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Ready for a New Party-in-Trouble

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006

After a media drumbeat that has grown louder for months, the only big news tomorrow night will be if the Democrats don't capture at least one house of Congress.

Day after day, from the endless opinion polls to the features on Nancy Pelosi contemplating life as House speaker, news organizations have framed the midterm elections as a season in which the Republicans are probably, most likely, almost certainly heading for big-time defeat.

And, in truth, many journalists are probably rooting for a Democratic House.

But not for the reason you might think.

After six years of almost uninterrupted GOP control of Washington, divided government would produce what reporters like best: conflict. A spate of investigations and subpoenas of the Bush White House, led by such new committee chairmen as John Dingell, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank and Charlie Rangel, would liven things up for the capital's chroniclers. Even the mundane prospect of the Democrats being able to bring their preferred legislation to the floor -- though most bills might never make it past the president's veto pen -- would give journalists a new script. Divided government may or may not be good for the country, but it's great for the Fourth Estate.

In retrospect, the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 was a godsend for journalism. The rise of Newt Gingrich, the government shutdowns, the Whitewater investigations, the Monica investigations, the overwhelmingly party-line vote to impeach Bill Clinton, all fueled thousands of stories about scandal and showdowns that boosted ratings and book sales.

One-party rule is, let's face it, rather predictable, especially with a Republican Congress that has basically gotten out of the oversight business during the Bush presidency.

As the 1994 elections approached, news organizations said the Republicans had a strong chance to win the Senate and at least a shot at taking over the House, based largely on polls that forecast GOP gains but greatly underestimated the size of the political wave. In fact, a Washington Post/ABC poll showed the Democrats with a three-point edge in congressional voting while a CBS/New York Times survey gave Republicans a four-point lead.

This time around, media outlets for months have been all but predicting a Democratic takeover of at least the House. This has been apparent in such newspaper headlines as "Open Seats Lift Democratic Hopes in the House" (New York Times); "Democrats, on the Offensive, Could Gain Both Houses" (Washington Post ) and "Democrats Find Control of Congress Within Their Grasp" (Los Angeles Times). In recent weeks, ABC's Charlie Gibson has told viewers that "if today's polls hold, this could be a tough year for Republicans." CBS's Katie Couric has talked about the focus "shifting to the Senate" amid "growing concern among Republicans they could lose their majority in that chamber as well." NBC's Brian Williams led one broadcast by saying, "Not much good news for the Republicans tonight in our new NBC News poll. Can they hold on to power?"

There surely may be some instances of liberal bias. Maybe the press made too much of Sen. George Allen's "macaca" moment, or wallowed too long in the finger-pointing fallout from the Mark Foley page scandal. At the same time, the press can't very well ignore the rising death toll in Iraq, which is also being cast as bad news for President Bush and his party.

But much of the handicapping is poll-driven. Media surveys have shown Bush's popularity consistently below 40 percent and voters favoring the Democratic Party in the midterms by as much as a 19-point margin. Polling cannot measure turnout, and many people disgusted by Congress still vote for their own lawmakers. But polls are like crack for journalists, who have grown addicted to the GOP-in-trouble narrative.

"If you mention something enough times, you make it seem as if it must be so," says NBC's Williams. But, he says, "if the media are guilty of beating the Democratic House takeover drums, the media share that guilt with prominent Democrats, who in on- and off-the-record settings have indeed been all but measuring the drapes."


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