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We've focused lately on detailing the widespread and damaging false storylines about Democrats and progressives that the media have promoted in recent years: that Al Gore was a liar, that John Kerry was a flip-flopper, that Hillary Clinton is "inauthentic," that Howard Dean is crazy, that Democrats are disorganized, and on and on. It's important to understand how the media promoted these storylines not only in order to understand the role they played in presidential elections and decisions about war and peace, but also because the national political media continue to peddle baseless storylines that are harmful to progressives -- and to the nation.
Following are some of the dominant anti-Democrat, anti-progressive media narratives that are already shaping coverage of this year's midterm elections, many of which seem to be getting a trial run in coverage of the Connecticut Senate primary.
A standard Republican talking point is that Democrats and progressives are fringe extremists. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently claimed, for example: "The truth is that an extreme liberalism has seized the Democratic Party. ... Given such extremism from my colleagues across the aisle, how can we move America forward?"
Coming from a man who diagnosed Terri Schiavo (incorrectly) via videotape to support his deeply unpopular stance in favor of government intervention in the Schiavo case, Frist's criticism of Democratic "extremism" is a little like the pot calling the sun black.
But a politician calling his opponents extremists is not that surprising. What's troubling is that journalists and pundits regularly join in.
While we take no position on the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary race between Joseph Lieberman and Ned Lamont on Tuesday (and couldn't even if we wanted to), the media's efforts to spin those results in advance have produced several statements about the state of the Democratic Party vis-á-vis the American public that are flatly contradicted by the available data. On July 6, the New York Daily News editorialized:
Hillary Clinton has gone out of her way to rule out backing her colleague and longtime friend from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, should Lieberman lose next month's Democratic primary and attempt to run as an independent. Clinton has endorsed Lieberman, who is in danger of being dumped by the Democratic Party's lunatic wing because he has steadfastly supported the war in Iraq. But in the event that anti-war zealots push challenger Ned Lamont to victory, Clinton wants it known now that it's bye-bye to Joe. And bye-bye to good sense. And bye-bye to Democratic centrism. And a great big hello and shout-out to the abandon-Iraq crowd, who are quite pleased that Clinton chose, prematurely and unnecessarily, to profess her fealty to party purity.
The Daily News -- among the nation's largest newspapers -- contends that those who oppose the Iraq war are "zealots" who constitute the Democratic Party's "lunatic wing," while those who support the war exhibit "centrism" and "good sense." Yet, regardless of who prevails in Connecticut on Tuesday, the most recent polling (PDF) finds that clear majorities of the American people have anti-Iraq war opinions:
62 percent disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war, while only 32 percent approve.
63 percent think the war with Iraq was not "worth the loss of American life and other costs" while only 30 percent think it was.
57 percent think things are going very or somewhat badly for U.S. "efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq" while only 41 percent think things are going very or somewhat well.
53 percent think "Iraq will probably never become a stable democracy" while only 4 percent -- four! -- think it will occur in the "next year or two."
56 percent think the U.S. should "set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq," compared to 40 percent who oppose such a timetable.
72 percent think the Iraq war has made the United States' image in the world worse, 69 percent think it has hampered U.S. diplomatic efforts, and 41 percent think continued U.S. presence in Iraq makes the region less stable; only 25 percent think it makes the region more stable.
In other words: The anti-Iraq war position is the "centrist" position, not the "extremist" position.
An August 2 Washington Post article contained the same false assumptions about what constitutes "the center":
No matter what happens, the Lamont surge looks and sounds like a towel snap at the status quo. This is not merely about the war, say strategists with both camps, but the larger question of what Democrats should do to regain power -- and in the absence of power, how they should behave in opposition. Should they move to the center and accommodate the red-state voters who have sidelined them two elections in a row? Or move to the left and fight, consequences be damned?
