Midterm madness: Spokesman confirms obvious

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; 2:35 PM

The Democrats are in trouble this year. You know it, I know it, your Uncle Al knows it, your local bartender knows it. This is not the kind of state secret you need to hire a Russian spy to uncover.

So why was it big news in the political world when Robert Gibbs acknowledged it?

One theory: We've become so accustomed to political players insisting everything's fine when it's clearly not, to candidates proclaiming they can win when they're down 40 points, that a glimmer of candor is . . . somehow unsettling.

So when the White House spokesman declared on "Meet the Press" that "there is no doubt there are enough seats at play that could cause Republicans to gain control" of the House, you could hear pundits across America smacking their foreheads.

What was he thinking? Why did he do this? What does it all mean?

If that seems strange to you, remember that some in this gang are feverishly trying to handicap the 2012 presidential election before we've even gotten through the midterms.

The latest WP/ABC poll contains more bad news for the president's party, with Obama down to 43 percent approval and seven in 10 registered voters saying they have no confidence in either Democratic or Republican lawmakers. Although that might seem a bipartisan rejection, the reality is that more Dems will wind up being punished -- both because their party can be blamed for the mess in Washington and because plenty of marginal members were swept in during the 2006 and 2008 campaigns.

If unemployment were 7 percent instead of 9.5, those numbers would look very different. (In this CBS poll, 52 percent say Obama "has spent too little time dealing with the economy.") But that's life when you're president. The oil spill isn't helping, either.

Thirty-nine House seats is an awful lot to win. Even in a favorable political environment, the Republicans may well fall short.

So was the acknowledgment a calculated strategy on Gibbs's part? One reason I don't think so: David Axelrod was on three other Sunday shows -- in fact, I ran into him at CNN and we talked about LeBron -- and he made no such comments. If there had been a concerted White House effort to peddle this message, both officials would have been reading from the same script.

Not that this has stopped everyone from reading the tea leaves. In Slate, John Dickerson examines the angles:

"Did Gibbs let slip one of those truths that everyone in Washington knows but that as the president's spokesman is not supposed to admit? No. He merely articulated the White House political strategy. . . .

"In a campaign where neither party benefits much from positive messages and where the Democratic base is dispirited and less enthusiastic than its counterparts, fear is the best motivator. Since Sarah Palin isn't running for anything this time around, the best specter the president has to conjure is Republicans in control of Congress. . . .

"Gibbs was also trying to set expectations. Obama's party is on track to lose in the midterms. If Gibbs and fellow Democrats can make retaking Congress the standard by which Republican gains are judged, they shape the coverage of election night. If Republicans win big but don't take control of Congress, reporters might write fewer words about how the loss was a huge defeat for the president."

That last point is a good one. On the other hand, fewer votes is fewer votes when it comes to pushing the Obama agenda in the second half of his term.

Politico accuses the press secretary of friendly fire:

"Robert Gibbs says he merely 'stated the obvious' in predicting Republicans could win control of the House in November.

"But Democratic strategists are privately grumbling that the White House press secretary gift-wrapped a bludgeon and handed it to the GOP. 'It was the dumbest thing in the world to do,' one major Democratic money-bundler told POLITICO. 'Barack Obama doesn't understand this [election] is a referendum on his agenda.'

"Gibbs' perhaps too-candid remarks about losing the House has exacerbated Democratic anxieties about the prospect of fighting a political war on two fronts, against Republicans and their own White House."

But was Gibbs telling the Republicans anything they don't know?

Palin power

By raising $865,000 in the past quarter, Sarah Palin has set off a new round of chatter about whether she's eyeing the White House. Atlantic's Marc Ambinder lists the things she's doing right if that is her goal, as well as wrong:

"She hasn't been recruiting fundraisers, or staff members, or activists. Her inner circle could fit in a Federation runabout. A successful presidential candidate needs fundraisers, staffers, and activists. Then again, Barack Obama had almost no one manning his presidential aspirations at this point in 2006 even as his opponents prepared conventional campaigns. . . . Palin is not establishing the relationships she would need to establish in order to build political campaigns in these early states. That means that she might be attempting a different type of campaign, or that she has been given bad advice, or that she won't run at all.

