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HERBERT, MEET DOWD—AND MEET NARRATIVE! All Big Dems get tagged this way. But to Herbert, it’s all about race: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 4, 2008

HOW OUR SIDE LOSES ELECTIONS: What follows will diverge from our usual topics. But it seems to us that the liberal world worked hard last week to lose the current White House election. The data are already rolling in—and we show few signs of understanding them.

To keep within our normal parameters, let’s start with the Lieberman-Kerry match-up on yesterday’s Meet the Press.

We think Tom Brokaw showed poor judgment in staging this surrogate match-up. (In our view, Brokaw has been amazingly bad in his month on Meet the Press.) The optics here were fairly clear: All Republicans favor McCain—and so does a big famous Democrat. It would be fine to stage a debate, as others have done, in which Lieberman promotes McCain’s stance on Iraq while Hagel promotes Obama’s; there’s facial parity in such a battle. But we think yesterday’s match-up was poorly conceived. By its nature, it was “more prejudicial than probative,” in a way which favored McCain.

That said, the two solons debated, for half an hour. And uh-oh! We thought Lieberman massacred Kerry, especially in the first ten minutes, in which Kerry did what our side did all last week: Yelled “eek-a-mouse” about the idea that McCain would have run that vile, naughty ad. That ad—the ad with Britney Spears in it! Good heavens! Dear Jesus! How dare he?

In our view, liberal reaction was foolish all week. On Sunday, we thought Kerry got massacred as he boo-hooed, blubbered, wept and wailed about that naughty ad. Almost surely, David Gergen then made matters worse with his view of another McCain ad.

What happened last week when McCain ran that ad? Instead of laughing at the ad and saying it showed that McCain is a fly-weight, we did what we most love to do—we started a fight about race, casting ourselves as the high-minded party and squealing, shrieking, complaining and yelping about McCain’s misconduct. Josh Marshall was one who leaped to this stance, insisting that the use of Spears and Hilton was racial—and racially troubling. Yesterday, the results began rolling in—and only a certain kind of “liberal” could be surprised by the numbers. At TPM, Josh posted the following e-mail. Later, he had to clean up what the e-mailer said about Tapper (same link):

E-MAIL TO TPM (8/3/08): Disquieting Rasmussen numbers this morning—McCain's crying racism worked. 53 percent of Americans, including the same percentage of whites and half of all Democrats, think that Obama's "dollar bill" remark was "racist." Only 22 percent think the Paris Hilton ad was racist—most of those being black people, of course (only 18 percent of white people took this view).

The good news this morning? God Bless David Gergen! Really—he was on This Week and said (check the video or transcript for exact wording), "When McCain's camp calls Obama ‘The Messiah’ and ‘The One.’ he's really calling him ‘uppity.’ I'm from the South, and we understand what that means. That's code." Jake Tapper looked like he had been pole-axed. Donna Brazile knew what he was talking about, of course. But GS, George Will, and Tapper had to be bluntly told the way the world works by Mr. Blandly Bi-partisan....

That Rasmussen survey is only one measure, and no single survey can be definitive. In fairness, it’s hard to know what regular people think the word “racist” means in this context. But let’s be frank: You have to be especially clueless to be surprised by those “disquieting” numbers—to be surprised that McCain’s approach “worked” and complaints about the Spears ad didn’t. Indeed, regarding the Hilton/Spears ad, we’re amazed that “18 percent of white people” called it racist. We’re amazed that the number’s that high!

Yes, those numbers may be distressing. But you have to be exceptionally clueless to be find the numbers surprising. And yes, this is the way a certain type of “liberal” has lost elections down through the years. It was amazingly foolish to start yelling “race” about that silly blip of Spears. When people like Josh insisted on this, they massively took the bait from McCain—in a way the McCain campaign most likely never dreamed possible.

It was amazingly foolish to scream and yell about that Spears/Hilton ad—except to say that its foolishness shows that the GOP wants to distract you. It was especially dumb to discuss it in terms of race—to discuss its alleged “dog-whistle”—since that’s a claim that will almost surely strike most undecided voters as far-fetched, improbable, odd. It wasn’t smart to react that way—unless we don’t care who wins in November. If we only care about being “right” (in our minds), then that reaction made good sense, of course.

In past decades, liberals and lefties did this sort of thing quite often, as you might recall reading Nixonland. This week, we rushed to take the bait again, displaying our high-minded ways.

