By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008 10:17 AM
Barack Obama has a problem: He's going to sweep so many Democrats into Congress that he will "face high expectations," as the New York Times put it, to deliver on his promises.
Obama will attempt to fashion a "new New Deal," most likely with Larry Summers as his Treasury secretary, New York magazine says.
"John McCain's defeat will be a lonely one," Newsweek reports, but Sarah Palin could revive the Republican Party for 2012.
So much for the formality of next week's election. Many pundits and publications seem so certain of a big Democratic win that they're exploring the intricacies of an Obama administration and whether the party will have a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.
"If the mainstream media are wrong about Obama and the voters pull a Truman, that is going to be the end of whatever shred of credibility they have left," says Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's College of Communication.
Cokie Roberts says she resisted a request to talk about Palin and the GOP's future on National Public Radio yesterday because it was premature. For journalists, she says, "you're kind of at the point where you've said everything there is to say. We've gone through the voter groups, the issues, the running mates, the profiles of the spouses. Now you get to the last week, the polls don't seem to be budging, and it becomes: 'What else am I going to talk about?' "
If, as a former McCain strategist put it to Politico, "the cake is baked" for his man's defeat, it's fair to ask whether the media have provided the flour, the frosting and the candles.
To be sure, the forward-looking pieces in the Times, New York magazine, Newsweek and elsewhere are sprinkled with caveats about "if" Obama wins and the "possibility" of a Democratic sweep. But the lack of similar speculation about a McCain administration makes clear which way the journalism world is leaning.
"Everyone wants to be the first to call it, to see the next thing around the corner," says Slate correspondent John Dickerson.
Given mounting signs of the Democratic nominee's strength in key battleground states, he says, "we're not crazy to think it's all going Obama's way." But, Dickerson says, "we've seen how this can go horribly wrong when you call the thing too early, and voters find it offensive when journalists skip over the event the voters are supposed to be taking part in."
Reporters and commentators invariably point to polls that have given Obama a comfortable lead nationwide and in such previously red states as Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire.
But there has been great variation in the plethora of polls financed by media organizations, and several have been tightening. A Washington Post-ABC tracking poll yesterday had Obama ahead by seven percentage points, down from an 11-point margin one week ago. The latest Rasmussen and Zogby surveys give Obama a five-point edge.
"The media still misunderstand and, to a great degree, still misrepresent polls," veteran pollster John Zogby says. "It's a cliche, but what we offer is a snapshot in time. We don't predict, can't predict." He says the greatest differences among pollsters is the way they select and weight their voter samples. Zogby, for instance, reports figures only for likely voters -- which requires projections based on turnout models -- while others include all registered voters or all adults.
Polls have led journalists astray before. As recently as the middle of last December, Hillary Clinton led Obama by 30 points in a Post poll, while Rudy Giuliani was the GOP front-runner. Weeks later, the polls led many pundits to predict that Clinton would lose the New Hampshire primary, which would leave the former first lady's campaign "gasping for breath," as The Post put it on the morning of the primary. Clinton won and revived her candidacy.
Pack journalism also plays a role. When McCain ran into fundraising and staffing problems in the summer of 2007, virtually the entire press corps agreed that his chances of winning the GOP nomination were nil.
Critics, including many conservatives, say the media have been too easy on Obama, and bias cannot be discounted as a factor. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that from the end of the conventions through the debates, McCain's coverage was more than three times as negative than Obama's.
Journalists say it would be a disservice to readers and viewers to ignore, in the name of balance, the trends that prompted even former White House aide Karl Rove to declare Sunday on Fox News that McCain has "got a very steep hill to climb."
"The Republican nominee's path to the presidency is now extremely precarious and may depend on something unexpected taking control of a contest that appears to have swung hard toward Barack Obama," Dan Balz wrote in The Post on Friday.
The Boston Globe's Scott Helman reported Sunday that "there is an unmistakable sense among Obama's aides, many supporters, pundits, and people around the nation that, barring something dramatic, he will be the 44th president of the United States," but quickly questioned whether "the flock of polls that show Obama well ahead [are] simply wrong, as polls sometimes are." In the Times, Adam Nagourney took pains to note last week that McCain's aides, "as well as some outside Republicans and even a few Democrats, argue that he still has a viable path to victory."
