Thursday, September 30, 2004


Blah, Blah, Blah

Are presidential debates ever “won”?


It’s so great to have a blog, especially since I’d rather stick my head in the oven than listen to the pundits explain who “won” the debate. Post debate discussions crystallize our hypocritical political churchgoing pieties: we bow toward the pulpit and intone that we care about the issues while we furtively flip through the People magazine hidden away in the prayerbook and snicker about “Kerry’s New Tan” or Bush’s uncanny resemblance to Alfred E. Newman.

The very idea of someone winning a presidential debate is a myth that dates back to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, which supposedly changed the complexion of that election (pun intended – give me a sec). Recall that Kennedy “won” because Nixon was discovered to have a very uncomely five-o’clock shadow that contrasted poorly with Kennedy’s telegenic looks. There have been only two other “significant” presidential debate moments in the last 10 presidential election cycles – Mondale’s widely-acknowledged 1984 trouncing of Reagan, who by all accounts appeared to be dazed, doped and somehow propped up by invisible wires, and look at what good “winning” that debate did Mondale; and Dukakis being taken aback when the First Amendment Watchdog representative of the press asked him that great softball hypothetical question, “What would you do if your wife were raped?” Dukakis was well behind in the polls, and stayed behind. Anyone who claims there have been other “important” moments in presidential debates is giving you a line of BS.

The idea of a presidential debate seems based on two premises, both of which are flawed and bound to make the event a disappointment. One is the idea that, after months of campaigning like two ships passing in the night – and firing wild salvos at each other, at long-distance – the candidates finally get on the same stage and face each other over the same questions. The hope is for a direct clash of ideas, but inevitably one gets only an alternative succession of monologues, too brief to allow for much meaningful exploration of issues. The other is the idea that public speaking is important to the presidency.

Public speaking ability is perhaps somewhat correlated with mental abilities that themselves may be correlated with qualities – like judgment – that we look for in a president. But how correlated? Unless they are truly mezmerized by their own spin, Bush supporters have to recognize that their man is a poor public speaker. The Bush I saw is the same Bush I saw in the 2000 election and throughout his presidency. As far as I can tell he is a man of average intelligence and below-average speaking ability for a public official, who seems to have less-than-adequate comprehension of the serious and complex issues for which his administration is responsible. I suspect that while he formally makes final decisions as President, that he rarely initiates policy and on most issues he simply follows strong recommendations from trusted advisors.

The Republicans proved with Ronald Reagan that the country can survive with a spokesmodel for a president. Ronald Reagan may have been even less intelligent than Bush, but he was a trained actor and could memorize and deliver lines. Bush really can’t, but somehow it seems that somewhere near half of the people who voted in 2000 and who will vote in 2004 are not looking for verbal skills in Bush. They are looking for and finding some message that comes across on a non-verbal level. I feel like it would have come across even if Bush had stood up there for 90 minutes and literally said “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” The spin doctors can screw around with what Kerry said, and say reassuring things about Bush, and in the end the words spoken in the debate simply will not matter.


The Cult of Personality

Does anyone care about "the issues" in a presidential race?

[Politics & Media]

Every presidential election year, our First Amendment watchdogs in the media and the punditry pay lip service to the great need to talk about "the issues." They decry negative campaigning and demand that the candidates "define their positions." But do they really care about the issues?

Let’s take the dean of all media outlets, The New York Times. This year they chastised Kerry several times in their editorial pages for his supposed vagueness on the issues. Then, you will recall, in early September they took a poll in which they asked voters if they would like to hear more from the candidates if they would to hear more from candidates about the issues. The poll respondents naturally said "yes." Let’s hold to one side the journalistic ethics of pushing a poll to support your own editorial page position. The fact is that The New York Times has only a very slight interest in reporting the candidates actual positions on "the issues." Instead, the typical Times story, rather than focusing on, say, the candidates’ respective views on issues affecting women – health care, AFDC, the appointment of pro-choice or anti-abortion judges – will run stories like "Kerry in a Struggle for a Democratic Base: Women" (NYT, 9/22/04)

For many election cycles now, the Times has been far more interested in opining on the campaigns’ strategy rather than the issues themselves. Lesser media outlets are even less interested in "the issues" than the Times.

It’s much, much worse in blog land. Althouse writes, in a 9/27 post called "What we’re not talking about,"

It's been a strange election season. Though it's gone on way too long, a huge
amount of energy has been wasted on matters unrelated to the next four years,
chiefly the sickly obsession with Vietnam. The talk about Vietnam perhaps
occupies the space that would otherwise be devoted to more general blather about

Though there’s nothing "strange" about it – it’s completely typical of election seasons to get distracted about issues regarding the personality of presidential candidates – I couldn’t agree more. The focus on the Vietnam records of the candidates did indeed filling the same space as other character blather.

