The cover of the Washington Monthly asks the burning question: "WHAT IF HE WINS?"
The outcome remains in doubt, of course, but there are huge implications for the media -- especially its openly liberal branch -- if President Bush is reelected next week. Some are already using apocalyptic terms. The New Yorker is backing John Kerry today in the first endorsement in its 80-year history.
"There will be a period of grieving," says Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of the Nation. "We will continue to fight the good fight during what we think is the dismantling of our democracy."
But her liberal magazine has grown from 100,000 in circulation to 170,000 in the past four years. "Bush has been bad for the nation but good for the Nation," she admits.
From the 36-day recount through the Iraq war and beyond, George W. Bush has been at the center of the political and media universe. He's had a testy relationship with the establishment press: the fewest news conferences of any president in more than four decades, an administration that thrives on secrecy and a vice president who has denounced the New York Times and barred its reporters from Air Force Two. Not to mention a special prosecutor who is threatening to put reporters in jail in the Valerie Plame case.
It's no secret that many journalists feel burned by the administration's WMD claims during the run-up to war and that their coverage has gotten tougher over the past year. Will attitudes harden on both sides if they have to coexist for another four years?
"I think journalists will accept the judgment of the public and read the victory as an acceptance that the rules are now changed," says Washington Monthly Editor Paul Glastris, a former Clinton administration official. "The way they've been treated, the way the administration buries information and misrepresents almost anything they want to would just be an accepted fact of life. There will be a defining down of the acceptable standards of what government can do."
Here are what some liberals had to say in Glastris's magazine about a second Bush term:
CNN's Paul Begala: "He and his allies are likely to embark on a campaign of political retribution the likes of which we haven't seen since Richard Nixon."
Columbia's Todd Gitlin: "I would not be surprised to see outbursts of political violence the likes of which we haven't seen since the Weather Underground of the 1970s."
Harvard's Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton aide: "The beginning of the end of American greatness."
Blogger Kevin Drum: "One word: scandal."
Hyperbole, perhaps, but some on the right also see profound consequences. If Bush beats John Kerry and Republicans keep control of the Hill, writes conservative activist Grover Norquist, "the modern Democratic Party cannot survive."
It's hardly unusual for partisans to use tough language in a close campaign. But liberals have a way of talking about the president that fairly drips with disdain. If Bush wins, says Joe Conason, a columnist for Salon and the New York Observer, "I will be worried. I will be concerned for the world."
"Oh man," the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh said recently. "If he's reelected, we're really in trouble."
The New Yorker's editorial says Bush's record is "one of failure, arrogance" and "incompetence." A Nation editorial bemoans "the list of his mistakes, delusions, deceptions, follies, tragedies and crimes." A New Republic editorial accuses Bush of "ideological certainty untroubled by empirical evidence, intellectual curiosity, or open debate." This isn't patty-cake.
New Yorker Editor David Remnick says that he broke with tradition because "the magazine's not a museum; it's a living thing that evolves" and that he and his editors reached a consensus without consulting the owner. "I have no idea who Si Newhouse is voting for," Remnick says.
Part of the White House/Fourth Estate divide may be cultural. Although Bush bestowed nicknames on reporters during the 2000 campaign, he's made clear while in office that he doesn't need them. He's given few interviews other than to sympathetic hosts such as Bill O'Reilly or soft touches like Dr. Phil (though he appears with ABC's Charlie Gibson today). He says he doesn't read newspapers because he prefers "unfiltered" news from his staff. When Kerry invoked the press during the third debate, Bush shot back: "I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations," before stopping himself with a chortle.
But just as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News thrived during the Clinton years, the Bush era has given rise to liberal blogs, Air America Radio and a slew of Al Franken-like bestsellers. And Bush would remain a fabulous target for outraged liberals who might have to modulate their rhetoric during a Kerry presidency.
In a second term, writes Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff, "the take-it-on-the-chin liberal media, the imitate-the-conservative-media liberal media finds a subject -- bad Bush -- that can make it money as well as make it feel good about itself."
It's always possible that if Bush wins, the tensions between the two sides will fade with the campaign -- that is, if there's not another bitter recount.
"When the president is very popular, the press is less critical," Conason says. "I think he'll have a honeymoon for a while. He had a long one last time, even though he didn't win."
Has the press been unfair to President Bush? Thirty-seven percent of voters think so, while 27 percent find the media coverage unfair to John Kerry. And that is nearly double the number who found the press tilted against Al Gore four years ago.
Overall, half the voters surveyed by the Pew Research Center say most newspaper and TV reporters want Kerry to win, and 58 percent say their views color their coverage.
Partisan affiliation, not surprisingly, plays a major role. More than half the Republicans surveyed, for example, see an anti-Bush bias in the press. Only a quarter of Democrats see a slant against Kerry.
