Tuesday, January 31, 2006

navel-gazing 101

You know, after a really good defeat, nothing satisfies like two-dozen postmortems. Blogger “A” thinks the failed Alito filibuster is an embarrassing disaster; blogger “B” thinks it’s an amazing victory. Newsweekly “C” thinks it’s all about 2008; newspaper “D” thinks it spells disaster for Democrats in 2006. Broadcast networks A, B, and C hardly think anything at all. . . .

Mmm, Mmm, toasty!

Actually, I effin hate postmortems. Not that I don’t believe in analysis and learning from your mistakes—I do—but they sure as hell don’t make me feel better. This is one way that politics is not like philosophy. . . or therapy.

No, we can’t hug this one out, and Pyrrhic victories will feel like defeats—over and over again—until real victories come along. But, here is something else I feel: If you believe something strongly going into a fight, that belief isn’t wrong just because you lost. There are numerous clichés about how long it takes to build Rome or how far you have to move your foot to begin a really long walk, but the central fact is that if you think principled losses feel bad, just try fighting when you don’t believe in anything but winning.

No doubt the ersatz Republicans over at the DLC will trot out their tired clique with their tired pronouncements about reconnecting with the “center.” And, no doubt those same DLC-ers will work behind the scenes to make sure nothing so embarrassing as 25 Democrats speaking up for their base ever happens again. In fact, they already have, accusing the no-cloture 25 of “pandering to the blogosphere.”

Well, as Digby points out in one of the better post-morts, being responsive to your constituents is not the same thing as pandering. Quoting from the book Politicians Don’t Pander, his post questions whether the term “pander” is just used to thwart any urge by elected representatives to cater to popular opinion.

Now, I don’t want to take this too far—you certainly won’t see me making a case for “poll driven” politics—but when you are elected to represent a group, and that group expresses a strong belief, is it pandering to work on behalf of that group? Surely, it has to look and feel better to respond to your constituents than to respond to political consultants, party hacks, media critics, or, most certainly, pressure from the opposing party. Yes, our representatives should always try to speak the truth, but the dialogue should be with the people whom they represent.

So, I don’t think those 25 Democrats that tried to stop Alito and the Bush agenda were pandering to the blogosphere or any other interest group. Did they, the Senators, hear them? I certainly hope so. And in hearing all the people who phoned, faxed, and/or blogged, I think those 25 did themselves proud (and not just because they agreed with me). Those Senators represented the Democratic voters who put them there, stood in opposition to a set of ideals that they have stated they oppose, and have helped define their party as distinct from the Republican hegemony.

No, if there was any pandering going on during this fight, it was committed by a group that has no business being poll-driven—let’s call them “the news media.”

Months ago, the so-not-liberal media decided that Alito was a shoe-in. Questions about the Judge’s ethics and prior rulings were marginalized as just so much Democratic casting for a wedge issue. The Judiciary Committee hearings (no matter how little we think of the Democrats’ performance there) ceased to be the top story after the requisite cliché swearing-in photo-op (oh, there was the crying wife blip). Most reports lead with the questioning being not much more than “partisan squabbles”—usually with “he said, he said” sound bites—and followed with the purported concession that Alito was “imminently qualified.”

When it came time to discuss a possible filibuster, it was instantly dismissed as being unlikely and doomed to fail. Let me reiterate, the reporting went beyond a whip count; most reports predicted that any move towards a filibuster flat out wouldn’t happen, and then basically described the “tactic” as foolhardy and obstructionist. Kerry’s call for a filibuster was openly derided on the front page of the New York Times. The White House talking point, that Kerry made the call from Davos, was echoed just about everywhere. Time has decided it was all about ’08—it had nothing to do with what Kerry might believe—end of story.

After Monday’s floor fight, not one of the nightly news broadcasts lead with the cloture vote. And, again, when they got to the story, it was summed up and dismissed with opposing sound bites.

Granted, Monday was big day for graphic misery in Iraq—but, you know what, every day is. Most likely, the Senate debate was deemed by news execs as “inside the beltway” or “politics as usual” (rather than a debate about the future direction of the country)—and even a passing glance at their audience data says “eighteen-to-thirty-fours” just don’t care.

But, here’s where being, in theory, “responsive” to your constituents—in this case viewers—is pandering. It actually isn’t up to a chosen demographic slice to decide what is newsworthy for an entire country. No, this is a place where there is something to be said for “elitism” (some might also call it “education”). Journalists are trained to ferret out a story. The fourth estate is supposed to “speak truth to power,” and do so within earshot of the rest of us. As Ted Koppel said Sunday, in his debut op-ed for the New York Times,

Most television news programs are designed to satisfy the perceived appetites of our audiences. That may be not only acceptable but unavoidable in entertainment; in news, however, it is the journalist who should be telling their viewers what is important, and not the other way around.

I’m with Ted on that point—and I don’t think I’m living in some mythical past (as Ted was accused of by Slate columnist Jack Shafer). In fact, there are pages already (and still to be) written about how print and broadcast media has evolved in the age of corporate consolidation, but I think I can say this today: pandering and responsiveness are not the same thing, not in the news business, and not in politics either.

Being responsive in news would be about spending time and energy on communicating what journalists understand to be the news. In other words, if a major story is not believed to be of interest to a core demographic, don’t jettison the story; instead, work on making the story interesting. Explain why it matters to everyone instead of trying to guess what might matter to a group that consultants tell you is your target. (And I say this as one of those evil consultants.)

Being responsive in politics is about having a discussion with your constituents. It’s about exchanging ideas—communicating where you stand, and understanding what your base wants. Pandering is trying to construct a public persona that is not an accurate representation of who you really are in an attempt to “win.” (This brings up a whole other thought: Bush doesn’t pander to his base, he serves them. They are in concord. Bush panders to the rest of us when he pretends not to be a rightwing ideologue.)

I don’t think the 25 Senators who tried to save America from an Alito-tipped Supreme Court were pandering to the blogosphere, or anyone else for that matter. I think they were responding to voters who represent the core of the Democratic Party. I do think that Democrats and Republicans who voted for cloture on Monday but will vote against Alito on Tuesday are pandering. If you were against Sam Alito, you needed to stop him the only way you could; any effort to explain the split vote is nothing more than an attempt maximize votes at the expense of any real beliefs.

And, when you straddle the fence like that and still lose—as Democrats have been doing ever since the DLC gained sway—that’s when it really feels bad. Let’s hope that the anti-Alito 25, and all the people that helped support them, have opened a door to feeling good. . . and maybe winning, too.


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