"She hasn't been extending her brand. Republicans believe that Palin lacks the substantive chops to be president. This is not a creation of the lamestream media, even though the media's 2008 coverage may have amplified those doubts. Palin's friends who regularly Tweet about her doings seem to dismiss these complaints (that she isn't smart enough, isn't ready, isn't developing policy chops) as stupid and uninformed. . . .

"Can she survive a month of campaigning in Iowa? Already, some wags compare Palin to Rudy Giuliani -- she breezes in on her schedule, doesn't bother with local customs, and does her own thing, aloof to local media and consequences."

At Real Clear Politics, former Fox News political analyst John Ellis sees Palin as a juggernaut, even though the establishment thinks she's a "ditz":

"The basic math is simple. If she gets half of the female primary voters and caucus attenders to support her, then she standing starts at roughly 25% of the total vote. Throw in a third of the male vote and she's at roughly 40%. Forty percent wins the Iowa caucuses, handily. . . .

"The fact is that the Republican Party of 2012 is not going to nominate a Mormon as its standard bearer. And the more important fact is that the base of the Republican Party doesn't just favor Sarah Palin, they love her. She is their standard bearer. And they will not -- this time around -- be denied. . . .

"By the time the Establishment GOP wakes up to this reality, it may be too late for them to do anything about it. Their view of Palin is that she's useful to the party because she can help keep 'the Tea Party types inside the tent.' And maybe she can serve coffee while she's at it. . . .

"What this means is two things: (1) the pressure on former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to run for the GOP presidential nomination will increase as the year moves along, and (2) the likelihood of a strong independent party candidacy increases as Palin's support within the GOP broadens. Oh, and it also means one other thing: President Obama is not doomed."

Ellis, you may recall, is a cousin of Jeb and George W.

Denial mode

The New York Times got hold of some memos about troubling test results for the diabetes drug Avandia: " 'This was done for the U.S. business, way under the radar,' Dr. Martin I. Freed, a SmithKline executive, wrote in an e-mail message dated March 29, 2001, about the study results that was obtained by The Times. 'Per Sr. Mgmt request, these data should not see the light of day to anyone outside of GSK,' the corporate successor to SmithKline."

Want more? "Dr. Freed responded in an e-mail message dated July 20, 2001, that referred to Avandia by the abbreviation of its generic name, rosiglitazone: 'Rhona -- Not a chance. These put Avandia in quite a negative light when folks look at the response of the RSG monotherapy arm," the message said. "It is a difficult story to tell and we would hope that these do not see the light of day.' "

So what's the company's spin today? "Mary Anne Rhyne, a GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman, said that the company had not provided the results of its study because they 'did not contribute any significant new information.' "

Right. Does that sound true to you?

Kiss it goodbye

"In a sharp rebuke of the Bush-era crackdown on foul language on broadcast television and radio," the L.A. Times reports, "a federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down the government's near-zero-tolerance indecency policy as a violation of the 1st Amendment protection of free speech."

What the #%&&*!!

Fair and balanced

Remember this the next time you see him offering "analysis" on Fox:

"Dick Morris, the former political adviser to President Bill Clinton who turned his back on Democrats and embraced conservatives, is raising money for Republican Sharron Angle's Senate bid."

I don't think any of the cable news channels, including CNN, should allow their contributors to do this.


"Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana says he supports conservative organizations challenging President Barack Obama's citizenship in court."

Well, that's one way to get the focus off being involved with the D.C. Madam.

The new King

It's almost a done deal: "CNN wants Piers Morgan to be its new man at 9 p.m., and is working to clear one final hurdle -- an existing contract -- before finalizing the move, TheWrap has learned.

"An individual familiar with talks between the British journalist and the cable new network told TheWrap that they are in final stages. Both sides are eager to make it work, but getting Morgan out of one of his current commitments is the last remaining roadblock, the person said. Morgan appears as a judge on 'Britain's Got Talent' and 'America's Got Talent,' both FremantleMedia shows. 'America's Got Talent' airs on NBC. Morgan also writes for the Daily Mail and stars in specials on British television."

