Reining in liberal excesses


No, not in policy — in temperament. Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum makes a point I’ve been starting to think about myself over the past few days, as conventional wisdom has settled on the narrative that Obama didn’t simply lose the first presidential debate, but did so to a catastrophic, earth-shattering degree:

…[L]iberals went batshit crazy. I didn’t watch any commentary immediately after the debate because I wanted to write down my own reactions first, and my initial sense was that Obama did a little bit worse than Romney. But after I hit the Publish button and turned on the TV, I learned differently. As near as I could tell, the entire MSNBC crew was ready to commit ritual suicide right there on live TV, Howard Beale style. Ditto for all their guests, including grizzled pols like Ed Rendell who should have known better. It wasn’t just that Obama did poorly, he had delivered the worst debate performance since Clarence Darrow left William Jennings Bryan a smoking husk at the end of Inherit the Wind. And it wasn’t even just that. It was a personal affront, a betrayal of everything they thought was great about Obama. And, needless to say, it put Obama’s entire second term in jeopardy and made Romney the instant front runner.

Drum’s analysis corresponds well to my own personal experience. I, too, watched the debate, feeling that Obama had whiffed at some major points and that Romney had clearly bested him. (All in all, I’d say my initial feeling on Obama was a bit harsher than Drum’s, but not hugely so.) However, as I digested the immediately panicked recaps and discussions of the debate among progressive bloggers and journalists, my views did begin to detach themselves from the actual debate I’d witnessed and attach themselves instead to everyone else’s analyses of what they saw.

In fact, there is evidence that this was a widespread phenomenon: people watched the debate, thought Obama had lost by a moderate amount, and later readjusted to a more extreme reading of the outcome and, correspondingly, shifted their presidential candidate preference. Nate Silver explains:

In a poll of about 500 voters that Ipsos conducted immediately after the debate, late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, Mr. Obama still led by five points. However, Mr. Obama’s lead was just two points in a poll Ipsos released Friday, which included interviews from Monday night (before the debate) through Friday morning.

The inference I make from these Ipsos polls is that Mr. Romney must have polled very well in the most recent interviews it conducted, late Thursday and early Friday morning, quite possibly leading Mr. Obama, in order to have made up so much ground.

It may have been that Mr. Obama’s problems were growing worse throughout the day on Thursday as criticism of his debate performance was amplified. That would also help to explain Mr. Romney’s very strong performance in the We Ask America polls on Thursday.

Indeed, Gallup’s polling suggested that Mitt Romney had benefited from a “historic win” and was now a far more formidable candidate than he had been just prior to the debate. It is clear that, whatever the reasons, Romney has surged in the polls following the debate last Wednesday. What remains unclear, however, is whether this was purely the result of his debating prowess or whether, in fact, many media members’ bias towards sensationalism and the need for a fresh narrative had helped tilt the scales.

In fact, Robert Wright, in a blog post for The Atlantic all the way back in that other lifetime of September 26th, predicted just such a media stampede:

If there’s one thing the media won’t tolerate for long, it’s an unchanging media narrative. So the current story of the presidential campaign — Obama sits on a lead that is modest but increasingly comfortable, thanks to a hapless Romney and a hapless Romney campaign — should be yielding any moment to something fresher.

The essential property of the new narrative is that it inject new drama into the race, which means it has to be in some sense pro-Romney. This can in turn mean finding previously unappreciated assets in Romney or his campaign, previously undetected vulnerabilities in the Obama campaign, etc. The big question is whether the new narrative then becomes self-fulfilling, altering the focus of coverage in a way that actually increases Romney’s chances of a victory. And that depends on the narrative’s exact ingredients.

Wright then proceeded to delineate just what those ingredients might be:

  • “Romney has a previously undiscovered sense of humor!”
  • “Sudden and unexpected foreign policy switcheroo!”
  • “Suddenly it’s Obama who seems off balance and gaffe-prone!”
  • “Romney surprisingly good in presidential debates!”

These predictions turned out to look more like prophecies just a few short days later. And the Left has driven itself nearly insane in the aftermath. One might have surmised that Chris Matthews’ immediate post-debate outburst (shown above) would have sufficed to capture the prevailing progressive angst. But even the MSNBC commentator’s rage has paled in comparison to the ongoing meltdown of The Dish‘s Andrew Sullivan, whose increasingly frenetic and unhinged rants heralding the premature demise of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign have now joined the vaunted Buzzfeed pantheon of animated GIF-dom.

Yes, Romney has now pulled even or ahead in many national polls. But it’s worth asking whether this development was something that, as Drum wonders, we brought upon ourselves, or whether the debate really was the objectively horrifying spectacle we’ve all now convinced ourselves it was. Drum learns the unusual — and, in my view, completely wrong — lesson from the event, suggesting that the media fallout could have been avoided by creating and employing more “hacks” who would spout pro-Obama cliches and aphorisms no matter how dismal the reality. But it is this very combination of ideological rigidity and partisan fanaticism that the Left so despises in its right-wing counterparts. Matching them hack for hack — aside from being impossible: Michael Moore is no match for Rush Limbaugh, after all — would destroy much of what we do better than the current iteration of America’s conservative movement.

Instead, perhaps the better alternative is simply to shut off the spin for the next debate. Whether we decide to watch the vice presidential debate next (oh, you’d better believe I’ll be watching) or hold out for the presidential town hall meeting, it would behoove us to turn on the television only as the debate begins and to shut it off immediately after it ends. Otherwise we risk turning into a collective horde of unthinking followers again — as I found myself doing in the minutes and hours and days following this first debate — each of us unconsciously revising our own eyewitness memories in favor of the more extreme version preferred by the chattering class. Let us try to do what we are always so insistent the Left does better than the Right today: let’s think for ourselves.


3 thoughts on “Reining in liberal excesses

  1. Good post. I actually just posted something along these lines myself the other day. Chris Matthews and several other pundits did voters and the president a HUGE disservice with their panic-stricken comments immediately after the debate. Honestly, I was embarrassed by MSNBC that night.

    • What was so strange to me was how much this liberal freak-out affected me personally. I went from thinking “whew, that was bad” to “the world is ending!” (a la Andrew Sullivan). Will check out your post now! Thanks!


  2. Pingback: Pre-debate advice… | the first casualty

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