Media preferences are also a key factor in these judgments. Forty-six percent of those whose main source of election news is Fox News say the media's campaign coverage has been excellent or good. But 61 percent of those who rely on newspapers, 63 percent of network news watchers and 64 percent of CNN viewers give the coverage excellent or good ratings. And 72 percent of Fox viewers say the media have too much influence on the outcome, though a majority of other media consumers agreed. (The Supreme Court, apparently, was not offered as an option.)
As for the great cable divide, 70 percent of regular Fox News viewers are supporting the president, while 67 percent of CNN watchers are Kerry backers, according to Pew. There was more of a split among network news viewers (51-40 Kerry), newspaper readers (50-40 Kerry) and local TV watchers (46-42 Kerry).
The good news: Sixty-six percent of those surveyed find the election interesting (up from 35 percent in June), and 73 percent say it is informative. And even the media's approval rating has been creeping up, with 54 percent rating the coverage good or excellent, up from 47 percent in June. That could change, of course, depending on whether the networks can avoid a repeat of their last Election Night fiasco.
The New York Times, | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/24/weekinreview/24nago.html?oref=login meanwhile, offers its take on the what-if-Bush-wins question by focusing on the opposition party:
"Should Senator John Kerry lose to President Bush - which many Democrats insist is highly unlikely - the Democratic Party would be in for another bout of recrimination, self-examination and transformation. . . .
"The aftermath of a Kerry defeat might turn out to be even more traumatic than the ritualistic bloodletting that political parties undergo after a tough loss. In this of all elections, a defeat would have the makings of being especially debilitating for Democrats, given the depth of the party's bench, its continuing search for a unifying message, and the institutional challenges to the party's influence that emerged from independent 527 committees this year.
"Most immediately, a large reason that Mr. Kerry captured his party's nomination is that Democratic primary voters concluded he could hold his own on national security. He is, after all, a Vietnam veteran who voted for the war on Iraq.
"In this context, a Kerry loss would crystallize an excruciating question for the Democratic Party: Can it ever compete with the Republican Party on a threshold issue that seems likely to be central to American presidential elections for a long time to come?"
The Times | http://nytimes.com/2004/10/24/weekinreview/24bumi.html also looks at the GOP fallout if Kerry wins.
This is what the level of campaign discourse has come to, as reported by the Boston Globe: | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/articles/2004/10/25/kerry_bush_trade_barbs_on_homeland_security/
"Bush saw his campaign message sidetracked because of a comment he made in an interview that will air tonight on Fox News Channel. According to a prebroadcast transcript of that interview, Bush said the nation is safer under his leadership, but whether America can ever be entirely safe is 'up in the air.'
"'We have to be right 100 percent of the time in disrupting any plot, and they have to be right once,' Bush said in the interview, which was filmed Saturday. 'Whether or not we can be ever fully safe is up -- you know, is up in the air.'
"Kerry seized on the comment as a 'flip-flop' from Bush's prior vows to 'win' the war on terror, and he read the quote aloud to an audience at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. ''Let me tell you something, ladies and gentlemen: You make me president of the United States, we're going to win the war on terror. It's not going to be up in the air whether or not we make America safe,' Kerry said."
Is Kerry flip-flopping on his language? Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/elections/chi-0410240365oct24,1,3047978.column?coll=chi-news-hed thinks so:
"Boston's John Kerry may simply be tired from the long campaign. Or he may be exhibiting disturbing signs of a severe personality disorder, since he talked like Jethro Bodine from the old 'Beverly Hillbillies' TV show a few days ago when he purchased a goose hunting license.
"It could be that he lapsed into an Appalachian dialect because he's trying to convince undecided voters that he's good country people. Or, it could mean Kerry figures if he talks Jethro, folks will think he's a regular guy.
"This is not to say that President Bush isn't campaigning in regular guy mode. He talks Texican and his father talks Maine, which could be genetic. And lately, he's always in a sweaty blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Can't somebody please buy the president of the United States a decent suit and tie to wear in the afternoons? But a candidate changing political clothes isn't as troublesome as a candidate changing voices."
Just when you thought the campaign had run out of new issues, there's the Castro card:
"President Bush swept through battleground state Florida Saturday as his campaign launched an attack ad linking John Kerry to Fidel Castro," says the New York Daily News. | http://nydailynews.com/front/story/245676p-210319c.html
"The 30-second Bush ad, in Spanish, depicts Kerry as sympathetic toward the Cuban dictator and targets Florida's Cuban-Americans - a community that had been strongly Republican but has splintered over economic hardships it claims the Bush administration has put on family and friends in Cuba.
"The spot whacks Kerry for voting against the 1996 Helms-Burton Act to beef up sanctions on Cuba, and charges he and the 'liberals in Congress . . . don't understand what a dictator is.' But Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Kerry opposed one provision that would have led to frivolous lawsuits. The Bush administration has opposed the same provision. 'So now they are taking issue with a provision that they want removed from the law,' Singer said."