Earth to liberals: In that Spears/Hilton ad, McCain is calling Obama a lightweight. It’s what Walter Mondale did to Gary Hart when he mockingly asked, “Where’s the beef?” It’s what experienced candidates do when confronting inexperienced challengers. Unfortunately, we reacted in lightweight ways—by yelling race and seeking relief—and the numbers began to move. It’s how our side has lost elections at various times in the past.

Remember, once more, before you get mad: This only matters if you care who wins. If you want this to be a graduate seminar, go ahead—knock yourselves out.

More on the topic: More on this topic follows, below. On our side, we think this was a foolish week—unless we don’t care about winning.

HERBERT, MEET DOWD—AND MEET NARRATIVE: We agreed with major parts of Bob Herbert’s column on Saturday. For example:

“Spare me any more drivel about the high-mindedness of John McCain,” Herbert wrote. As a general matter, we strongly agree. But then, we started asking, in 1999, why pundits insist on driving the tale of McCain’s brilliant character.

We also agree with the first two parts of the following paragraph:

HERBERT (8/2/08): Whatever you think about Barack Obama, he does not want the race issue to be front and center in this campaign. Every day that the campaign is about race is a good day for John McCain. So I guess we understand Mr. McCain’s motivation [in saying Obama “played the race card.”]

We’ll stay away from definitive judgments about McCain’s motivation. But we agree, whole-heartedly, that race is dangerous for Candidate Obama. (See the post above.)

But wait—there’s more! “[I]t’s frustrating to watch John McCain calling out Barack Obama on race,” Herbert wrote. We agree with that sentiment too. Obama’s misstep last week was basically trivial, and McCain rode it hard—all the way to the bank. McCain’s record on race is spotty, unimpressive. It’s frustrating when he gains this advantage.

But we disagree with something Herbert said in this column—and we thought his claim was striking. And sure enough! One day later, Maureen Dowd drove home our point for us! Question: Is Obama being insulted mainly or wholly due to his race? That’s the charge that Herbert made—just before he said that discussions of race are dangerous to Obama.

Is Obama being insulted mainly or wholly due to his race? We agree somewhat with the start of this passage—but with little that follows:

HERBERT: The racial fantasy factor in this presidential campaign is out of control. It was at work in that New Yorker cover that caused such a stir. (Mr. Obama in Muslim garb with the American flag burning in the fireplace.) It’s driving the idea that Barack Obama is somehow presumptuous, too arrogant, too big for his britches—a man who obviously does not know his place.

Mr. Obama has to endure these grotesque insults with a smile and heroic levels of equanimity. The reason he has to do this—the sole reason—is that he is black.

Is the “racial fantasy factor” out of control? We wouldn’t put it that way ourselves, but we thought the New Yorker showed very poor judgment when it published that cartoon cover. Race is a “suspect category” in the law. In our view, it should be a “suspect category” in humor and publishing too.

On the other hand: Does a “racial fantasy factor” explain the fact that Obama has been tagged as “presumptuous, too arrogant, too big for his britches?” Does Obama’s race constitute “the sole reason” he’s been subjected to such “grotesque insults?” This claim might seem to make perfect sense—if you’ve lived on Mars for the past dozen years. But in fact, Candidates Kerry and Edwards and Gore were tagged in remarkably similar ways. In fact, this is the way Democratic nominees get tagged in modern elections.

Is Obama “presumptuous, too arrogant?” With minor variations, that’s the way all Dem nominees now get tagged—by Republicans, and within large chunks of the press corps. With minor variations depending on circumstance, it’s the standard put-down of Dem nominees. We think it’s striking that Herbert doesn’t seem to know this fact—or doesn’t want to discuss it.

Just how standard is this put-down? Just consider Maureen Dowd’s treatment of Obama and Kerry.

In yesterday’s Times, Dowd offered her latest wail from inside the walls of Versailles. The lady gazed upon Obama—and saw a proud, haughty man:

DOWD (8/3/08): Obama bears a distinct resemblance to the most cherished hero in chick-lit history. The senator is a modern incarnation of the clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious Mr. Darcy.

Like the leading man of Jane Austen and Bridget Jones, Obama can, as Austen wrote, draw “the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien. ...he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased.”

As she gazed on this Dem nominee, Dowd thought of Pride and Prejudice. But then, that’s precisely where her thoughts turned four years ago as she gazed on proud, haughty Kerry! Here’s what our biggest Antoinette said then, about that Dem presumptive:

DOWD (3/18/04): The election is shaping up as a contest between Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Kerry is Pride.