The Post doesn't explain what phrases like "move to the center and accommodate the red-state voters" and "move to the left ... consequences be damned" even mean. And for good reason: Contrary to the Post's suggestion that the "center" lies to the right of current Democratic positions, the Post's own polling shows that the public has a clear preference for Democratic congressional candidates, that more people trust Democrats than Republicans to "do a better job in coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years." The current CBS/New York Times poll (PDF) finds that 75 percent of Americans think the Bush administration should "take into account the views of U.S. allies before taking action" while only 20 percent think it should "do what it thinks is right no matter what U.S. allies think."
Why, then, would the Post portray a move by Democrats "to the left" as having dire consequences? Putting aside the Lieberman/Lamont race, polling seems to suggest that Democrats in general might face far more disastrous consequences if they were to move to the right. Indeed, we should be seeing media speculation about whether Republicans will move towards the center or whether they will maintain their out-of-the-mainstream positions, "consequences be damned." Whether Republicans will move towards the center -- and, thus, against the Iraq war -- or maintain their extremist positions.
Instead, as Bob Somerby and Eric Alterman have noted, the pundit class continues to portray opposition to the Iraq war as a fringe position. Somerby wrote this week:
To what extent is the Washington "press corps" really a slumbering fraternal order? Several observers noted the closing paragraph of David Broder's column last Sunday. The Dean, discussing the Lieberman race, made a puzzling comment:
BRODER (7/30/06): Democrats everywhere are looking to Connecticut for clues about the party's direction. The primary will probably point them leftward, toward a stronger antiwar stand. But often in the past, the early successes of these elitist insurgents have been followed by decisive defeats when a broader public weighs in. That is why this contest is so consequential for the Democratic Party.
Say what? Lamont's supporters are "elitist" in taking their "antiwar stand?" In fact, as Eric Alterman (and others) noted, "the 'elitist' position on Iraq to which [Broder] refers has the support of 56 percent of Americans." Strange, isn't it? In Broder's hands, the majority view now became the elite.
On the other hand, it's fair to note what Broder said near the start of this same column. The Dean must have dozed off at some point between his start and his finish:
BRODER (pgh 3): One night last week the party establishment, led by former president Bill Clinton and Connecticut's other Democratic senator, Chris Dodd, whipped up an orchestrated show of enthusiasm for the three-term incumbent, whose support of the Iraq war and friendship with President Bush have put his nomination in jeopardy. But none of them -- including Lieberman -- made any effort to deal with what Clinton called "the pink elephant in the room," the massive public revulsion in this state for Bush's war in Iraq.
In paragraph 3, Broder notes the "massive public revulsion" in Connecticut for the war in Iraq. But uh-oh! By the time the Dean got done -- seven paragraphs later -- you were an "elitist" if you had taken such a stance.
How to explain such puzzling work? In fact, this pundit corps has long been a slumbering elite -- a snoozing, detached, puzzling cohort.
We recently argued that political reporters and pundits don't yet realize that this is no longer 2002; that the public is no longer with the Republicans on issues of security. Broder's column suggests that he doesn't yet realize that this is no longer 1972:
The people backing Lamont are nothing if not sincere. But their breed of Democrats -- many of them wealthy, educated, extremely liberal -- often pick candidates who are rejected by the broader public. Many of the older Lamont supporters went straight from Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern in the 1960s and '70s to Howard Dean in 2004. They helped Joe Duffey challenge Sen. Tom Dodd in Connecticut for the 1970 Democratic nomination on the Vietnam War issue, only to lose to Republican Lowell Weicker in November.
Lamont's campaign manager, Tom Swan, is also director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group, a populist organization founded in the 1970s by Toby Moffett, a Ralph Nader protege and anti-Vietnam activist who was one of the "Watergate babies" elected to the House in 1974. Moffett's political career also was ended by a loss to Weicker, who stayed in the Senate until Lieberman finally beat him in 1988.
Democrats everywhere are looking to Connecticut for clues about the party's direction. The primary will probably point them leftward, toward a stronger antiwar stand. But often in the past, the early successes of these elitist insurgents have been followed by decisive defeats when a broader public weighs in. That is why this contest is so consequential for the Democratic Party.
New York Post columnist Deborah Orin is similarly stuck in the 70s:
Sen. Joe Lieberman's bitter primary battle is the biggest race in the country because it's a naked test of how much clout the MoveOn/Deaniac angry left holds in the Democratic Party.
