Friday, July 16, 2010

Yes, Weigel, Palin really needs to learn something

Dave Weigel's cynicism about the media's engagement with politicians and the electorate's engagement with media is so extreme that it converts to an odd sort of credulity. Imagining "the media that's actually going to cover the 2012 elections," Weigel predicts:
This media is not going to care about her policies. If policies come up during debates, and she gives the same answers she gives on Fox now, and Mitt Romney pounces on her, the story will not be that the GOP's frontrunner gave a pallid answer. The story will be that Mitt Romney pounced. What does this do to his image? What does Mike Huckabee have to say about it?

And so on. It's hard to imagine Palin competing at the policy level the press claims she needs to get to, but easy to imagine her competing at the level they actually play on. Quick, cast your mind back to the countless 2007/2008 Democratic debates. Do you remember Hillary's mastery of policy? No. You remember her fumbling an answer on drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, you remember Obama telling her she was "likable enough," and perhaps you remember Dennis Kucinich talking about aliens.
Okay: perhaps people's chief takeaways from the 50-odd Presidential debates of the 2008 campaign were not smart policy pronouncements -- such as Obama's assertion in his first debate with McCain, regarding the war in Iraq, "We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens."  But that doesn't mean that viewers assess the candidates merely as celebrities. What do people remember about Palin's performance on policy questions in her national media appearances in 2008?  Incoherent babble about seeing Russia from Alaska and what happens when Putin rears his head and flies in American airspace.  Her obvious cluelessness when Charles Gibson asked for her thoughts about the Bush Doctrine. Her faux-Reagan, target-free "there you go again, Joe" in her debate with Biden.

That is why huge majorities on the eve the election said that she was unqualified to be President. That's why huge majorities still say that she's unqualified to be President. At this time, while Palin is playing directly to her base in media of her own choosing, Weigel accords her almost magical powers to fool most of the people enough of the time in 2012 to get herself elected President. She has failed to do so thus far.  

The more nuanced cynicism of DiA comes closer, I think, to the way people absorb political theater. DiA argued recently that politicians do not convince voters to back particular policies by force of argument during campaigns, a conclusion with which I picked a bit of a bone.  But I do think that this is basically right:
It does seem that individual politicians can benefit from having lots of good ideas (Barack Obama, Bobby Jindal), but it seems like the political gain from that is, "that guy's smart", rather than "after careful consideration, I agree with the content of his platform."
Below, two debate moments that did not yield iconic quips but in which I suspect that the "this guy's smart" impression went deep. First, most recently, in the final Obama-McCain debate, an audience member asked Obama at the outset how the bank bailout would help ordinary people.
Well, Oliver, first, let me tell you what's in the rescue package for you. Right now, the credit markets are frozen up and what that means, as a practical matter, is that small businesses and some large businesses just can't get loans.

If they can't get a loan, that means that they can't make payroll. If they can't make payroll, then they may end up having to shut their doors and lay people off.

And if you imagine just one company trying to deal with that, now imagine a million companies all across the country.

So it could end up having an adverse effect on everybody, and that's why we had to take action. But we shouldn't have been there in the first place.

That's not a sound byte. But it's a coherent narrative that draws the connection from the fate of big banks to that of "ordinary people" -- without condescension. Post-debate polls indicated that Obama connected.

Second, a moment that helped seal my own choice between Obama and Clinton - Jan. 5, between Iowa and New Hampshire. Hillary had just cited Bill Clinton's balanced budget as an instance of real "change."Obama responded:

Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
I think that Obama was essentially right about this, if only in the whimsically cynical sense outlined by Conor Friedersdorf in his generic blueprint of The Two Party System at Work. Here's "Phase 5" in the process according to Friedersdorf:
Liberals: We’re putting YC3 [a much-rejiggered response to a perceived pressing need] to a vote, and the American people support us enough to get it passed.

Conservatives: Rather than negotiate, we’re going to just oppose this outright. The people passing it are basically radical socialists. Anyone who compromises with them is a traitor.

Voters: Gee, we’d be more comfortable if this bill was improved by conservative insights. We’d maybe even prefer a totally different approach to reform if we’d been educated about one over a sustained period. On the other hand, maybe the liberals are right that this is necessary? We’re going to uneasily cross our fingers.
That desperate, ambivalent willingness to give Democrats a shot at addressing long-festering problems was at a high water mark in 2008. You can make a strong case that any Democrat (other than, say, John Edwards) would have won the Presidency in that year.   Explaining Obama's primary victory over Clinton, you could cite his team's superior strategy (focusing on Iowa, the caucuses after Super Tuesday), fundraising, and structural advantage once African Americans broke en masse in his direction.  Yet I think it's still fair to say that in a real sense Obama won the Presidency by force of argument, by persuading first some critical party elders like Harry Reid and eventually a majority of voters (and donors large and small) when it mattered that "this guy's smart." How else could a black freshman senator with a slim resume have won?

Weigel's post is titled, "But does she really need to learn anything?" The answer is yes. Palin faces the Herculean task of wiping out the impression of feckless ditziness that Tina Fey helped burn into tens of millions of American minds. Maybe she'll do it.  It would not entirely surprise me if someone of her transcendent narcissism and ambition did achieve enough policy fluency to compete in 2012. She was effective in the Alaskan gubernatorial debates in 2006.  But she cannot get away forever with clueless stares and helpless repetition of the question when interviewed even by friendly hosts on matters of national policy. Weigel underestimates the rigor remaining in the American Presidential selection process.

1 comment:

  1. Linked via Sullivan--I like your take, though for purely political reasons, part of me would like to see Palin run, and lose in a landslide. (I know, I know--the future is horrifyingly unpredictable and no one wants her to get that close.) However, the question is who can inspire the Republican base as much as she can--passion=volunteers, volunteers phone banking, volunteers knocking on doors, etc. And it's passion for Obama that made the difference in the Dem primary--and probably a few states in the generation election.

    Certainly, that passion can't be inspired by the heretic Romney. Which leaves who? Gingrich? Ha. Huckabee? Not likely. My sense is that only a dark horse with unimpeachable conservative credentials, but significantly more establishment-friendly political skills, can beat her--I've got my eye on at John Thune, Bob McDonnell (gov in Virginia), Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels, possibly Jim DeMint, though I don't think he'd challenge her.