Mort backs off

After claiming on Fox News that he'd helped write a speech for President Obama, Mort Zuckerman offered this clarification: "Over the years I have been asked by various public officials, including those in Washington, for my perspectives and views on numerous issues." No details, no explanation of which speech he was talking about, no comment from the White House. Still a mystery.

Anderson's award

I think Anderson Cooper has been dogged in his reporting from Haiti (and the Gulf), but St. Petersburg Times columnist Eric Deggans raises an interesting point:

"The hope of CNN's future explained his decision to accept an award from the government of Haiti Monday this way, according to the Associated Press:

" 'I thought a long time about not accepting it,' anchor Anderson Cooper said, after accepting a medal and certificate from a Haitian president fending off criticism that not enough has been done to rebuild the country since the devastating earthquake six months ago. 'We finally came to the opinion that it was recognition by the country for all journalists,' he told the AP. 'I don't think this in any way impacts the desire or willingness to be critical of the government.'

"Perhaps not. But it does put a question on the table again about Cooper's reporting style, which has become a kind of misery advocacy that can veer too much about promoting his own brand as a reporter for comfort. . . .

"In a space where the line between journalist and advocate is blurrier than ever, it might have made a much stronger statement for him to decline the award and stand in the press gallery with everyone else covering the event."

But don't journalists accept awards from presidents? The government isn't bestowing them, but presidents hand them out at the White House Correspondents Dinner and elsewhere.

Mel's rage

I found no reference to Mel Gibson in the news columns of the New York Times and Washington Post. How can that be? One of the most famous stars in Hollywood is caught on tape in an abusive, racist, threatening conversation with a girlfriend whose teeth he has already damaged, and it doesn't qualify as "real" news? This is not something being claimed by sources; that's his voice on those horrifying audiotapes. (Here's the latest one, Part 3, which includes his reference to "wetbacks.")

Mel has few friends these days, says the Daily Beast's Rebecca Dana:

"Conservative pundits and evangelical Christian leaders have always been Mel Gibson's biggest apologists and fans. For the first time ever, after the release of two damning tapes in which the blue-eyed misanthrope threatens violence against the mother of his child, they are now, uniformly, silent.

"Where is Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who gave a full-throated defense of Gibson after his spitting anti-Semitic tirade at Los Angeles cops in 2006?. . . .

"A spokeswoman for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network said she had no idea if Robertson, who called The Passion of The Christ a 'deeply personal film,' would ever be in a position to comment on Gibson's latest scandal. . . .

"Those who were willing to forgive Gibson's past trespasses have been largely quiet in this scandal so far. Just one--conservative blogger Doug Powers, writing on Michelle Malkin's website--offered a tepid objection, blasting William Morris Endeavor for dropping Gibson 'because he used the 'N-word' in an unhinged privately recorded rant,' while keeping as clients a host of hip hop stars, including Mary J. Blige."

Blogger Keli Goff wonders whether we're focused on the wrong thing:

"Here's my question, 'What is it that's really finished off Gibson's career?' Because the timeline of events media headlines used in other comparable cases from Roman Polanski to Chris Brown seem to indicate that allegations of assaulting a woman, or in Polanski's case a girl, (even with supporting evidence or a conviction) are not enough to permanently knock someone off of a pop cultural pedestal. . . .

"In Gibson's case it appears that everyone was so focused on not approving of his so-called 'golddigging' girlfriend, (whom Gibson accused of extortion) that whether or not he knocked her teeth loose became secondary to whether or not she was trying to possibly turn his knocking her teeth loose to her financial advantage. But the most telling clue regarding where our priorities lie, is that the majority of headlines chronicling Gibson's downfall in recent weeks, (from major publications to small blogs) highlight Gibson's alleged use of the N-word on tape. Overlooked is the fact that he appears to be terrorizing a woman with an infant on tape."

It says something about these tapes that the racial and ethnic epithets are not the most revolting part.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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