So what issues are the Kerry-hating bloggers talking about these days?

Why "Kerry’s New Tan," of course. See, for example, Drudge report ("Kerry on Orange Alert"), Always Right ("Kerry Getting Ready for Halloween") and even Althouse ("Going Orange for the Debate") .

More talk about "issues" after the debate. Let’s see if anyone in the entire media talks about actual policy differences between the two candidates. My guess is the focus will be on the deep and revealing question, "who won?"

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


Name Five

Can Bush supporters give us just Five Good Reasons why they are going to vote, not against Kerry, but for Bush?


In blogging about the presidential campaign, it’s undoubtedly fun to bash the other guy, but ultimately on November 2 we’re going to be voting for someone. A major story line in this campaign has been that many Kerry supporters don’t like their candidate that much, but it’s "anybody but Bush." As a "man in the street" interviewee put it in a clip on The Daily Show, "I’d take a ham sandwich rather than Bush."

Perhaps ironically, then, there is an incredible amount of Kerry-hating vitriol out there in blog world among apparent Bush supporters, but almost nothing positive about Bush, or more to the point, the Bush administration. Typically, an incumbent can point to his record in a re-election campaign, where the challenger asks us to speculate about what his future presidency would be like. Do you see a word anywhere in cyberspace about how well the Bush administration has governed over the past four years? A word?

The irony begins with the candidates own web sites. Check them out. On Kerry’s website you see a bunch of Kerry material. On the first screen, there’s a big picture of Kerry, links to his policy positions. It’s all Kerry, Kerry, Kerry – kind of self-centered, huh? Bush is mentioned once in text, and in the lower right hand corner there’s a small picture showing Bush with a link to a negative ad. When you scroll down to the bottom, it’s more stuff about Kerry, with just one other small segment on "Bush-Cheney: Wrong for America." The content seems to be 10% or less about Bush, the rest about Kerry.

Now go to Bush’s web site. You’d expect to find a lot of Bush content here, right? Sure enough, around the margins, in tiny type, are links and tabs for Bush policies. But the banner headline reads: "Kerry’s Debate Briefing Book Revealed." Then another big block devoted to "John Kerry: the Raw Deal." The headline section seems to give Kerry equal time, with every Bush story matched by a Kerry story: "Pres clear on plan for our safety" followed by "Kerry’s Shifting Positions on Saddam." Scrolling down you find "John Kerry’s Flip Flop Olympics" and another box with a video link to a negative Kerry ad. It’s all Kerry, Kerry, Kerry! Weird, huh?

You can say I’ve done my share of Bush-bashing on this blog, so I’m just like the Kerry-haters. But you’d be wrong. I don’t hate George W. Bush. What I hate is the way his administration has governed this country. What I’d like to know is whether all the Kerry-haters are actually opposed to the policies that would result if a Democratic administration fronted by Kerry were voted in.

In a series of future posts, I’m going to look at this country’s marked tendency to focus obsessively on "the man" running for President and ignore the administration that will actually govern us if we put this man in the White House.

But for now, I issue this challenge to all the Kerry-hating bloggers out there.

Give us 10 good reasons why you would vote for Bush without mentioning Kerry. After all, you may think you’re voting against Kerry, but I guarantee you, the Bush people will simply assume you approve of the way his administration has governed the country the past four years. And don't give us a bunch of fuzzy BS about Bush's character or how you feel about him. Name 10 policies that a Bush administration will bring that you believe will be good for the country. In fact, you can count policies from his first 3+ years in office: you know, USA PATRIOT Act, Invasion of Iraq, tax cuts, oil-drilling in Alaska, whatever. In fact, name FIVE.

Monday, September 27, 2004


Secret Lives of the Rear Echelon

Do I need to correct my post about Bush and draft dodging? Nah!

The same day that I posted my commentary on Bush's avoidance of the Vietnam fighting, Instapundit reports that “Bush volunteered for Vietnam.” Apparently, “Three of Bush's fellow recalled to NEWSWEEK that Bush inquired with the base commander about signing up for” a program would have allowed him to get flight time in Vietnam. Palace “He was told no; he had too few flying hours at the time and his plane, the F-102, was by then deemed obsolete for air combat.”

So what does Instapundit make of these claims? Not “Witnesses say Bush volunteered,” but the assertion as fact, “Bush volunteered.” For all I know, Instapundit administered lie detector tests to these three fellow pilots, or otherwise personally assessed their credibility. Otherwise, I have this question: why believe the recollection of Lt. X favoring Bush and disbelieve the recollection of Col. Y that Bush didn’t fulfill his service obligation?