“He has a tendency toward striped-trouser smugness,” Dowd moronically said. To drive home her point, she then “quoted” Kerry saying something about NASCAR—something he’d never said:

DOWD (3/18/04): Even when he puts on that barn jacket over his expensive suit to look less lockjaw—and says things like, ''Who among us doesn't like Nascar?”—he can come across like Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet's pretentious cousin in ''Pride and Prejudice.'' Mr. Collins always prattles on about how lucky people would be to be rewarded by his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, with ''some portion of her notice'' and to receive dollops of her ''condescension.”

No, the proud Mr. Kerry had never made the comment Dowd “quoted” in that passage. But so what? The manufactured quote-that-wasn’t helped us see how pretentious he was! And, of course, as the year dragged on, it ran four additional times in the Times. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/6/04, with links to prior reports.

Let’s review. In 2004, Candidate Kerry was said to be proud—smug, condescending, pretentious. In 2008, Candidate Obama is said to be proud—presumptuous, haughty, above being pleased. (Four years earlier, Candidate Gore was endlessly played as “the smartest kid in the class”—as someone who thinks he’s better than you, just as Lady Hillary does.) And Herbert, reporting directly from Mars, thinks “the sole reason” for this portrait of Obama must be his race! Weirdly, he says this in the same column where he says Obama’s chance for election is endangered by discussions of race.

Let’s spell out the basic shape of current presidential politics. Let’s try to guess why people like Herbert seem a bit clueless about it.

As has long been noted, voters prefer Democrats on most major issues; this has been the case for years. For that reason, Republicans have largely built White House campaigns around alleged issues of “character.” Especially in the Clinton-Gore era, the mainstream press corps played along, giving loud voice to comic-book claims. (Al Gore was raised at the Ritz!) Today, Obama is said to be haughty, pretentious—much like the others before him.

In the process, punishing narratives have locked into place about those haughty Dems. (John Edwards had a big house!) If you’re didn’t finish fifth from the bottom when you were in college—if you actually know what you’re talking about—you’re slammed for gross condescension. At present, this is how White House elections get decided—and liberal elites have done an extremely poor job explaining this bull-roar to the public. But, for reasons unknown, Herbert thinks it must be all about race when this theme is now dumped on Obama’s head.

We’ve banged on Herbert a lot in the past year; we only single him out today because Saturday’s claim seemed so perverse. In our view, it’s much as we’ve described in the past: Herbert played along with these themes when they were aimed at the Clintons and Gore. Now, when these themes are aimed at Obama, he seems to think it’s all brand new.

But then, there’s a certain type of liberal who loves nothing so much as taking the high-minded stance about race. Would these liberals rather be “right” (at least in their own minds)? Or would they rather let Obama be president?

What Herbert said that was accurate: Quoting Herbert again, from Saturday’s column: “Whatever you think about Barack Obama, he does not want the race issue to be front and center in this campaign. Every day that the campaign is about race is a good day for John McCain.” That isn’t necessarily true, of course. But libs and Dems should keep that warning in mind.

Same damn narrative, eight years back: From Herbert’s column, two days after Bush and Gore’s crucial first debate. Anyone notice a narrative here? Here we see these trivial themes played out eight years ago:

HERBERT (10/5/00): If he can somehow force himself to stop sighing and interrupting and behaving condescendingly in front of the television cameras, Al Gore may yet get elected president.

[...]

But Vice President Gore never wins easily. He may have the experience and most of the issues on his side, but he can't keep his superciliousness in check. He just can't do it. So there he was on Tuesday night sighing loudly with disdain, or smiling contemptuously, or smugly, as Governor Bush did the best he could with this answer or that.

Earth to Al Gore: This turns people off.

[...]

But Mr. Gore seems to feel the need to pour it on—to offer not just his answer to a given question, but to show us everything he knows about the topic. He doesn't seem to realize that in the real world, people hate Eddie Haskell.

[...]

The vice president's boorishness gets in the way of his message and almost certainly pushes some voters into a more favorable view of Mr. Bush, who benefits from a more conversational tone and the demeanor of an ordinary guy.

Was that Herbert—or did Maureen Dowd write that? According to Herbert, Gore was condescending, supercilious, contemptuous, disdainful. He was smug and boorish—just as Kerry would turn out to be! By contrast, Bush was more of “an ordinary guy.” Incredibly, Herbert even said that Bush “did the best he could with this answer or that,” even though many of his statements and charges were grossly, baldly inaccurate. Eight years ago, Herbert was applying these RNC frameworks to the smug, supercilious Dem. Today, these same frameworks get applied to Obama—and to Herbert, it’s all about race.

He says this even as he says that discussions of race could doom Obama. But then, our side is almost impossibly feckless. It’s how John McCain could still win.