For centrist Democrats, it's vital that Lieberman win to keep the party from lurching to the left and risking a repeat of George McGovern's 49-state loss to Richard Nixon in 1972.
Republicans are smiling. They say the activists hurt the whole Democratic Party by making it look too nasty and too far left.
"The liberal fringe may end up costing Democrats control of Congress this fall," said Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin.
"It's the best thing we have going for us as Republicans."
Orin and Broder shouldn't suggest that Democrats risk a McGovern-sized defeat if they oppose the Iraq war; they should suggest that Republicans run such a risk if they support it.
As Cox Newspapers columnist Tom Teepen explained on July 10:
Republicans -- theatrically aghast, aghast -- and their talking-head heralds have it that Lamont's candidacy and the consequent "abandonment" of Lieberman are evidence that the Democratic Party is falling to its supposedly kook fringe.
The prospect in the Connecticut primary is hardly one of leftists amok. The GOP is building a backfire against a possible Lamont victory by casting even his success to date as evidence of Democratic extremism, supposedly typical. The game is to keep voters everywhere from noticing that Lamont, if he wins, would actually be in step with about half of the electorate.
Yet leading pundits like Stuart Rothenberg persist in describing progressives as "crazies":
Lamont's victory, however, would not be without its downside for Democrats, since it would only embolden the crazies in the party, a consideration not lost on other Democratic elected officials and strategists.
Lieberman's defeat is likely to add to the partisanship and bitterness that divides the country and Capitol Hill, and to generate more media attention to grassroots bomb-throwers who, down the road, are likely to make the party less appealing to swing voters and moderates.
Rothenberg bills his Rothenberg Political Report as "a non-partisan analysis of American politics and elections." And yet he's somehow so out of touch with the mood of the country that he thinks that people who hold majority views are "crazies" are "likely to make the party less appealing to swing voters and moderates."
Apparently to Stuart Rothenberg and David Broder and many of their journalist-pundit colleagues, "moderate" means "whatever the conservatives say" and "extreme" means "anyone who dares disagree with conservatives." If that's the case, there are an awful lot of extremists these days.
ABC's Jake Tapper wrote on his blog this week:
Fierce opposition to a person's politics are what America is all about. But some of the vitriol on the Left will no doubt help the Right win over some voters. Case in point: Republicans are trying, however fairly, to slam Democratic Senate candidate Jon Tester with various comments from his supporters on the blogosphere....
No one is questioning the Huffington Post's God-given right to publish anything its writers want... but no one should be surprised when conservatives try to stab Democrats with those same sharp words or images.
Tapper's suggestion that it is the left that will alienate voters by being too vitriolic is simply a jaw-dropper. Tapper's examples of liberal "vitriol" consist of a few bloggers who are unrecognizable to the vast majority of the electorate. Meanwhile, the right features such high-profile vitriolic hate-mongers as Ann Coulter (who Tapper has described as having "a perfectly acceptable argument, a perfectly intelligent argument in her book Godless") and Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh ... and Tapper thinks it's "the Left" who will "no doubt help the Right win over some voters" through their "vitriol." Perhaps -- but only because Tapper and his media cohorts insist on pretending that it is progressives, rather than conservatives, who are angry and mean, even as conservatives advocate actual physical violence against reporters.
We've dealt with this many times -- the journalist-pundit class seems to assume that, in terms of both policy and politics, Republicans are strong on security issues and Democrats are weak. We won't rehash the many reasons why, as a matter of both policy and politics, this is a flawed assumption.
But, since reporters and pundits seem to believe GOP spokespeople more than they believe facts and polling data, perhaps this statement by National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti will help them see the light: "House races aren't about national security. ... House races are about pocketbook issues."
If a national Republican spokesperson is downplaying the impact national security issues will have on House races this fall, doesn't that suggest that perhaps the GOP doesn't have the advantage on the issue that the media thinks it does? Put another way: If the Republicans really did have such a huge advantage on security issues, wouldn't they try to make it the central issue, as they have in previous years?