A good definition of “partisan” (and I admit to being a Democrat/Kerry partisan) is one who assimilates new information to a pre-existing belief system, relaxing standards of critical thinking when the information supports one’s existing view. Think about the skeptical questions pro-bush pundits, Insta- or otherwise, would ask about comparable news from the Kerry camp.

Why hasn’t the White House previously offered us the assertion that Bush “volunteered for Vietnam?” I mean, what, did Bush simply forget about that episode? Or has he been silent about it because he realizes it’s kind of lame to say, “Gee, I asked about going to Vietnam once, but they wouldn't let me”? This isn’t like Winston Churchill asking General Eisenhower’s permission to ride out with the Normandy assault troops on D-Day. I’m sure if Bush really wanted to go to Vietnam, he could have pulled some of the very same strings he used to get into the Texas Air National Guard in the first place and gotten himself over there.

Or has the “Bush volunteered” story not come up before because (like the Kerry didn’t deserve his medal’s story) it’s untrue?

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Rear Echelon Types

Is it fair and accurate to call Bush a draft dodger?

In wartime, the majority of men and women in uniform are not combat troops. War is such a vast logistical undertaking, that it requires literally an army just to handle logistics for the minority of troops who will actually be doing the shooting and getting shot at. For every combat soldier there are anywhere from 5 to 8 "rear echelon" types, soldiers in various support roles who get nowhere near the fighting. During Vietnam, George W. Bush was about as "rear echelon" as you can get.

Althouse writes a thoughtful and interesting post (dated 9/23) about draft-dodging during the Vietnam War, but I need to disagree with the following comment in the blog:

The subject came up in connection with calling President Bush a draft dodger for joining the National Guard. One thing you can say here, and I've said it myself, is that calling Bush a draft dodger for joining the National Guard offends all the many people who have served in the National Guard. Another thing one could say is that joining the Navy, as Kerry did, is "draft dodging," by the same token, because it is another option men chose in preference to being drafted. ...[E]very young man I knew back in the Vietnam era sought to avoid the draft, and no one felt the slightest need to feel ashamed of doing so.

Let’s hold aside the question of taking offense on behalf of folks in the National Guard. (I say, let’s let them take their own umbrage -- I actually know a Guardsman who is quite irritated at Bush for the current administration’s "back door draft" policy of extending Guard tours of duty, and who thus may not be offended by the remark.) Althouse is technically quite right that Bush is not a draft dodger, in most senses. But the comment misses the larger point.

It may help to look at different meanings of the "draft dodging" epithet:

1) Breaking the law and evading military service (going to Canada, etc.).
2) Bending the law by fabricating or exaggerating one’s lawful eligibility to avoid the draft (e.g., letter of unfitness from a psychiatrist).
3) Taking advantage of exceptions in the draft law to which one is lawfully entitled (e.g., Dick Cheney’s and Bill Clinton’s student deferments).
4) Proactively getting into "safe" military service ("W" Bush volunteering for the National Guard).

Most people who use the term "draft dodging," have categories 1 and 2 in mind. Cheney is not a draft dodger under category 1 and 2, and Bush is not a draft dodger under categories 1 through 3.

The implications of the Althouse comment are that Bush and Kerry are in the same boat, in category 4. But that is neither fair nor accurate. While undoubtedly the Navy during Vietnam was a less dangerous service than, say, the Marine Corps, it was still combat duty that entailed assignment to a combat zone. The Texas Air National Guard was not. Moreover – and I cannot stress this enough – KERRY WAS SHOT AT IN COMBAT BY ENEMY SOLDIERS TRYING TO KILL HIM. Bush used his father’s influence to get assigned to part of the military in which there was an extremely low likelihood of getting within the same continent as actual fighting, and as events unfolded, he was able to take part in local political campaigns and go to business school without being shot at in combat by any enemy soldiers trying to kill him. Isn’t that a fairly significant ground to put Bush and Kerry in different categories? To call Kerry a "draft dodger," you would have to create a fifth category:

5) Someone who volunteered for less dangerous active military service during wartime, perhaps sort of hoping not to get shot at, but who ended up in combat where he did his job with courage even as enemy soldiers were shooting at him and trying to kill him.

Hmm, sounds like draft dodging to me.

I am quite comfortable with a definition of draft dodging as breaking or bending the law (categories 1 and 2), in which case neither Bush nor Cheney (nor Clinton) are draft dodgers. Many people whom many of us love and respect were category 1 and 2 draft dodgers, and as Althouse says, it was not a source of shame in many circles. But there is this difference. Bush and Cheney were not opposed to the Vietnam War, yet they found ways to avoid fighting in it. They were quite happy to let others fight that one for them. Bush found a safe way out of harm’s way that would enable him, in the future, to run for public office and have campaign biographies showing pictures of him in uniform.

