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Rotten Apple coverage

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009 9:19 AM

How exactly did the New York press miss the fact that the extravagantly financed Michael Bloomberg express almost got derailed?

Local news organizations didn't take the race all that seriously. Nor did many national reporters shuttle in to offer their take. Everyone knew that the mayor would cruise to a third term and that his Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson, was a mere sacrificial lamb.

After all, the zillionaire mayor spent about $90 million to win a third term, and Thompson about $6 million. A Marist poll days ago had Bloomberg ahead by 15 points. He was blanketing the airwaves. And those are the factors that journalists obsess over -- money, polls and ads.

And yet the race was tight enough that MSNBC had to pull back its projection of a Bloomberg victory Tuesday night. The mayor won by 5 points, which ain't chopped liver, but it was the hardly the blowout the media establishment had been expecting.

Turns out that many New Yorkers were torqued off about the way that Bloomberg flipped on term limits and then muscled through a law allowing him to run again. Combine that with the appearance that the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned independent was buying the race, along with a somewhat chilly style, and you've got a competitive contest.

Sure, the New York media reported that some folks were disgruntled by the self-serving trashing of term limits. But that was portrayed more as a minor irritant. There was an obligatory quality to the stories about Thompson, the city's comptroller, as if no one had to really contend with the notion that he might pull off an upset.

The general consensus in the Apple is that Bloomberg, who took office after 9/11 and really struggled for his first two years, has done a pretty good job. But for a guy who rode a wave of media hype about a possible independent bid for president, to barely clear 50 percent against an underfunded challenger is something of a comedown.

What the press generally does in cases like this is adopt a no-one-could-have-seen-this-coming tone, such as the New York Times reporting Wednesday that "the margin seemed to startle Mr. Bloomberg's aides and the city's political establishment." But not the New York Times?

Times columnist David Carr acknowledges the media's shortcoming and, in a broader sense, complicity with the mayor:

"Most of the media covering the race thought a Bloomberg victory was foregone and covered it as such. . . . All of the media outlets in town lined up early for Mr. Bloomberg. Recall that a little over a year ago, before Mr. Bloomberg decided to try to overturn term limits, he first visited with the publishers of The New York Daily News, The New York Post, and The New York Times. With Wall Street in full meltdown in a way that seemed to threaten the financial underpinnings of the city, publishers quickly signed off on a third term attempt for Bloomberg, figuring if the voters didn't like it, they could say so in the voting booth."

And many of them did.

Now it's finger-pointing time: "This was a race most Democrats now believe they could have won. Numbering among the co-conspirators in the Democrats' defeat, in the view of some party leaders and activists, are Democratic grandees, from President Obama -- who did not campaign for Mr. Thompson -- to the City Council speaker, whose support could not have been softer, to two powerful labor unions that remained studiously neutral."

Bloomy's lucky in one regard. As of last night, everyone in New York is thinking about the Yankees' first World Series victory in nine years, and no one is thinking about him.

Aftershocks

You can hardly blame conservatives for cheering Tuesday's results, one year after the Obama victory deprived them of their last power base in Washington. It may have been a rinky-dink election night, but this sort of thing is good for morale. Fred Barnes sees blue skies ahead:

"By electing governors of Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans have demonstrated that two trends suggested in recent opinion polls are for real. The first is that Republicans have pulled off a remarkable comeback after disastrous election defeats in 2006 and 2008. The second is that they now have a realistic shot at capturing the House and gaining Senate seats in the 2010 midterm election.

"The stunning success in Virginia and New Jersey was strikingly similar to Republican victories for governor in those states in 1993. Indeed, the margins of victory -- an 18-point landslide in Virginia, a narrow win in New Jersey -- were almost identical to the margins in 1993."

Of course, the Democrats won those states in 2001 -- and proceeded to lose seats in Congress the following year. Your mileage may vary.

Rich Lowry implicitly blames the president and his party:

"If you're a Republican campaign official, you have to be thinking tonight, please, Democrats, keep doing what you're doing. Please, keep governing like you can't pile up enough debt fast enough. Please, keep exposing Obama's faux moderation from the 2008 campaign for what it was. Please, keep trying to jam through an unpopular, utterly unwieldy health-care bill sold on serial dishonesties. Please, keep dismissing your opposition as irrational and illegitimate. Please, keep up with the prickly arrogance. Please, keep sweeping Democratic ethics problems in Congress under the rug, making a mockery of your talk of reform. Please, keep piling on the initiatives to increase the middle-class cost-of-living, with huge, broad-based tax increases inevitably to come. Please, keep focusing on health care and global warming when what people care about most is jobs."

From the left, Kos attributes the losses to waning enthusiasm among Democratic activists:

"This is a base problem, and this is what Democrats better take from [it]:

"1. If you abandon Democratic principles in a bid for unnecessary 'bipartisanship', you will lose votes.

"2. If you water down reform in favor of Blue Dogs and their corporate benefactors, you will lose votes.

"3. If you forget why you were elected -- health care, financial services, energy policy and immigration reform -- you will lose votes. . . .

"We're not going to turn out just because you have a (D) next to your name, or because Obama tells us to."

Politico is firmly in the big-deal camp:

"Eager to drain the 2009 elections of drama and import, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs claimed Tuesday night that President Barack Obama was 'not watching returns.'

"You can be sure that he is studying them closely now: The off-year elections were, in two big races, an unmistakable rebuke of Democrats, reshuffling Obama's political circumstances in ways likely to have severe near-term consequences for his policy agenda and larger governing strategy.

