Politics, media and the politics of media.
Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, center, speaks at a rally in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Thursday, September 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Nice piece in the New York Daily News on the little-known but influential role of the Working Families Party in the probable election of Bill de Blasio as the next mayor of New York City.
Although City Hall has been out of Democratic hands for twenty years, neither Mayor Rudy Giuliani nor Michael Bloomberg has left a trail of crumbs for pols of their persuasion, like de Blasio’s opponent Joe Lhota, to follow toward victory.
“But,” writes the News’s Harry Siegel, “while the mayors squandered their opportunities to realign the city’s politics, a small party far to their left has been doing just that.”
For the first time since the office was introduced in 1993, the next public advocate [de Blasio currently holds that job] won’t chomp at the mayor’s ankles. That’s because de Blasio and Letitia James are both Democrats, and also Working Families Party stalwarts—de Blasio one of its founders and James the first Council member elected on its line alone.
“On the issues they care about, from minimum wage to tenant issues to development, they are absolutely definitional—they can set the debate at the city and the state level,” de Blasio said of the WFP in 2010.
The party, founded in 1988 to take advantage of New York’s fusion voting system, which allows candidates to run on multiple ballot lines, effectively represents organized labor. Despite its small membership, it used its ballot line and operational resources to push Democratic officials farther left, and elect new ones who are already there. That plan has paid off.
And the WFP, headed by long-time activist Dan Cantor, is not an only-in-New York thing. It’s recently won landmark legislation to tackle the student debt crisis in Oregon, fought the corporate education reform agenda in Bridgeport, CT, and won paid sick days in Jersey City, NJ. WFP spokesman Joe Dinkin says they’re eager to work “wherever there are like-minded leaders interested in building independent progressive political organizations.”
UPDATE: The last paragraph has been changed to better reflect how the WFP is expanding beyond New York.
Leslie Savan points out where Jon Stewart and Joe Lhota seem to find common ground in the ACA debate.
New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota is making big noises about what morons his fellow Republicans are for shutting down the government. But he’s all in with one of their central demands—to delay Obamacare for a year.
The socially liberal, fiscally conservative Lhota, who has referred to “Tea Party crap,” said on WNYC radio yesterday, “The shutdown is a disgrace…. I cannot tell you how upsetting it is for me to see 30 extremists in Washington control the entire government.” He says “both” sides (natch) “need to come to the table and they need to negotiate.”
But Lhota shares the extremists’ negotiating point of putting off the Affordable Care Act for a year, because, he says, “there’s so much confusion about the individual mandate right now.”
Bill de Blasio, Lhota’s Democratic rival, said through a spokesman that Lhota’s “endorsement of delaying Obamacare puts him in lockstep with Republican extremists like Ted Cruz—extremists who would rather shut down the government and furlough thousands of New York City workers than see hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers get access to health care.”
But last night, Lhota, Cruz, the Tea Party, John Boehner et al. got a boost from some unexpected quarters: as rightwing blogs brayed, Jon Stewart slammed into Human and Health Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius when she came on the show to push the ACA. After ragging (and rightly so) on the program’s technical glitches, an unusually obsessive and obtuse Stewart asked her five, six, maybe seven times why can’t the individual mandate to buy insurance be delayed for a year like the mandate for businesses has been?
Fair question. And it has an obvious answer (more on this in a minute, but in short, delay=death) that for some reason a nervous Sebelius could only dance around and Stewart acted like he’d never heard of.
When she gave tepid or partial answers—like, the employer mandate isn’t as big a deal as the individual mandate because most businesses already provide insurance—he seemed unable to follow, and asked, “Am I a stupid man?”
Of course not, Jon, but, as you’ve said of Fox’s Gretchen Carlson, you’re playing one on TV.
The answer to his question is simple, and Stewart is surely acquainted with it: without the individual mandate, the whole thing collapses. That mandate is the ACA’s cornerstone; the employer mandate is a bunch of bricks. Delaying the individual mandate by a year is tantamount to killing it. (Which is why, of course, the Tea Party considers delay the next best thing to repealing or defunding Obamacare.)
From Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff: “The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, without an individual mandate, 11 million fewer people would gain coverage next year.” And those that do buy coverage would be the older and sicker people, which would cause premiums to spike and drive away the healthy even more.
“The individual mandate is a lynchpin policy, one that makes the rest of the Affordable Care Act work by bringing millions more people in the health-care system,” writes Kliff. “The employer mandate, by contrast, is more of an extra nudge, aimed at encouraging companies to keep doing something they already do right now.”
Sebelius had trouble saying this plainly, but just as some of her answers started to take shape, Stewart fell back on complaining that the ACA is a “market-based solution.” He wanted single-payer. Yeah, well, a lot of us do. But that train left the station years ago, and the train we’re riding now will wreck only if millions don’t sign up, especially millions of the young people that all too often laugh on cue at anything Stewart says.