I suspect that most category 1 and 2 draft dodgers during Vietnam were opposed to the Vietnam war. It is one thing to get yourself shot at by enemy soldiers trying to kill you when you believe that the war is a fundamentally good cause. It is quite another to put your life on the line for a war you believe your country should not be fighting. I like to think that I would have done whatever duty I was called on to do in World War II, but had I been of draft age during Vietnam, I’m afraid that I probably would have sought options in categories 1 through 4.

If people call Bush a draft dodger, they may be using badly chosen language, but are getting at the underlying truth: Bush and Cheney have an attitude toward war that is disturbing in a President and Vice President. Being in the rear echelon lets you have it both ways – you can tell everyone you did your duty, and be quite hawkish about sending the poor front-line slobs to get themselves shot at in the next war. There is no shame in dodging the draft for an unjust war.

The shame is in advocating wars that you yourself would not fight.

Saturday, September 25, 2004


Under Fire

Are there any Republicans – Bush administration Republicans – in foxholes?


There’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors about the candidates' military service, between the Liar, Liar Pants on Fire Swift Boat Veterans, and the Republican Conventioneers Purple Hearts Club Bandaids, and Rathergate, all of which have horribly confused issues in the public mind. But here’s a simple test that will make the whole thing crystal clear.

Ask yourself this:

If I’m in a foxhole in a combat zone, and enemy soldiers are shooting
at me and trying to kill me, and the only guy who can help me is the guy right next to me in the foxhole, who would I want that to be?

A) John Kerry (turned boat around and went back into firefight to
pull U.S. soldier out of the water)

B) George W. Bush (got powerful dad to pull strings to get him into
Texas Air National Guard)

C) Dick Cheney (got student deferment because "going to Vietnam was not
a priority for me")

D) Donald Rumsfeld (two-time Secretary of Defense, but lifetime

E) Paul Wolfowitz (has read a lot about war)

(Answer below.)

Setting aside all the murk and furor around "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and "Rathergate," two facts remain undisputed.

(1) John Kerry went to Vietnam, served in a combat capacity in a combat zone, got himself SHOT AT by ENEMY SOLDIERS WHO WERE TRYING TO KILL HIM, and by all credible accounts, performed courageously under fire. (2) George W. Bush used his powerful father’s influence to get a cushy placement in the Texas Air National Guard in order to guarantee that he would NOT have to go to Vietnam in a combat capacity and get himself shot at by enemy soldiers.

Now, my dear reader -- pause and breathe. What we make of the two UNDISPUTED FACTS for electoral purposes is another matter, and I’ll get to that. But for one moment, let’s just have these facts firmly in mind before we start going nutso.


Now for analysis. I for one do not believe that military service is the single most important qualification to be president. I voted for Clinton (went to Europe, smoked pot) against George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole (World War II combat veterans), because I’m a liberal and I believed that Bush and Dole would have made lousy presidents. For me, military service is a minor factor. Although the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, I have this quirky view that civilian control of our armed forces is important to our democratic constitution.

Furthermore, in past (Sept. 22) and future separate posts, I explain further why I think the whole presidential personality thing is overblown.

But the fact is there are people who believe that military service is an important qualification to be commander in chief. I suspect that many "undecided voters" believe this, because undecidedness often reflects an inability follow and understand serious political issues. I suspect that the most vocal believers in military service as a qualification for the presidency are right wing political hacks who get real noisy when it’s Clinton (Europe, pot) against Bush Senior or Dole (WW II), but then go all "Alice in Wonderland" on us when the combat boot is on the other foot.

In 1972, Karl Rove’s spiritual forebears somehow managed to portray democratic challenger George McGovern as a draft-card-burning hippie even though McGovern flew over 50 combat missions as pilot of a B-24 bomber during World War II. (Lest you think that was "safe" duty, the average life expectancy of a B-24 pilot was something like 35 missions.) Nixon donned the uniform (in WW II) but (not unlike "W") skulked around far far away from combat, yet he was somehow more fit to be commander in chief according to Republican militarists.

Bush’s brain, Karl Rove, has managed this time – primarily through his front organization, Swift Boat Veterans who Either Have a Long-Standing Grudge Against Kerry or will Simply Do Anything for Undisclosed Rewards – to turn Kerry’s combat service into a political liability. There is no doubt about it, Rove is an evil genius. What’s so disgusting about that, and the "Purple Heart" bandaids, is the particularly dishonorable brand of hypocrisy. Republican candidates are more than happy to have their candidates collect the veterans endorsements, and soak up the heroism by association with past and present medal winners. They – and this includes Bush and Cheney – go around saying how much they honor those who have served, etc., and yet their conventioneers put on the Purple Heart bandaids and their surrogates shamelessly trash Kerry, who did serve, because he’s running against them. Clinton supporters in 1992 didn’t make fun of George H. W. Bush’s WWII service by pointing out that his combat experience consisted entirely of getting his plane shot down and his ass fished out of the ocean. The man put himself in harms way in combat, and deserves our respect. If you’re the Republicans in 2004, why not just say John Kerry served his country honorably during the Vietnam War, but we don’t believe that is relevant to his qualifications for Presidency?

