The old media’s old rant

Peter Berkowitz begins his review of The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 by Mark Halperin and John Harris with a reference to the claim made separately, prior to the 2006 election, by three professors — Ronald Dworkin, Alan Wolfe, and Sandy Levinson — that American democracy is close to collapse. Berkowitz suggests that the pronouncements to this effect by the paranoid three (my characterization, not Peter’s) may have had more to do with their “dismay at the people’s recent propensity to return Republicans to office” than with any serious critique of our political system.
Peter’s review suggests to me that Halperin and Harris may be nearly as clueless as the three professors. The authors declare:

We do not know who will win the presidency in 2008, but we feel sure it will be the candidate who has the smartest and most disciplined approach to three basic challenges: fashioning a political strategy that addresses the elemental changes in media and technology that have reshaped current politics; executing this strategy despite innumerable and unpredictable distractions; and combining personal ambition with credible and concrete ideas about how to change the country.

The first two alleged challenges stem, in Peter’s telling of the authors’ views, from the transformation of our politics into a “freak show” — a new carnival-style environment in which shouting, mockery, character assassination, and extreme partisanship have displaced civilized and measured consideration of political issues and candidates. Thus, in the view of Halperin and Harris, the last candidate standing in November 2008 will be the one who manages to maintain “control of his or her public image in the face of the Freak Show’s destructive power.” And apparently they contend that the best way to maintain that control is the old-fashioned way — by having something important to say.
But, as Berkowitz notices, “if old-fashioned common sense provides the answer to the Freak Show’s destructive power, perhaps the eclipse of the old media by new may not have the revolutionary impact on American politics that Halperin and Harris ascribe to it.”
Precisely. Halperin and Harris appear to have committed the same fallacy as the three professors — they confuse their unhappiness with the outcome of elections with something new and insidious in the political process. In Peter’s telling, the authors are fixated on the defeat of John Kerry, apparently believing that he was done in by the new media freak show. Berkowitz does an effective job of arguing that “the new media did influence a change in the terms of political debate in 2004 — [but] not, as old media stars Halperin and Harris suggest, by lowering the tone, but rather by contributing to the breaking down of the old media’s gatekeeper monopoly on determining what news is fit to print and when it deserves to be printed.”
But one can also argue, and I’m inclined to, that the new media had little if any effect on the 2004 presidential election. In the Democratic primary, Howard Dean was the master of the new media. Moreover, as the anti-war candidate, he had something important to say. Yet his campaign crashed and burned.
In the general election, President Bush had the benefit of a strong economy and the absence of post 9/11 attacks on this country. The war in Iraq was a net minus, but the public hadn’t yet turned decisively against it. Had the election been held in 2006 and everything else been the same, there’s little reason to doubt that Kerry would have won, new media or not.
Halperin and Harris note that Kerry’s share of support from veterans fell by about 10 percentage points from his “reporting for duty” moment at the convention to the election. But Kerry is not the first candidate to experience a decline in support after a convention, once voters see, hear, and learn more. In 1988, things went south for Michael Dukakis much more dramatically. Nor is Kerry the first candidate to be hit with what the liberal gatekeepers consider an extraneous (or “freak”) issue. In 1988, old media rant was to blame the Willie Horton ads. Then, the villains were Lee Atwater and the political action committee that ran the Horton ad. Now, they’re Karl Rove and conservative bloggers.
Ultimately, the 2004 outcome was not very different from what the polls were showing in the run-up to the political conventions, before the new media had its say about Swiftvets and Dan Rather. The outcome may have disappointed Halperin and Harris, but they can be explained without resort to new media freakishness.
Via Real Clear Politics.
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