Here's the hot new trend in death, according to the Chicago Trib, | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/elections/chi-0410250171oct25,1,1606183.story?coll=chi-news-hed which begins with a man named William Frazer:
"In Frazer's paid death notice July 29 in the Tribune, friends and relatives were asked to donate their money to a handful of charities--including the John Kerry campaign. Some have. . . .
"'It was something we decided to do because it was so important to him,' said his daughter Angie. 'He was just such a big Democrat.'
"Dozens of others this year have tried to sway the election in newspaper obituaries across the nation. About a handful of obituaries in New York City asked for contributions to 'any organization dedicated to defeating George W. Bush.' Another in Appleton, Wis., asked friends to 'support the Republican National Party by voting on November 2nd, for George W. Bush for President.'"
You can't deny people their last wish, right?
National Review's Victor Davis Hanson | http://nationalreview.com/hanson/hanson200410220824.asp tells us why Kerry can't win:
"There is a good chance that no matter what Kerry says or does in the final two weeks of this election -- barring some major catastrophe in Iraq, a presidential gaffe, or massive voting irregularity -- he will lose. And he may well take much of the Democrats' remaining control of government down with him. After all, Putin wants Bush, while Arafat prefers Kerry -- and that is all we need to know. But besides the obvious concerns of national security and Kerry's own failure in any honest fashion to offer a coherent and principled alternative course of action to defeat the terrorists, there are more subtle, insidious factors at play that will, I think, preclude his election.
"I thought John Kerry clearly won the first debate, lost the second, and did worse in the third. Most Americans, however, apparently disagreed, since many polls showed that respondents thought Kerry won all three. We hear of mayhem daily in Iraq; news on the economic front is mixed; and an entire host of surrogates has defamed George Bush in a manner not seen in decades during a political campaign. Why, then, does Kerry gain little traction, trail in most polls, and perhaps even start to slip further? After all, he is a hard campaigner, has a razor-sharp memory, speaks well, looks statesmanlike at times, raises lots of money, and has a mobilized base working hard for his election.
"At least six reasons come to mind that have little to do with issues or substance, but everything to do with style, character, and judgment. First, he comes across, perhaps unfairly so, as an unfriendly sort. He seems to confirm to flyover America that the Ivy League East Coast is a cold place of holier-than-thou privileged reformers who live one life but advocate another. Kerry is a pleasant man, but he nevertheless presents himself as a ponderous aristocrat. His oratory, for all his undeniable mastery of facts and classical rhetorical tropes, is too often humorless, condescending, and pedantic. His photo opportunities that showcase hunting vests or windsurfing look forced, and they lack the natural ease of George Bush on the stump, twanging with his sleeves rolled up. Thus while Kerry does well in debates, he in some sense does not do well, since Americans feel he is either their smug professor or cranky grandfather."
Other than that, he's doing great.
I simply cannot believe (and neither can Andrew Sullivan, who first noted it) that London's Guardian | http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5045652-113623,00.html published this column by Charlie Brooker:
"Throughout the debate, John Kerry, for his part, looks and sounds a bit like a haunted tree. But at least he's not a lying, sniggering, drink-driving, selfish, reckless, ignorant, dangerous, backward, drooling, twitching, blinking, mouse-faced little cheat. And besides, in a fight between a tree and a bush, I know who I'd favour.
"On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod's law dictates he'll probably win, thereby disproving the existence of God once and for all. The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr - where are you now that we need you?"
For once, I'm speechless.
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6301121/site/newsweek/ has a baseball theory:
"The Red Sox victory makes the Bush-is-inevitable line harder to pursue. A last-minute come-from-behind win by Kerry suddenly seems more plausible, which in turn will rally Democrats to work harder on Election Day. If Kerry goes in to the final weekend down by five points, well, the Red Sox won, for the first time ever, when they were down by three games.
"Bush's basic argument is that electing Kerry would upset the natural order of things, where grownups like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld -- no matter how incompetent at the plate -- keep us safe at home. Now the natural order of baseball -- where the Yankees beat the Red Sox every year -- has been upended, making it suddenly more plausible to throw out the incumbent in Washington, too. In the showdown series, change beat the status quo.
"The only thing Americans like more than a winner is an underdog who upsets a winner, especially a scraggly bunch sticking it to the uptown trust-fund crowd. When the Sox were losing and he wasn't hitting, Johnny Damon looked like one of those longhaired Vietnam War protesters that Kerry used to hang out with. . . . But after he drove in six runs in Game 7, Damon's hippie look is cool again -- and Bush's attack on Kerry as a dangerous Northeastern liberal is sounding a bit tinny.
"The whole subtext of the Bush campaign is to make 'Massachusetts' into a code word for un-American values. That's harder now, in Red Sox Nation."
Not everyone loved the piece, with one poster calling it "the most preposterous piece of journalism offered up by your magazine in recent years."
Must be a Yankee fan.