The 2004 Republicans don’t say that because they want it both ways. They want "War Hero" to matter because they think it works for them. If they have a combat veteran for a candidate, they want to use it, and if they have a cold war or a hot war to make into a campaign issue, they want their guy at least to look like a war hero, pictured on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight helmet saying, "Mission (in Iraq) Accomplished."

If you do believe that we have to look for personality clues in our presidential candidates, then the respective war records of Bush and Kerry are relevant in the following two ways.

1) Calm under fire. Arguably, the president should be someone who can keep his head and exercise sound judgment under intense pressure. A soldier in combat is faced with potentially numerous decisions under what may be the most high-pressure situation in human experience. Again, I’m not saying that this qualifies someone to be president, but Kerry turned his boat around, went into a firefight and fished a Green Beret out of the river. Bush, in contrast, has never been under fire.

2) Appreciation for war. None of our war leaders in the Bush administration are combat veterans. Bush – cushy, safe Texas air national guard. Cheney – "going to Vietnam was not a priority of mine." Rumsfeld – two-time Secretary of Defense, but lifetime civilian. Wolfowitz – has read a lot about war. Colin Powell is a distinguished vet, of course, but they don’t listen to him. Arguably, a Vietnam veteran whose thinking about that war is shaped by his own combat experience has a better appreciation of the costs and consequences of committing our soldiers to military adventures like, say, Iraq. Perhaps Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz would have been a little less gung-ho if they had ever gotten themselves shot at by enemy soldiers before.

By the way, here’s the answer to the test at the beginning of this post.

If you answered B, C, D, or E, you’re lying. The correct answer is A. Even for Karl Rove.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


Go Knock Yourselves Out – with liberty and justice for all

Congressional Republicans propose to prohibit federal courts from hearing constitutional challenges to the pledge of allegiance – So what?

[Law & Politics]

The established playbook of Republican electoral strategy contains a number of ways to get distract voters from their economic interests and get them to focus on “social” issues, such as gun control, abortion, gay rights, the death penalty, flag burning – and, of course, the pledge of allegiance.

Thus, on September 15, the Republican majority on the House Judiciary Committee rammed through a bill that would strip the power of federal courts — including the Supreme Court — to hear cases making constitutional challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance. In this way, the Republicans hope to reignite the furor that occurred when a federal appeals court ruled that the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance violated the First Amendment clause prohibiting government establishment of religion. That furor, you recall, died down when a politically savvy Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision on narrow technical grounds that left open the question of whether “under God” does indeed violate the Establishment Clause.

The Republicans are counting on Democrats to impale themselves on a politically unpopular, but principled stance stance that federal courts should always be open to claims that the government is violating constitutional rights. In the history of jurisdiction stripping bills, there have been occasions when the Democrats have had to bite this bullet – court-stripping bills aimed at depriving federal courts of jurisdiction to hear school desegregation cases is the leading example. This time is not one of them.

What bad thing in Constitutional law would occur if the Republican proposal were passed, and lower federal courts would be barred from hearing constitutional challenges to the pledge? I say, nothing. To begin with, the constitutionality of jurisdiction stripping bills is far from clear – if the bill were passed, the federal courts could strike it down as unconstitutional, on the ground that jurisdiction stripping bills violate separation of powers or the First Amendment right to petition government. (The latter argument is that the First Amendment's requirement of viewpoint and content neutrality regarding speech also applies to "the right to petition government" clause.)

Even if lower federal court jurisdiction could be stripped, have you checked the roster of federal judges lately? It’s a predominantly Republican bunch, the majority of whom are likely to be somewhat inhospitable to claims that parts of the Pledge are unconstitutional. If the bill is successful, and itself withstands constitutional challenge, that will not eliminate the possibility of bringing a constitutional challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance as established by any state or local institution. Instead, a challenger has to go into state court, not federal court.

There are 12 federal courts of appeals that could conceivably decide a pledge challenge in the federal system. But challengers to the pledge who are “forced” by the jurisdiction-stripping law to go into state court would get up to 50 bites at the apple with their constitutional tests. That could get very interesting.

