23 February 2008

Hillary Drops Out! and Other Conventional Wisdom

The Agony of Defeat.
(Except that this picture was taken weeks ago, when she was still front-runner.)

To read the newspapers the past few days, you’d think Hillary Clinton had dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination already. In reality, her campaign is in trouble, beset by organizational problems, dwindling funds, missteps by the candidate and her husband, and the simple fact that Hillary doesn’t connect with voters as viscerally as her opponent, Barack Obama. But in a further reality, only she knows whether she plans to drop out soon, and when asked directly, she says she’s in the race to stay.

So why are the commentators and analysts now saying the same thing — “The clock is running down” — and saying it all at once? As one who used to write political commentary for a living, I can offer a few answers.

There are indeed trends in political writing, during an electoral campaign. The past year has seen many, many such trends, and a by no means complete list must include the following:

  • John McCain is inevitable.
  • Hillary Clinton is inevitable.
  • America isn’t ready for a female president.
  • Rudy Giuliani is inevitable.
  • Christian and/or social conservatives will never vote for (pick one) Giuliani, McCain, Romney or Ron Paul.
  • Fred Thompson would be inevitable if he’d just get into the race.
  • Fred Thompson got into the race too late and doesn’t really want to win.
  • John McCain is dead in the water.
  • Golly, Barack Obama gives a good speech.
  • America isn’t ready for a black president.
  • Barack Obama is not black enough.
  • Mike Bloomberg is about to announce that he’s running as an independent.
  • Mitt Romney has no chance because he’s a Mormon.
  • Mitt Romney has a lot of money and therefore can’t be counted out.
  • Mitt Romney’s speech on faith has effectively put questions about his religion to rest.
  • Mitt Romney’s speech threatens an American theocracy.
  • Iowa means nothing.
  • Iowa has destroyed the Clinton and Romney campaigns.
  • Hillary Clinton needs to show some emotion.
  • Hillary Clinton showed too much emotion.
  • Bill Clinton is Hillary’s secret weapon.
  • Bill Clinton has destroyed Hillary’s campaign.
  • Bill Clinton would support Barack Obama, any other year, because they are the same guy.
  • Mike Huckabee is a funny guy, although he’ll never win.
  • Mike Huckabee is a contender with serious momentum.
  • Barack Obama is getting on Hillary Clinton’s nerves.
  • They’re attacking each other; they’re tearing the party apart.
  • They are cordial toward each other; that’s what’s tearing the party apart.
  • Is Rudy Giuliani still in this race?
  • Rudy Giuliani is out of this race.
  • John McCain’s closest friends say he is too hot-tempered to be president.
  • John McCain is inevitable.
  • John McCain is corrupt.
  • Mike Huckabee is dead in the water.
  • Barack Obama is inevitable.
  • Barack Obama has a Messiah complex.
  • John McCain is dead in the water.
  • Hillary Clinton is dead in the water.
And that’s just what I’ve been able to track while living abroad. It’s dull reading for those who follow more than one publication. You might think that political reporters and analysts get a briefing every morning, much like the ones on Hill Street Blues, and then “go out there” and write articles that rehash the same received wisdom.

I can account for a number of factors that lead to this lock-step.

1. Reporters are bored. They write about these horse-race topics because they have heard too many speeches and read too many reports on the issues. Never mind that you haven’t, never mind that it’s their job to tell you things you don’t know. Political writers are just too bored to cope. They turn in desperation to the only topic that promises excitement, drama, and fond memories of days writing copy at the sports desk: who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead, who’s got momentum, who’s “attacking” whom.

2. Reporters are lazy. In order to write a “trend” story, one need merely watch a little television, read a couple of voter surveys, and talk to one’s buddies at the Punchy Pundit Bar & Grill.

My hands are clean! See?

3. Reporters dislike being spun. Despite their laziness, they’d happily talk to campaign operatives — which is a sort of interview, and somewhat like working — if they weren’t certain of being jerked around. Some political writers (David Broder, Robert Novak) actually seem to enjoy being jerked around, since they keep setting themselves up for more jerking, but they are the exception.

4. Reporters are under terrible time pressures. This isn’t their fault. They have deadlines, and they have no choice but to produce some compelling prose on command. They seldom have time to research intensively, to write thoughtfully, or to think at all.

5. Reporters just want to be loved. They want readers, viewers, listeners and web-surfers to love them, so that ratings or circulation figures won’t fall, so that their bosses won’t fire them. Moreover, the quasi-adolescent yearning for popularity leads them to say whatever their friends say. If the other pundits are writing something, they’d better write the same thing, or else people will think they’re not cool.

Now you know. There’s a widespread misperception that political reporters have political agendas, but in my experience this is completely untrue. (The pundits are another story, of course, because they’re hired to write opinions, and the easiest way to get an opinion is to follow an agenda — that is, to say what your friends are saying. See #5.) Reporters love a juicy story (see #1), and that takes precedence over almost anything. My former boss, Dan Rather, has been depicted as a left-wing liberal, and he’s seen more than his share of run-ins with Republicans — but I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s talking to Bob Dole or John McCain, interesting guys with great personal stories (see #1) who give him good quotes (see #2), who speak frankly (see #3), who are always ready to talk at a minute’s notice (see #4), and who seem to like him, too (see #5).

I say unto ye, I am come not to destroy but to fulfill.

The nominating campaigns this season have been exciting, historic, important — but not necessarily for the reasons you read in the papers. You can protect yourself by reading what the candidates say and do, and by taking with a grain of salt what reporters and pundits say the words and deeds are supposed to mean. And you can avoid anchors and editors who say, “Tell us what will happen next,” while you avoid the reporters and pundits who respond to that idiotic request. I never met anybody in the press who was worth her or his salt as a fortune-teller; they can’t see the future of a political race, anymore than they can predict earthquakes. And as Dan used to say, “He who lives by the crystal ball must learn to eat a lot of broken glass.”