Like in his monologue at the end of the show: “I still don’t understand why individuals have to sign up and businesses don’t, because if the businesses—if she’s saying, ‘Well, they get a delay because that doesn’t matter anyway because they already give healthcare,’ then you think to yourself, ‘Fuck it, then why do they have to sign up at all?’ But then I think to myself, ‘Well, maybe she’s just lying to me.’ ”
Clearly, someone needs to more forcefully explain this all to Jon. Someone, other than Bill Clinton, who could get on The Daily Show, someone who’s out there campaigning anyway. Someone like… Bill de Blasio?
Leslie Savan writes on how the media is playing fast and loose with ideological labels on both sides of the NYC mayoral race.
Bill de Blasio speaks with potential voters on July 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote an op-ed today saying he found it “surprising” that the Democrat candidate for NYC mayor, might not be a kumbaya liberal after all. After weeks of being called a communist, it’s almost refreshing that Bill de Blasio is now being hit with only dull and tiresome stereotypes.
“I was struck,” Keller writes of de Blasio, “that his critique is not just a liberal’s reflexive disdain for a plutocrat; it is a considered analysis of the art of governing.” After damning de Blasio with faint praise, Keller undamns a little:
He’s says that people who imagine him waiting patiently for consensus to coalesce, kumbaya, will discover that he can bring down the gavel. “You delegate where you can, you build consensus where you can,” he said. “But there will be plenty of occasions where there will be no time for that option and you have to be the decision-maker and you have to be fast about it.”
“I think some people mistake the stylistic for the strategic,” de Blasio explained, as he has before when asked if he can lead a city bred on tough, bombastic and/or pushy mayors, like Koch, Giuliani, Bloomberg. “I don’t feel the need to have a brash personality.”
Certainly some of Keller’s concern is understandable: de Blasio’s Republican opponent Joe Lhota, as a former deputy mayor and head of the MTA, has more managerial chops than de Blasio, who’s focused more on political activism and community organizing both in and out of government.
But like many in the media, Keller is one of those people who repeatedly mistake the stylistic for the strategic; and his need for reassurance that a liberal can be decisive seems to stem from his own, self-admitted fear of being seen as a liberal wimp. (You might recall that Keller wrote a mini-culpa a couple years ago explaining why, when he headed up the Times, he rah-rahed the paper to support the invasion of Iraq. He and other “liberals hawks,” he wrote, “were a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”)
De Balsio did, however, add to the label confusion himself on Friday, when he told an audience of 800 business people, “I want to pleasantly shock the room and say I am a fiscal conservative.”
After his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, jumped on that, saying, “Bill de Blasio will say anything and pander,” de Blasio tried to correct himself.
“Look, I’m going to use the more precise phrase: I think I’m a fiscally responsible progressive,” he later explained. “If you look at the whole quote, I tried to get it right and say I’m a progressive, I’m an activist, I’m also fiscally cautious.”
Then he stated what anyone thinking outside-the-cliché should be able to grasp: “There’s no contradiction between good fiscal management and an activist government—a government that seeks to address inequality and plays a major role in addressing the problems of our time.”
It just goes to show you: The word “liberal” may have had its manhood stolen, but the word “conservative,” which once meant cautious, prudent and traditional, has been gutted and burned. Some pundit on TV this morning said the intra-GOP fight over the government shutdown is between mainstream Republicans and “conservatives.” That, of course, is what radical right-wing extremists like to call themselves. And most of the media has kindly obliged them.
But there’s some good news on political labels today. In a piece on de Blasio’s days as an NYU student (he organized for such non-rad causes as stopping tuition hikes and getting a student on the school’s board of trustees), a New York Daily News headline used the word “activist” in a perfectly neutral and descriptive way: “Bill de Blasio’s student activist at New York University work prepared him for the world of city politics.”
This week de Blasio’s calling himself “a fiscal conservative,” last week he was defending himself against charges that he is a communist.
Screengrab from nypost.com
There’s a curious schism in how the New York City tabloids are covering today’s poll showing Democrat Bill de Blasio with a whopping lead over Republican Joe Lhota in the mayor’s race.
The New York Times/Siena College survey found de Blasio beating Lhota 68 percent to 19 percent among likely voters. But there’s not a peep about the poll on the website of Rupert Murdoch’s de Blasio–blasting New York Post. The site is, however, running other de Blasio stories, including an op-ed linking him, again, to the Sandinista’s alleged anti-Semitism, and a piece with the innuendo-light headline “Traitor! De Blasio’s a New England fan. ”
And while the Post did mention yesterday’s Quinnipiac University poll showing de Blasio beating Lhota 71-21, that story’s now buried, off even the metro page (where you can still find a Michael Goodwin column from September: “De Blasio’s warped world view should set off alarm bells”).
At first I thought, the Post simply doesn’t want to mention surveys sponsored by its New York Times archenemy. But it did so earlier, in covering other, less threatening races, like the Spitzer/Stringer primary race for comptroller. And unless I’ve missed something behind a pay wall, Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal site isn’t touching the Times/Siena poll either.