The bill also purports to forbid the Supreme Court from hearing pledge challenges. I say, let them pass that one too. When state courts decide cases based on the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to review their decisions, and the constitutionality of stripping the Supreme Court of this appellate review is highly doubtful. But again, remember Bush v. Gore? 50 differing results on the constitutionality of the pledge may be a lot more fun than one boring old U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding “under God.” And in a few years the Republicans will have to lead the charge the other way, to give the federal courts back their jurisdiction.

By the way Democrats, listen up: if you do want to oppose the jurisdiction stripping bill, you should say that you’re doing so to prevent “rogue state courts” from having their way with the Pledge.


The media’s liberal bias

Don’t we wish?

[Politics and Media]

The media’s liberal bias is an urban myth that will not die in my lifetime. I wish the media had a liberal bias. That would actually help fulfill the constitutionally-recognized, First-Amendment-kissed role of the press to act as a watchdog for the public and provide a check on the structural conservative biases built into government. What, you say, a conservative bias ... in government? Here’s the short answer: Remember the problem of money in politics? Remember who has most of the money?

I keep looking hopefully for that liberal bias, and not finding it. NPR – also known as “Namby Pamby Radio” – has been bending over backwards to avoid even the appearance of liberal bias ever since the Republicans took over Congress in 1994 and made NPR bend over forewards for a spanking by ominously threatening its budget. Drive time radio? Lotsa liberals there. The right wing has some powerful media bullhorns – Fox News, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, The Washington Times, The New York Post – and liberals have Michael Moore, independent filmmakers and those thick magazines they sell at the checkout rack at my natural foods grocery store. The Utne Reader v. Fox News Network – there’s a fair and balanced fight.

This brings us to the mainstream media. Let’s start with the once big and now incredibly shrinking three national network news shows. Dan Rather (more on him shortly) leans Democratic. Score a big one for the liberal team! Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw lean Republican. Well, I guess there’s your liberal bias right there. Never mind that the networks are owned by powerful profit-oriented conglomerates whose interests lean conservative. There’s also The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, those liberal rags.

We'll get to them -- first, lets try to separate perception from fact. There’s a perception problem here, the probably stems from a natural tendency we all have to feel outnumbered or surrounded when a lot of people disagree with our views. In a separate post, I’ll take a look at actual personality differences between liberals and conservatives that lead conservatives to overstate the existence of a liberal bias.

What are the facts? Opinion research on journalists shows that journalists are mostly centrist; are more pro-business and conservative on economic issues and “welfare state” issues than the general public; are more liberal on social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion or gun control.

The first thing one notes about this pattern is how neatly it tracks with the present-day Republican political strategy. If you get the voters to focus on social issues like gay marriage, abortion or gun control, you can actually elect candidates who will hurt them on economic issues such as social security, health care, corporate welfare and tax cuts and for the wealthy. The kernal of truth in the “liberal media” myth lies in the media’s mild liberalism on the social issues; so by promoting the “liberal media” myth, Republican strategists get a 2-for-1 benefit. They get the public to focus on the social issues and distract them from economic issues; and they get a built in spin control on any media story that favors the Democratic opposition.

The whole Dan Rathergate thing plays into this in a similar way – that’s the subject of a separate post.

Now we'll consider the New York Times, a partisan Democratic newspaper if there ever was one, right? Let’s fast rewind to election 2000. A content analysis of news stories in the 2000 presidential race conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that the mainstream media was significantly more likely to publish news stories that portraying Bush favorably than portraying Gore favorably, and was more likely to run negative stories about Gore than Bush.

The New York Times, in the interest of journalistic balance and impartiality, usually runs a Bush campaign story and a Kerry campaign story every day. What could be more fair and balanced? If the Times had a liberal bias, you would expect to find their stories slanted at least slightly toward favorable portrayals of the Kerry campaign and unfavorable portrayals of the Bush campaign. In 2000, my anecdotal recollection, which matches up with the Pew study numbers, was that coverage of the Gore campaign typically did one of two things: it either headlined the “fact” that the Gore campaign was “in trouble” or “listless” or “lacked direction”; or it would dilute the Gore message by focusing on underlying strategy: e.g., Not “Gore Says Bush Will Appoint Anti-Choice Judges,” but “Gore Courts Women Votes by Claiming Bush Will Appoint Anti-Choice Judges.” The Bush stories tended to more to portray a focused campaign or to simply report the Bush message.

Lo and behold, what is the New York Times saying today? Headline, page A1:
“Kerry in a Struggle for a Democratic Base: Women”
This isn’t an aberration. Check back over the past several weeks. Count ‘em up. There’s a marked tendency to report disagreement within the Kerry campaign. You might say, well the Kerry campaign is in disarray. I suspect that any political campaign is chaotic enough, or has enough disagreement among top advisors, that such stories could be written about it, so why Kerry, why now? More importantly – in a later post – why is that newsworthy?

