, like the Pundit Culture from which it has sprung. But in fact, Klein is often right in Politics Lost. Just reread those excerpts.

No doubt, we’re supposed to get a tingly feeling when we read Atrios’ stirring, fist-shaking words. But can it really be good for progressive values (or for American interests) when young liberals are taught to think this way; when they’re treated in such a “simplistic, demagogic” manner; when they’re pandered to, treated like low-IQ rubes? “Definingly awful” is also quite common now out on the activist web.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For our first four reports on Politics Lost, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/5/06. We expect to do more work in the future on this book–especially on one important topic. We think you ought to ponder this question: Why do self-dealing Democratic consultants betray their candidates so much?

TOMORROW: Dean Broder scripts Saint McCain

ABOUT THOSE NUMBERS: In best who-has-time-to-be-analytical fashion, Atrios skims some important new numbers, but largely misses their larger meaning. It’s true–many Big Pols have low “favorable” ratings in that new CBS/New York Times poll. But the poll gives respondents four possible answers (favorable; unfavorable; undecided; haven’t heard/don’t know enough). In such polls, many respondents choose options 3 or 4, especially for pols who aren’t well known (and yes, that still semi-includes John McCain). For that reason, people with similar “favorable” numbers may have quite different overall profiles.

Here are the numbers for the four Big Pols whom Atrios cites, plus for Bush and Cheney. Note: McCain has a 31 percent favorable rating–but his favorable-to-unfavorable ratio is more than two-to-one positive. That’s vastly better than the ratios of his three better-known Dem rivals:

Ratings of Big Major Pols in current CBS/NYT poll:
John McCain: 31 percent favorable, 15 percent unfavorable
Hillary Clinton: 34 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable
Al Gore: 28 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable
John Kerry: 26 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable

George W. Bush: 29 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable
Dick Cheney: 20 percent favorable, 49 percent unfavorable
Numbers can change over time, of course. Meanwhile, here’s a note on that savvy electorate: Even in the case of Bush (he’s currently president), 13 percent say they’re undecided. Three percent “haven’t heard enough.”