"Independents took flight from Democrats. They suffered humiliating gubernatorial losses in traditionally Democratic New Jersey, where Obama lent his prestige in a pair of eleventh-hour campaign rallies Sunday, and in Virginia, which had been trending leftward and just last year was held up as an example of how Obama was redrawing the political map in his favor."

Time's Karen Tumulty, by contrast, is in the small-deal camp:

"Larger lessons? It's always dangerous to see too big a trend in off-year elections. But there might be one for Democrats: You are on your own. Barack Obama's popularity--or his political operation--do not transfer when he is not on the ballot. This election could make Democrats more attuned to the political rhythms of their home states, and less willing to take risks."

In the New Republic, John Judis focuses on the lack of liberal passion:

"There is a dog-that-didn't-bark factor that affects all these races. In 1982, the Republicans under Ronald Reagan suffered relatively small losses in the congressional races partly because Reagan continued to energize the Republican base. In Virginia and elsewhere, Obama doesn't seem to have energized the Democratic base. In the PPP polls in Virginia right before the election, only 38 percent of Democrats said they were 'very excited' about the election compared to 64 percent of Republicans."

At Politics Daily, Walter Shapiro follows the money -- the candidates' money:

"For all the glib television talk about a dramatic GOP resurgence ('If you're a blue-state Democrat, the Virginia results must scare the heck out of you,' Karl Rove declared on Fox News), the Democrats did win the only vigorously contested congressional race on Tuesday's ballot. . . .

"The lasting political lesson from Tuesday night may have nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to do with Congress, Obama's political future or Democrats vs. Republicans. The little-noticed message buried in the returns was the dramatic collapse of mega-rich self-funded candidates, which may signal a populist protest against the era of political excess. . . .

"New York City's Mayor Mike Bloomberg -- the eighth-richest man in America who has 'invested' a quarter of a billion dollars on his political career since 2001 -- was almost universally expected to coast to a third term over his flailing Democratic rival, city comptroller Bill Thompson. . . . Bloomberg lavished more than $100 million on this campaign (about $200 a vote), which would have been enough to pay for a steak dinner for two (along with a modest bottle of red wine) at the Palm. Most New Yorkers probably would have preferred the dinner -- 42 percent of voters said in the exit polls that Bloomberg's spending was an 'important' factor in their mayoral choice.

"The downfall of [Jon] Corzine, a former investment banker who is the second-biggest (to Bloomberg) self-funder in American history, offers a cautionary tale about the limits of money and aggressive campaign tactics in politics."

Former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon has lived through this sort of media hype:

"The post-presidential election correction has officially kicked in. Barack Obama cannot translate his popularity to other Democrats when he's not on the ballot.

"The only absolute we can count on after Tuesday's elections is that the press will overinterpret the results. No matter that there are important nuances, local issues, unique circumstances, and dramatically varying quality of candidates, the media will default to the simplistic explanation.

"During President Bush's eight years as president, no matter where the election was, or what the circumstances were, and no matter how we tried to spin it, the results were always in some form or fashion a referendum on the president.

"And so it will be with President Obama. It ain't fair. But it's life in the big chair. And Team Obama knows it. That's why they tried to distance themselves from Creigh Deeds' campaign for governor in Virginia weeks before the election. It's pretty ugly when your campaign gets thrown under the bus by the sitting president of your party before voters have cast any votes. But Team Obama saw the writing on the wall in Virginia, and rather than stick it out until the end, they waved the white flag early in an effort to distance themselves from responsibility for the outcome."

That is true. And it didn't work. Obama got blamed anyway.

Anonymous Potshot

It drives me nuts when political hacks are allowed to denounce others from behind a curtain of anonymity, and Salon's Glenn Greenwald spotlights a classic example:

"From Ben Smith's Politico article on the surprisingly narrow victory by Michael Bloomberg in the New York mayoral race:

" 'Maybe one of those Corzine trips could have been better spent in New York. Who knows?' remarked New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who weighed his own run for mayor, referring to the White House's devout attention to the New Jersey contest.

" 'Maybe Anthony Weiner should have manned-up and run against Michael Bloomberg,' shot back a White House official, who attributed the night's results across the board to anti-incumbent fervor.

"A White House official who is too cowardly even to attach his own name to his comments -- who has to hide behind Politico's permanently extended fetal wall of anonymity in order to criticize a member of Congress -- simultaneously accuses Anthony Weiner of being a coward and failing to 'man-up.' I've written extensively on what the promiscuous use of anonymity says about Beltway journalism, but the unwillingness of so many of the most powerful political officials to speak for attribution reflects how deceitful, manipulative and -- most of all -- fearful they are.

"Beltway mavens love to deride 'bloggers' for writing anonymously, but at least even anonymous bloggers create pseudonyms that enable ongoing accountability; moreover, many of those anonymous bloggers are just ordinary citizens, with no power, who are too vulnerable to write under their real names. But powerful political officials who will spew insults and criticisms only while protected from accountability are just frightened and weak."

Late Returns from California

In case you were wondering:

"Carrie Prejean demanded more than a million dollars during her settlement negotiations with Miss California USA Pageant officials -- that is, until the lawyer for the Pageant showed Carrie an XXX home video of her handiwork.

"The video the lawyer showed Carrie is extremely graphic and has never been released publicly. We know that, because TMZ obtained the video months ago but decided not to post it because it was so racy. Let's just say, Carrie has a promising solo career."

Too racy for TMZ? Now that's saying something.

Another Doonesbury Diss

Having snarked about his CNN interview with me, Roland Hedley is going after other anchors as he flogs his book of collected tweets.

"About to be take softballs on 'Hardball'. Chris old bud, kids went to same prep school, so only brought B-game."

And:

"Cut Matthews new one. Actually thanked me. Interesting to see what makes it into show this afternoon."

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