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


I wanna marry that man

“Politics makes strange bedfellows,”but does that mean we have to choose a president as if we were looking for someone sleep with?


There’s too much “cult of personality” in our presidential elections. Commentators have for years stressed the importance of personal attributes of presidential candidates such as “charisma” or “likeability.”
“Yes, yes, we know he has policies, but has he shown himself to be the sort of man you’d want to invite into your living room?”
And they’re not just describing voter behavior – our First-Amendment-blessed watchdogs of the press want to be charmed themselves. Recall how during the 2000 campaign, Bush’s press entourage salivated and wagged its collective tail because he gave each of them a pet nickname?

What difference can it possibly make that our president be likeable? I love my friends, but I don’t know if there’s one whom I think should be president. Is there really a connection between between being charming and governing well? And charming in what setting – the campaign trail? A televised debate? I don’t need or want to make friends with the candidate I vote for, since to me, the very desire to be president is a sign of serious neurosis. (At the end of the day Al Gore was too well adjusted to want it badly enough to fight for it enough.)

Al Gore supposedly blew a presidential race that was his to lose because he was “a bore.” John Kerry is taking many hits, even from Democratic voters, for his supposed failure to convey personal charm. We pay obsessive attention to how candidates dress, how they kiss their wives, how they look. Ever notice how, since Johnson versus Goldwater, no serious contender for the Presidency has been bald or worn glasses in public?

The irrationality plainly spills over into substance. A friend of mine who is a swing voter says she is going to vote for Bush because she’s afraid of terrorism and Bush “makes her feel safe.” My friend is not an idiot; she is just being honest. And she is not alone in this as her reason for voting for Bush.

Feeling safe is nice. We all want to feel safe. But there is a difference, of course, between “feeling safe” and safety, between emotional and physical security. “Feeling safe” with someone is an emotional precondition to intimacy, and the line between perception and reality is quite blurred because emotional safety is conveyed only intuitively. It makes sense to choose as a spouse someone who makes you feel safe; for physical protection, you can rely on good locks, the local police and perhaps a rottweiler.

But what is this “Bush makes me feel safe” when it comes to terrorism? My friend can’t point to a single policy undertaken by the Bush administration that has made us safer from terrorism. The underfunded and ignored Homeland Security agency? The war in Iraq? The new cadres of TSA workers who make us take off our shoes, not every time but every other time we walk through the metal detector, and smirk at X-rays of our luggage? Security theatre, it has been aptly called. I’m not saying you are automatically irrational if you vote for Bush. It is extremely rational to vote for Bush, for example, if you plan to inherit thirty million dollars when your parents die. But I am saying don’t make this man the president of my country just because you think you might want to set him up with your aunt on a date.

Sunday, September 19, 2004


That's why they actually play the games

Do presidential polls give us meaningful information?


We’ve all heard this one. The underdog sports team pulls off a huge upset victory, defying all the predictions. The laconic coach says, "That’s why we actually play the games."

According to the recent headline-grabbing Gallup poll, completed on September 15, Bush leads Kerry by 13 points, with 55 to 42 %. We might as well not bother to hold the election.

However, the fact is that other polls in the same time frame show the race much closer. Democracy Corps (completed one day before Gallup) shows Bush up by only 1 point (49-48) and IBD/CSM/TIPP (3 days older than Gallup) shows the race dead even at 47. Pew (two days older) shows Bush up by one point and Harris (two days older) shows Kerry up by one point. These are all polls of "likely voters" and ask the same question, "If the election were being held today..."

What explains this divergence of 14 points one way or the other? What's going on? I talked to a couple of our sociology colleagues and heard some interesting theories. Apparently, the screening criteria for likely voters varies considerably from poll to poll. Criteria include the respondent's own report of likelihood of voting, whether they voted in the past X number of presidential elections and other criteria. Apparently, it is the more restrictive criteria that result in polls favoring Bush; these therefore tend to undercount the preferences of new or newly energized voters. Other theories suggest that polling accuracy today is increasingly undermined by telephone behavior changes, such as people being more likely to reject telemarketing-type phone calls and the emergence of primary reliance on cell phones, which presumably are not called by pollsters.

I wondered whether vastly diverging polls are unusual, and so I checked a couple of web sites containing a few presidential polls from 2000. We all know what happened then: Gore won by a razor thin margin, and became president... Well, you know what I mean. A quick snapshot suggests that different polls on the same dates diverged in 2000, but by about half as much as this year's polls. In mid October 2000, most polls showed Bush with 48%, and leading Gore by 4-6 points. Democracy Corps showed Gore ahead by 2 points, and CBS showed the race dead even. So it seems that there is more "interpoll"divergence in the 2004 race (13 points) than the 2000 race (8 points).