The punditry about Palin also sends a not-so-subtle signal. New Republic columnists have been arguing about whether the Alaska governor will win the GOP nomination in 2012. Others in the media have given a megaphone to unnamed sources to attack or defend Palin without having their names attached. Politico quoted an unnamed Palin ally as saying that she feels "completely mismanaged and mishandled and ill-advised" by campaign officials. CNN quoted an unnamed McCain adviser as calling Palin a "diva." The underlying assumption is that blame must be parceled out for the ticket's defeat next week.
Still, cautionary tales abound. On the eve of the 2004 election, Zogby predicted that John Kerry would beat President Bush, a move he now attributes to "hubris and naivete."
After Bush won, Zogby says, "I wasn't in a fetal position, but I vowed I wouldn't do that again. And I haven't."
Footnote: The Boston Globe examines why various pollsters are all over the place.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are practically in a state of civil war. On the Daily Beast, Mark McKinnon, the Democrat-turned-McCain adviser who quit rather than help run a campaign against Obama, wants an end to the circular firing squad:
"The bloody harpooning of the McCain campaign has begun: 'Why didn't they let McCain be McCain?' 'The campaign was all tactics and no strategy.' 'The Palin pick was a disaster.' 'The message was unfocused and campaign poorly executed.' 'Why haven't they produced ads attacking Jeremiah Wright?' 'The campaign isn't positive enough.' 'The campaign isn't negative enough.'
"Of course almost all the shots come from consultants and hacks who didn't get hired, or were fired by the McCain campaign. Or were part of some past presidential campaign in which they still revel in the glory and clink toasts to one another as if they cured the measles. Many of these people, who profess to 'love McCain,' are firing blistering shots at the campaign through the press, which serves only one purpose. And it ain't to help McCain . . .
"Only nine percent of respondents think the country is headed in the right direction . . . So, by this measure, John McCain should be polling at about nine percent. And yet, Schmidt and company ran a good enough campaign that McCain went into the Republican Convention tied. And came out of it ahead. The only real surprise in this race is that it was ever close."
Ex-GOP operative Patrick Ruffini has a similar message for all the finger-pointers:
"There is nothing to be gained by second-guessing the McCain strategy at this point. In ten days, we'll get to have a discussion about where we go next -- about Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Eric Cantor . . .
"What is striking about 2008 is how little the campaigns have mattered in comparison to the fundamental nature of the two men running.
"Nothing the McCain campaign did could change the reality of McCain the candidate's poor management instincts and his tendency to fidget around and not stay on message. When the economic crisis hit, this reality flew in the face of the McCain campaign's message of steadiness versus inexperience. Whether by design or the candidate's nature, Obama's caution and deliberation was a living, breathing talking point against the experience card.
"Likewise, I think it will be said that the McCain campaign has yet to really lay a glove on Obama character-wise because Obama himself simply does not project the cloying, insecure, effete tendencies of past nominees like Gore and Kerry, though the only two times he's come close (Wright and bitter/cling) have barely figured in the general election campaign."
At the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol wants it known that he's going down with the ship, if indeed it is sinking:
"We hope for a McCain-Palin victory, for the sake of the country. And also for the pleasure of seeing the dejection of the mainstream media, the incredulity of the leftwing triumphalists, and the humiliation of the pathetically opportunistic 'conservatives' who've been desperately clambering on board the Obama juggernaut. We're proud to stay off that juggernaut. We're proud, in our modest way, to stand with John McCain and Sarah Palin against it.
"An Obama-Biden administration -- working with a Democratic Congress -- would mean a more debilitating nanny state at home and a weaker nation facing our enemies abroad. We, of course, have confidence that the nation would survive such an interlude, and we would even hope that a President Obama might adjust course from the path he's advertised, especially in foreign policy. But the risk of real damage is great, especially when compared with the prospect of a tough-minded center-right McCain-Palin administration that could lead the country sensibly through these difficult times.
"Reading the endorsements of Obama in the liberal media should strengthen the determination of all believers in American self-government and greatness to fight this election campaign to the end."
Now we've gone beyond predicting defeat for McCain to predicting bad things in the Obama administration.
The usual post-election chatter -- who's getting what job? -- is fully underway, as we see in this Politico piece:
"No subject is more avidly considered in the corridors of Democratic power than the future role of his chief adviser, political consultant David Axelrod. Democrats who know the Chicago-based political consultant, the key architect of Obama's campaign and of his public image, say Axelrod has signaled that he'll seriously consider taking on a job in the administration.
