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Tuesday, November 24, 2009  

All Tomorrow's Parties

Matt Taibbi has a very raw, very illuminating post up at True/Slant on Sarah Palin and the media. It's less about Palin herself than on the culture of the political media, its role in separating "credible" candidates from "dark horse," "second-tier," and "fringe" candidates--that is, those whose only support comes from stupid voters rather than party barons, financiers, or reporters' bosses. This is not a partisan phenomenon. Joe Biden could have paraded naked through Des Moines in November 2007 and not attracted a single reporter. Likewise, I remember caucus-night graphics on CNN that blanked out 20-25% of the Republican vote pie chart because about half of it was going to Ron Paul. At one point he was running ahead of Fred Thompson, so that required Ol' Fred--a very serious, very musky candidate--to be kept off the board as well.

Anyway, decline of traditional media notwithstanding, I think Taibbi's main point stands: the political media establishment's hive mind decides who must be accorded ordinary respect and who may be attacked with total impunity. If Sarah Palin has joined the latter group, it's because she's been "cut loose" by the establishment figures whose hidden but crucial protection has sheltered her thus far. The whole thing is really good and worth the read, so much so that I'm hesitant to excerpt, but here goes:

The press corps that is bashing her skull in right now is the same one that hyped that WMD horseshit for like four solid years and pom-pommed America to war with Iraq over the screeching objections of the entire planet. It’s the same press corps that rolled out the red carpet for someone very nearly as abjectly stupid as Sarah Palin to win not one but two terms in the White House. If there was any kind of consensus support for Palin inside the beltway, the criticism of her, bet on it, would be almost totally confined to chortling east coast smartasses like me and Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan.

What the people who are flipping out about the treatment of Palin should be asking themselves is what it means when it’s not just jerks like us but
everybody piling on against Palin. For those of you who can’t connect the dots, I’ll tell you what it means. It means she’s been cut loose. It means that all five of the families have given the okay to this hit job, including even the mainstream Republican leaders. You teabaggers are in the process of being marginalized by your own ostensible party leaders in exactly the same way the anti-war crowd was abandoned by the Democratic party elders in the earlier part of this decade. Like the antiwar left, you have been deemed a threat to your own party’s “winnability."

Taibbi only scratches the surface of this political-media dysfunction. He analogizes the Palin hit-job to the one against Howard Dean--mutatis mutandis, of course (Howard Dean having, strangely enough, run for and then completed more than one term as a governor). What's sad about that comparison, however fitting, is that it works along another axis, too. Dean, it's easily forgotten, was a classic "dark horse" before he was an "insurgent." His profile, insofar as he had one, was as a health care wonk, fiscal moderate, and policy reformer. Except for having signed a then-groundbreaking civil unions law for Vermont, he would have fit slightly to the right of John Kerry or Dick Gephardt on most domestic issues. His opposition to the Iraq war put him in that awful political-media space Taibbi describes, where his only base of support was from stupid voters. All the same, the excitement he generated, and the profile of support he attracted, was wildly out of proportion to his actual positions. He was no radical and no anti-interventionist. He even campaigned on something like the surge. But for Democratic voters who had been treated like crap by their party leadership for two years, he was the only game in town.

Palin, too, has enjoyed a groundswell of support that has little or nothing to do with her actual positions on issues, insofar as she has any. Her views are, as Daniel Larison never tires of saying, entirely conventional for a contemporary Republican. As populism, the Palin phenomenon is all cultural. Her followers are understandably tired of being treated like morons who will do whatever they're told, and Sarah Palin has somehow come to symbolize that disgruntlement, despite being exactly the kind of establishment product the teabaggers are supposedly disgruntled with.

Lest Democrats sneer too much, let's remember the process by which our current president wrested a nomination that the political-media establishment had all but called for Hillary as late as October 2007. Obama had one, and only one, substantive issue on which he could separate himself from Clinton, and that was Iraq. One bad vote by Clinton and one good speech by Obama, years before, set the stage for this turn of events. Amazingly, even by 2007, the Democratic primary field was full of Iraq AUMF supporters. Obama had the Iraq issue to himself. This allowed many of us to imagine that Obama had a more fundamental difference of perspective from the bipartisan foreign policy combine that gave us Iraq, Guantanamo, black sites, and torture. Remember all those Obama campaign logos that were matched or melded with peace signs? The candidate himself never encouraged this; like any major politician who dissents from a given war, he made up for it by sounding extra butch on other things, including Afghanistan.* And now it turns out that, smart and sober as he may be, Obama is pretty much what he always indicated he was: a conventional American politician who disagreed with the Iraq war strictly as a matter of tactics and strategy (though he was right about that, and it was a pretty important thing to get right).

So why did Dean's and Palin's populism-lite earn the ire of the combine while Obama's version managed to win out? There are a lot of factors here, but one of them surely is that Obama didn't believe his own PR. In fact, he didn't have any PR to believe. We did almost all the work of inflating his foreign policy worldview for him. He ran a remarkably cautious, conservative campaign precisely because he could use Iraq to galvanize so much of the activist energy. It was a brilliant feat, looking back on it. Needless to say, it is something Sarah Palin will not be able to replicate.

* The 2004 field was actually more crowded with opponents of the Iraq War than the 2008 field. Bob Graham was an outspoken war critic, but he usually phrased his dissent in terms of going after the real enemy, by which he meant Hizbollah. As later events have shown, such a focus would have been a disaster.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:49 AM
I'm so tired of reading about Palin. I hope by talking about her so much now, she won't get the GOP nod later.
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