Thursday, September 30, 2004

About That Debate 

Over the weekend, I happened to catch, from among the previous presidential debates that C-Span has been cablecasting, the first Bush-Gore debate from 2000. At first I thought I couldn't bare to watch it, so I stood for moment, remote in hand, just to make sure there wasn't any reason for revisiting all that anger and outrage.

I knew there was when it felt like I was looking at a totally different debate than the one I remembered.

Where was Gore's stiffness, his odd affect, his hectoring, lecturing tone, where were the sighs and the rolling of the eyes, where was the know-it-all dismissiveness, where was Bush hanging in there sufficiently to eventually be considered the winner on likability, style, presidentiality. Now let me be clear; at the time, I thought Gore not only won, I thought Bush did rather poorly; I've always found Bush's affect to be at least as peculiar as Gore's and I thought he didn't look at all presendential during that first debate. There were even moments of unattractive, fear-provoked gracelessness, and on substance, and it was clear that Bush's positions wouldn't pass even the most casual of fact-checking exercises.

We all know what happened the next day, when the Bush campaign spinners were successful in infecting the discourse with the view of Gore that they'd been promoting through-out the campaign - the serial exaggerator, the man who would do anything to be president, the man who didn't know who he was because he wore different kinds of clothing depending on the event. It worked because the entire SCLM had already, by the first debate, become an echo-chamber for Republican spin. How Gore managed to get half a million more votes than Bush, given the delight with which just about everyone who had access to an inch of print or fifteen minutes of airtime made cruel, demeaning fun of him, says something about how much better a campaign Gore waged than he's ever been given credit for. Even his win in the popular vote was immediately recast, after election day, as a loss, because with such peace and prosperty he shoulda won by a landslide.

Digby has a fascinating post that's relevant here; it features a description of Bush during one of his early debates running for the Republican nomination for governor; the description is almost exactly the one used all those years later to undercut Gore. Once again Rove was projecting onto Bush's opponent the most obvious weaknesses from which Bush himself suffers.

We've all been over this history; most of us know it by heart. But it isn't until you see that first debate again that you realize the full dimensions of the swindle perpetrated on the American electorate in which pretty much the entire SCLM, that same SCLM covering the Kerry/Bush contest four years later, was complicit.

No one has chronicled that outrage as well as has that national treasure, Bob Sommerby; he was at it again in yesterday's Daily Howler, and still is in today's. Read them, and the links he provides to his own contemporaneous coverage of how completely and utterly the SCLM in 2000 flunked the most minimal test of its responsibilities as a free press in a representative democracy. Do it even if you think you already know all there is to know about it, even if you've read everything Bob's written about this. So have I, and reading it again made me realize that the blogisphere, the left half of it anyway, ought to be thinking about what we can do to keep exactly the same thing from happening to John Kerry.

The Kerry coverage hasn't been quite as bad as was Gore's in 2000, but Kerry isn't liked by most of the SCLM, and he's been gored more than once during this campaign. As was Dr. Dean in the primaries, as would any Democrat, no matter what Mickey Kaus pretends to believe about the foolish reasons the Democratic electorate voted overwhelmingly for Kerry in the primaries. So, if they don't like Kerry, do they like Bush? A lot of the SCLM does; we often forget how many card-carrying right wingers are full fledged members - everyone who appears on Fox, which includes such mainstream biggies as Michael Barone, Charles Krauthamer, Jeffrey Birnbaum, Bill Kristol, everyone who writes for the Washington Times, who also often appear on Fox, like Bill Sammon; the NR Cornerites, who have a second home at CNN these days, Kate O'Beirne, Tucker Carlson, god-help-us Jonah Goldberg, Rich Lowry, Stephen Hayes, a whole slew of Republican operatives, like Jack Burnbaum and Cliff May and let's not forget Bob Novak or Bill Schneider; compare the number of writers who appear in The Nation who also appear on any of the three cable news networks compared with The Weekly Standard writers who get airtime such . When John Leo is considered mainstream, when David Brooks is able to pass himself off as a centrist, you know that the discourse has been skewed dramatically to the right.

What motivates that part of the media, Judy, Howard, Chris, Norah, Aaron, Jeff, and on and on, which isn't hardcore right, but manages never to say anything displeasing to that constituent? My guess: careerism and fear.

Whatever the reason, from early this Spring, when Kerry became the putative candidate, he's been "framed" as the electable candidate whom no one likes, as a man with a long history of political opportunism, as a many who has failed to distinguish himself in his public life, yes, a war hero of sorts, but doesn't he brag too much about that, a candidate who should have known better than to marry that Heinz woman, a candidate whose positions may have been grossly distorted by Bush campaign ads to an unprecedented degree, but who clearly brought that on himself by being so vague, changing his mind too often, and just in general being too damned nuanced, not to mention that he comes from the wealthy upper crust, a man who is boring on the stump, glum and essentially unlikable, who can't connect with ordinary Americans, probably because he's a liberal, was most likely lied about by those Swift Vets For Truth guys, but brought that on himself , too, by acting like he was some kind of Audie Murphy in Vietnam, and then basing his entire campaign not on any particular issues, but solely on the four months he spent in Viet Nam, which opened him up to charges that his leadership of the anti-war veteran's movement was treasonous, and if any of these claims could be called slanderous, that's his fault too, for making his fellow Vietnam vets so angry.