"That decision would be a central choice in shaping an Obama White House, and determining the relationship between his style of governance and political strategy. 'I think he'll do it,' said James Carville, Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign manager, who never joined that administration."
Marc Ambinder even has a job-by-job rundown for the president who hasn't been elected yet.
More on Palin supposedly going rogue, from the New Republic's Eve Fairbanks:
"Palin's Tampa rally Sunday kicked off with an extended, sarcastic, eye-rolling diss at the $150,000 wardrobe supposedly foisted on her by others, particularly -- and this is important -- the evil RNC. 'I grabbed a jacket this morning -- my own jacket,' she told the whooping crowd. 'Away from the filter of the media, I get to tell you the whole clothes thing. Those clothes, they are not my property. They're like the lighting and the stage, like everything else the RNC purchased.' She then went on to proudly show off her earrings from First Dude Todd's Eskimo mom and '$35 wedding ring from Hawaii that I bought myself.'
"On the one hand, the 'evil bureaucratic RNC made her do it' storyline is probably the least damaging way Team McCain can finesse the Palin wardrobe debacle, so it's not altogether a digression that only benefits Palin and not McCain.
"But you can see Palin's post-November-4 narrative beginning to take shape: The Republican party structure is irretrievably broken, as evidenced by the '08 blowout and poignantly symbolized by the RNC's wasteful, politically tone-deaf Neiman Marcus shopping spree. But Palin, the breath of fresh air from Alaska, rolls her eyes at the old rules, disdains all the ossified ways of doing things, etc. etc."
Sean Hannity didn't ask about that last night in his fourth interview with Palin, and her daughter, on the trail, plus Sarah cheerleader Elizabeth Hasselback.
Would McCain be in better shape if he hadn't picked Palin? Adam Nagourney concludes the answer is yes.
The L.A. Times ran a story last April about a 2003 party at which Obama said nice things about Palestinian rights advocate and Israel critic Rashid Khalidi, who he said reminds him "of my own blind spots and my own biases. . . . It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation -- a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table [but around] this entire world."
The McCain camp tells me the paper refused to release a videotape of the remarks that it had obtained. Little Green Footballs calls that "media malfeasance of an almost astounding degree. They have a video that could change the stakes in this election and they're hiding it."
"We're not a video service," Doyle McManus, the Times Washington bureau chief, tells me. "We're not suppressing anything. We were the first to report on these facts." He declines to say whether the paper considered posting the video.
Drudge goes big with this headline: "2001 Obama: Tragedy That 'Redistribution Of Wealth' Not Pursued By Supreme Court." McCain picks up the charge about the seven-year-old Obama radio interview. But Andrew Sullivan reports: "Here's what it's based on: the 'tragedy,' in Obama's telling, is that the civil rights movement was too court-focused. He was making a case against using courts to implement broad social goals -- which is, last time I checked, the conservative position." He's got the full quote.
I got a message from Ralph Nader yesterday, complaining about the virtual media blackout of his candidacy. "It's pretty extraordinary, even in a two-party duopoly, to have this kind of witting or unwitting political bigotry," he said.
Nader deserved the coverage he got in 2000, when he was a factor. Perhaps he deserved a bit more earlier in this campaign, in which he's not much of a factor. But in the final stretch, it makes perfect sense that the media would focus on the two men who could be the next president.
Still, in honor of Ralph, here's a new piece in the Nation:
"Ralph Nader is a man of political substance trapped in an era of easy lies. He pierces the fog of propaganda with hard facts and reason, but the smoke rolls over him and he disappears from public view. A lesser man might go crazy or get the message and give it up. Nader instead runs for president again, as he is doing this year, campaigning in fifty states and addressing crowds wherever he finds them, smaller crowds this time but still eager to feed on his idealism. Ralph is not delusional. He knows the story. He is stubborn about the facts and honest with himself."
Christopher Buckley goes after Rush Limbaugh, and finishes with this flourish:
"Let me add a personal, affectionately-intended note: Rush, I knew William F. Buckley, Jr. William F. Buckley, Jr. was a father of mine. Rush, you're no William F. Buckley, Jr."
Finally, I didn't name Naftali Bendavid, the latest departing Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, in yesterday's column, but an editor inserted Benvadid's name and depicted he as a she. My apologies, sir.