What is also interesting (and I did not remember this) is how much swing there was in polls throughout October. Indeed, check this out:

The Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll on October 10/27/2000, less than a week before the election, reported: Bush 52, Gore 39 !!!

CNN/Time Polls of likely voters, on 10/27/2000: Bush 49, Gore 43 (!!!)

Election eve polls in 2000 showed that the race had tightened up a great deal, yet I do not recall any major event that changed the election dynamics against Bush in 2000. By the way, 7 of the 10 major election eve polls predicted that Bush would win the popular vote by 2-5 points.

Another factor that is underplayed in the reports on polls that are scaring Kerry supporters is the persuadability of poll respondents. Here's an interesting 2000 poll result, also from CNN/Time:

Q: Is your mind made up?
A: October 25-26: Yes 87%, No 12%
October 4-5: Yes 83%, No 17%
September 5-6: Yes 77%, No 21%

That's a lot of persuadability one week before the election, and a ton of persuadability in September, particularly in a close race. This year more minds are made up, but there is still a significant amount of persuadability -- 16 % of registered voters, which may well be enough to tip the election. I believe that many "if election were held today" polls include "leaners." I believe that Gallup counts voters "leaning" toward Bush as Bush votes. Yet a recent poll by Annenberg Center for Public Policy shows that among "persuadable" voters (people who report that they are either undecided or likely to change their mind by election day), Bush has lost ground since August.

Other studies of presidential vote patterns have shown that undecideds tend to break against the incumbent by about 2-1.The media loves to report "trial heat" polls (who would you vote for today), because they sell papers, but do they really give us any meaningful information? News outlets report the polls, and commentators wring their hands over what "causes" poll numbers to be the way they are. But none of our pundits tries to analyze how closely correlated a verbal poll response is to actual voting behavior. Remember how Nader in 2000 ended up with less than 3% (2.74) of the vote when we all expected him to do better? Election eve polls showed him getting 3-7%; no poll understated Nader's vote, and nearly all overstated it. One theory I heard is that voters in "battleground states," many votes who said all along they would vote for Nader got into the voting booth and just couldn't bring themselves to help Bush in that way -- and switched to Gore. Might there be such a phenomenon in which Bush leaners switch to Kerry at the last minute?

What conclusions are to be drawn from this? Are there demographic shifts that have undermined polling reliability in a way that polling techniques have yet to adjust to? Are presidential opinion polls farther out in time than a week away simply a poor predictor of the outcome in a close race? Are they merely suggestive tools that require a great deal more sophistication in interpretation than the media gives them? Are they pseudo-social science?

Remember Dewey v. Truman?

That’s why they actually hold the elections.


The Columnist Manifesto -- on the Blogging Revolution.

Is the media and its army of pundits and editors serving the public interest?

Public opinion in a democracy is a crucial check on the abuse of government power, and the ongoing struggle of a select few to shape and control public opinion is therefore a struggle for power. In my view, today’s shapers of public opinion -- our "opinion leaders," our editors who select the news for us, our editorialists and news commentators, our "talking heads," our pundits – are not serving us, the public, very well. They are presiding over what may be the greatest disconnect between opinions and interests in the history of the republic, in which ordinary people are voting in record numbers for political leaders who give us policies most of us don’t want: destabilizing foreign policies when we want international stability and security; environmental plunder when we want environmental protection; stock speculation and Enron when we want secure savings for our old age; the list goes on and on. Pundits may not be the cause of this disconnect, but they are part of the problem -- yet they’re supposed to be part of the solution.

"The media" are the only private enterprise actually mentioned in the United States Constitution, the charter of our democracy. "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." (U.S. Const., First Amendment.) They are a private enterprise charged with an important public trust. As strongly as I believe in a free press, I also recognize that the press – the media – is primarily in the business of making money.

Traditional opinion-shapers are columnists and editorial writers, media figures in front of the camera, and those behind the scenes who decide what stories to run, and how to cover them. They have always been an oligarchy: an elite few chosen by those "media outlets" with sufficient market power to reach large audiences. They tell us what to think – screaming at us across the airwaves, or spinning webs of spin on editorial pages or in their editorial choices on what and how to report the news – and then they take polls to tell us what we think and report that too, as though it were news. And then they tell us what to think about what we think.

I’m offering this, my first blog entry, to join the blogging revolution. A blog is revolutionary because it allows every person to be his or her own columnist. Why should columnists only be those annointed by the monied media? Let public opinion be expressed, not in the polls reported by CNN and USA Today, but in millions of blogs. Let there be a cacaphony of citizen columnists whose voices rise up to shout down the professional pundits and the opinion manipulators who act as mouthpieces and masks for the powerful manipulators who give them air time. Long live the columnist revolution!

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