Of course all of th above is nonsense, untrue and unfair, as anyone knows who's watched CSpan's coverage of Kerry campaigning, or listened to his speeches, and his interviews with even a modicum of attention, but since clearly that cohort doesn't include the SCLM, the frame of untruths, endlessly repeated, has become, as it did with Gore, more real than the actuality of the candidate himself.

Welcome to America, the world's oldest and greatest democracy.

Here's a little something to help you frame tonights debate; it's a piece of a transcript from yesterday's extended Hardball, in which Richard Holbrooke takes the battle to Chris Matthews and Pat Buchanan:

HOLBROOKE: But I think that the issue here is clear. Iraq is not going as well as the president and his senior advisers have said it is. And the senior advisers are publicly disagreeing with each other and with him. The American public will have to decide whether they want to offer four more years to an administration which has misled them on Iraq from the get-go on weapons of mass destruction, on democracy, dancing in the streets, and is presumably therefore telling them about future events and an equally overtly optimistic rose-colored way.

MATTHEWS: The challenge, it seems to me, faced by your candidate, John Kerry, is that all those things you‘ve said, he said before. And yet, almost half the American people believe that Iraq was involved in an attack on our country on 9/11. The vice president continues to suggest that there was a threat from nuclear weaponry from Saddam Hussein, that it was in fact a connection to al Qaeda. They continue to say that the construction efforts over there are going along well. And they‘re not being reported sufficiently by the American press. In other words, their argument will stand tomorrow night. When will yours begin to sell?

HOLBROOKE: First, I challenge every premise in your question. According to the polling data, over half the public knows the truth, despite the administration misleading it. And the other half has to just learn by listening to reality. And I think your question is frankly not fairly phrased, Chris. The fact is that the administration has been successful in fooling some of the people all of the time and most of the people some of the time...

MATTHEWS: I have fresh information on public opinion. And the opinion is that the president would do a better job in handling the situation in Iraq than your candidate. Isn‘t that a challenge for him tomorrow night?

HOLBROOKE: That is because the president and the administration misled the public on the reality in Iraq. And the public has to look at the reality. Look, it comes down to this. If the president, Donald Rumsfeld and his colleagues and Dick Cheney are right, then NBC News is wrong. Then Fox News is wrong. Then CNN and CBS and ABC are all wrong because you can‘t have it both ways. Even “Newsweek” is wrong if the president is right.

MATTHEWS: Let me to go Pat Buchanan. Pat, take over here with Ambassador Holbrooke. Your questions.

BUCHANAN: Ambassador Holbrooke, it appears to me that the country believes directly that we‘re moving in the wrong direction, it believes that the Iraq war was not worth the cost but it is also prepared to reelect the president of the United States because quite obviously, it feels by almost 2-1 he‘s a stronger, more decisive leader, and we want him to lead the country. How does John Kerry turn that around tomorrow night?

HOLBROOKE: Well, Pat, your question is biased and unfair. The ratios are not 2-1. And its misrepresentation of the facts that has given Bush a slight but significant edge which John Kerry will turn around by making his case. Here we are, talking in the most (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and polemical terms about polls which all of you otherwise say don‘t mean much yet. A margin of error, a difference between the two which can be made up. Why don‘t we talk about the issues, Iraq, the war on terror, homeland security. Pat, I‘ll leave the spin to you and your panel. I‘m not here to spin for John Kerry...

BUCHANAN: Let me ask you this...

HOLBROOKE: Let‘s talk about the issues.

BUCHANAN: In leading the country in the war on terror in Iraq, the nation by an overwhelming majority prefers the president, even though it believes the war has not gone as well as he said it would. And even though he believes a lot of things that aren‘t going well, they still prefer the president. How does Kerry sell himself as the man to replace the president?

HOLBROOKE: It is great being interviewed by you. You can ask the question and then answer it. You don‘t need me. Let‘s talk about the issues. The fact is that this administration has weakened us internationally. We are weaker today than we were three and a half years ago. You yourself know that. You have said that yourself on some of the programs. And the fact also is that not only in Iraq, but all over the world, things are going in the wrong direction for the United States.
The American public will have to decide...

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you.

HOLBROOKE: Will you let me—let me finish, you know. You asked me on the show. If you want to interview yourself, do it on some other time. The issue for the American public is very basic. Do they really four more years of America to be more isolated in the world, to give Vladimir Putin and the Russians to have a blank check for Mr. Abuse of democracy, to ignore most of the major problems in the world. To have our forces, military forces stretched too thin. If they do, if they think Iraq is really going that well, let them give George Bush four more years. The facts are otherwise, and there‘s plenty of time left for the American public to reassess the situation.

There you have it. They don't listen, except to themselves and one another, and they already know the answers to the questions they ask.

Don't expect anything much better tonight. Even if you think that Kerry is doing well.

I see that Atrios is setting up threads for his readers to use for blogging the debate itself, and also suggesting that readers divide up the task of watching the various network/cable responses.

It's the next step that matters. How can all the fine material I know our side of blogovia is going to be producing about what really happened in that debate be put to use in a coordinated way, to influence the course of the debate about he debate as it ensues in the days ahead? I'm not exactly sure. But think about the effect to which the right uses coordination of message with constant reiteration. That doesn't come easily to the left, but maybe if bloggers and readers appoint themselves to look for the best material to support Kerry, and to knock down the Republican spin coming out of our blogs, the most cogent and pithy, there might be some way to feature them on every blog.

Late in the game, I know, except for my usual computer problems this would have been posted yesterday. All thoughts from readers appreciated.

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