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Ready for a New Party-in-Trouble

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."

Mark Halperin, ABC's political director, says all the data suggest a good year for Democrats. "I don't think there's anything wrong with reporting the reality of what's going on," he says. Most revealing, he says, are "Republican sources who say, 'We're going to lose a lot of seats and, if nothing changes, we will lose the House and maybe the Senate.' "

Conservative commentators and radio hosts usually provide a cheering section for Republicans, but a striking number say the GOP should be punished this year for straying from conservative principles. Some, like Christopher Buckley and Jonah Goldberg, have said the Republicans deserve to lose the House. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com says the GOP seems to have a "bizarre death wish." George Will calls it "disgusting" that the White House refuses to acknowledge the depth of the fiasco in Iraq. Andrew Sullivan says he feels "betrayed" by the administration's botching of the war and the use of torture against terrorism suspects. Others have complained about overspending and the mishandling of the Foley debacle.

The press has treated all this as a leading indicator that the Republican base is downcast and disillusioned.

If the Democrats prevail tomorrow, journalists will be feasting on new story lines and subplots for the next two years. And if the Democrats fall short after this huge media buildup, some folks are going to have a whole lot of explaining to do.

Life After Birth

For a brief time last spring, Elizabeth Vargas, pregnant and under pressure from her bosses, became a rallying point for feminists when she stepped down as co-anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight."

Two and a half months after giving birth to her second child, Samuel, Vargas returns to full-time duty at "20/20" this week with a segment on the plight of working mothers, beginning with herself.

"A lot of us -- me, most of all -- were surprised by the amount of press in the aftermath" of her job change, Vargas says in an interview that had to be moved up because of her breast-feeding schedule. And she is training the spotlight on a difficult period in her life. "It's inherently uncomfortable for me to be the subject of the story," Vargas says.

Women's organizations sent protest letters to ABC after Vargas was eased out in favor of Charlie Gibson. Now, says Vargas, who also has a 3-year-old with her husband, singer Marc Cohn, "having had the baby, I can't imagine going back to that demanding job right now."

For the "20/20" piece airing Friday, Vargas examines the lives of three working women with children, interviews politicians and serves up a slew of statistics on the problems faced by working mothers. As an example of public attitudes, she cites a Cornell University survey of undergraduates who said that if they were employers, they would offer women with children $11,000 a year less in salary than childless women, and be 44 percent less likely to hire those with kids.

"There is still in this country real discrimination against working mothers," Vargas says.

She also reports that the United States is one of five countries, out of 168, that do not mandate paid maternity leave. "North Korea and Iran offer more benefits," Vargas says.

If it sounds like she's become an advocate on the issue, she doesn't dispute that. "I have a strong point of view on it, yes, because of what I've been through," says Vargas.

She says she was drawn to the subject because "women talk about this everywhere I go. My friends at work talk about it." Men, too: Her producer on the segment, a divorced father, sometimes has to rush home from the office.

"I know I'm very, very lucky," Vargas says. "I have a job with a lot of flexibility. I am well compensated for it. And I can afford good child care." She still hopes to return to news anchoring -- but not for a while.

Nom de Plume

Did President Bush fritter away a $5.6 trillion surplus? "Is Bush truly the culprit?" asks economist J. Edward Carter on National Review Online. No, he concludes, the projections were always fictional.

But the writer was quickly unmasked, by Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum, as James E. Carter, a Labor Department undersecretary and presidential appointee.

NRO Editor Kathryn Jean Lopez says the Web site mistakenly assumed that Carter had left the administration: "As a practice, we don't publish pieces from people who work in government without disclosing it. We were remiss here and apologize to our readers."

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