October 19, 2002

No help for voters…

New York Times headline this morning: Daschle Takes Parting Shot as Congress Breaks. The mid-term election is close at hand. This round-up of political battles does little to help citizens understand the issues. Speaking of the close divide in Congress following the 2000 election, reporter Alison Mitchell writes:

From the start, the central question was whether the split decision of the voters would lead to sharp partisan deadlock or a pragmatic period of centrist compromise.

She fails to assert for whom that is the central question. The answer: the press. Because of the structural biases of journalism, the press looked at the 107th Congress and saw only potential conflict. Issues became points of conflict. Policy? Its effects on citizens? Boring.

October 7, 2002

First reaction…

Bush spoke tonight about Iraq ahead of a vote in Congress to authorize the use of force to effect “regime change.” Recent polls show that a majority of Americans support–with qualifications–military action against Iraq for the purpose of removing Saddam Hussein. A president always speaks to multiple audiences. Two of the most important audiences tonight were Congress and those Americans who are still worried about military action. Bush delivered a low-key address full of deductive argument and emotional appeals. He looked and sounded like the leader of a superpower (due in large part to the low-key delivery), and this delivery sold the message. I’ll be surprised if his polls don’t jump and the Congress fails to give him the vote he wants (assured). I’ll have a more detailed analysis of the rhetorical features of this address on Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004 by Thursday afternoon.

October 2, 2002

Suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous entertainers…

It annoys me that entertainers have a greater influence on politics than the average citizen. While I believe all citizens have a duty to participate at some level in this democratic republic, I do not think that entertainers should have a greater voice than other average citizens–and I do think of entertainers as average citizens. Like average citizens, entertainers can be intelligent, informed, and committed to the duties of democratic citizenship. Also like average citizens, they can be ignorant, ill-informed, and dangerous. Barbara Streisand belongs to the latter group. The only reason she has any forum at all is that she is a singer of some note. That’s it. There is no indication that she has any more understanding of politics and policy than, say, the average plumber, stock broker, or check-out clerk. Oh, but she does have money and star power to draw money. Is money worth this embarrassment?

October 1, 2002

Support with qualifications…

Gallup Poll Analyses – Nine Key Questions About Public Opinion on Iraq The upshot appears to be that a majority of Americans support military action against Iraq for the purpose of removing Saddam Hussein–but with qualifications. Such data will bolster the opinion of two GOP Senators who think Bush must seek allied support before taking any action.

UPDATE (11:30 a.m.): White House rejects Lugar/Biden compromise resolution.

UPDATE (11:42 a.m.): AP report.

UPDATE (3:05 p.m.): Bush: Don’t tie my hands.

September 30, 2002


Spinsanity has been taking a hard look at the snit between Bush and Daschle regarding the “not interested” quote. This is not a trivial issue. I’m not talking about whether the Washington Times reported Daschle’s motive honestly or if the Bush remark was objectively outrageous. What’s at stake here are several important definitions: security, patriotism, and Iraq. And how we define these–what they mean politically–may have a profound impact on the mid-term elections and our long-term security (not to mention the lives of American soldiers and Iraqi citizens).

May 10, 2002

Message stability and ideology…

In his latest article for Slate, Joe Klein contends that populism is a troublesome ideology for presidential aspirants, especially that brand sold by Democratic message-master Bob Shrum. As Klein says:

“The central assumption is that the little guy is so aggrieved that he can only be roused to citizenship by an appeal to his basest suspicions. Exploitation and venality are posited as the central fact of American life: The country is being taken to the cleaners by wicked plutocrats. This rather sour ideology did have one fleeting moment of high-mindedness a hundred years ago.”

This is one of the reasons Klein contends that Shrum’s record with presidential candidates has been “disastrous.” There is, however, a very interesting line later in the article that, I think, tells an even deeper story. Klein analyzes some of the populist campaign messages crafted for several Democrats, including Al Gore and Bob Kerrey. After describing a particular commercial Shrum crafted for Kerrey, Klein writes: “Kerrey later admitted he didn’t believe a word he was saying.” While populism may certainly be a troublesome ideology for a presidential candidate in the twenty-first century, I would suggest this tidbit speaks more eloquently to Kerrey’s failure in 1992.

Actors can deliver convincing lines they do not believe while playing characters they do not resemble ideologically. This is a skill that eludes most of us. Message stability and coherence are crucially important in the era of the 24-7-365 TV campaign. One skill the electorate develops from the personality-driven, horse-race coverage of television is the ability to smell a phony.

April 25, 2002

“Message Discipline” is about more than content…

I found this quote from Eric Alterman’s review of Frank Bruni’s “Ambling Into History” interesting:

“The media’s all but issueless coverage of the campaign — reproduced in microcosm in Bruni’s book — could hardly have served Bush’s purposes better if it had been mapped out by senior adviser Karl Rove and dictated by White House Counselor Karen Hughes. The Bush team’s “message discipline” is, indeed, its most impressive characteristic. A close second is its ability to turn a healthy percentage of supposedly independent-minded observers, consistently accused of exhibiting unreconstructed liberal bias, into little more than ventriloquists’ dummies.”

Aside from Alterman’s consternation with Bruni’s book, this passage points out one of the dangers of covering a presidential campaign: It’s seductive. Part of the reason for this is the proximity to power or potential power. Another part of the reason is that a well-crafted campaign, or presidency, will control the message–what Karen Hughes did for Bush.

The essence of presidential power is rhetorical. It is within the message, not necessarily the content, that we find presidential power or a candidate’s appeal. Alterman’s justifiable complaint with the press is that it too often reads the message as content rather than also reading it as structure. In other words, ” message discipline” is about more than keeping the candidate straight on the issues.

April 24, 2002

Hughes’ impact…

Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post: “[Karen Hughes] return to Texas will deprive Bush of unified control over his public image by a close and powerful confidante. Whether that leads to the unraveling of the Bush White House’s discipline can be known only after some months. But her absence will inevitably change the White House.”

Milbank’s observation that it will be some months before we know the impact of the Hughes departure is a good one. If we may take President Bush at his word, Hughes will continue to have influence over the administration’s message. Also notice how Milbank qualified the possible damage to the administration: Bush will be deprived of “unified control” by a “close and powerful confidante.” This does not mean there will no longer be control. What it means is that the nature of the control will change. It is unreasonable to assume a drastic change in message will happen any time soon.

Most of the initial response, however, has assumed that Hughes’ departure will somehow disrupt the administration’s “unified” message. Let me suggest the contrary. It is quite possible that the “message” will improve in the sense of being less controlled and open to internal debate. If we assume that debate and dialectic are routes to knowledge and truth, it may very well be that Hughes’ departure will have a positive effect on the presidential voice. As Milbank suggests, only time will tell.

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