Maybe the Murdoch empire hasn’t reached the Mitt Romney/Karl Rove level of poll-denialism, but it’s like they just don’t want to endure more angina.
On the other hand, the New York Daily News (newly badass for its “House of Turds” cover) happily features both polls on its site today. And they have Lhota reacting to the lousy news, saying, “This race will get closer and closer over the next two weeks,” and vowing to close the gap with commercials and the upcoming three debates.
I agree with Lhota, to an extent: the gap will narrow. The Times/Siena poll found issues he could build traction on: voters agree more with him than de Blasio on creating more charter schools and keeping the controversial Ray Kelly as police commissioner, and they’re evenly split over stop-and-frisk, opposition to which helped vault de Blasio over his Democratic primary rivals.
But much, much larger majorities of likely voters are with de Blasio on raising taxes on the wealthy to fund pre-kindergarten programs (71 percent), making affordable housing a priority (85 percent), and creating an independent inspector general to monitor police (70 percent). Even on keeping the city safe from crime, de Blasio tops Lhota, 52 to 29.
Lhota, former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is poorly known: 43 percent of those surveyed hadn’t heard enough or had no opinon of Lhota, compared to 23 percent saying the same of Public Advocate de Blasio.
Still, Lhota’s first ad couldn’t position him more clearly: he’s against de Blasio on spending and raising taxes, but he’s a libertarian on social issues, favoring abortion rights, gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana, all positions Lhota brags he shares with de Blasio, the better to make Dems feel semi-comfortable with him. (Actually, de Blasio has come out only for decriminalization for possession of small amounts of pot.)
Drawing from his primary victory speech, de Blasio’s first general election ad takes a more emotional, we’re-all-in-this-together approach. “There are those who have said our ambition for this city is too bold, that we’re asking of the wealthiest New Yorkers too much, that we’re setting our sights for the children of this city too high,” de Blasio says, “Well, let me say this: We are New Yorkers. Thinking big isn’t new to us.”
Watch the ads below:
Leslie Savan exposes how the media recently tried to make de Blasio out to be a communist.
New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio holds up the hand of his wife, Chirlane McCray, as he pronounced her as the future New York first lady during an event with supporters in Manhattan, August 18, 2013. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)
After establishing that NYC mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio is a “Marxist communist with a history of supporting terrorism,” (as Glenn Beck did this week), how much farther can the right-wing media go?
Well, knowing them, they’ll be sorely tempted to go after de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, and paint her as an “angry black woman,” who has (as Beck once said of Barack Obama), “a deep-seated hatred of white people.”
The precedent is there: Remember how the right hammered Michelle Obama during the 2008 campaign for saying, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country,” (a remark she later put into context) and for supposedly spouting off about “whitey” in a video (which turned out to be a hoax).
In a front-page profile in yesterday’s New York Times, McCray comes across as a fascinating, dynamic woman. But to the right, the narrative of her life is ripe for distortion. Growing up, she was the victim of frequent, vicious racism; and for the Becks and Limbaughs of this world the real crime of racism is that it makes black people want retribution.
She was the seventh-grader too frightened to stand in front of the room because her white classmates would mock her, contorting their mouths to make their lips look big. She was the smoldering teenager who took to writing poems every day to wrestle with her isolation and anger. She was the eldest daughter of one of the only black families in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, who arrived home to see their new house scrawled with racist graffiti.
McCray goes on to become a poet and part of the “Combahee River Collective, an influential collection of black feminist intellectuals, many of them gay,” like her. She met de Blasio at City Hall, where they both worked for Mayor David Dinkins. Bill wooed Chirlane relentlessly. Reluctant to label her sexuality, she said late last year, “In the 1970′s, I identified as a lesbian and wrote about it. In 1991, I met the love of my life, married him, and together we’ve raised two amazing kids.”
Now in the mayoral race, McCray is a top dog, “a mastermind,” the Times writes, “behind the biggest political upset of the year.” Political meetings are planned around her schedule. She sits in on job interviews for top advisers. She edits all key speeches (aides are known to e-mail drafts straight to her).
McCray and de Blasio are as much a package deal as Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a reality etched into the campaign hierarchy affixed to a wall of the de Blasio political headquarters. It lists “Bill/Chirlane” above a sprawling team of aides.
She may even one-up Hillary: She acknowledges feeling so passionately in 2002 about which way her husband would vote on the next City Council speaker she threatened to divorce him if he backed the wrong candidate.
He sided with his wife.
In other words, if the “angry black woman” charge doesn’t fly, the right could always reposition Chirlane as a ballbuster who controls Bill’s every move—which would neatly position the big guy as a major wimp.
Of course, such twisted depictions may not surface, or they may burp up only in the national media—Fox, hate radio, Drudge. The local wolves, like the New York Post, will have to tread more coyly. After all, this is New York, which will champion Chirlane and Bill’s equal relationship (though let’s hope not as “Billane”). Anyway, de Blasio won the Democratic primary in every borough and won big.
Oh, Glenn Beck has a theory to explain that, too. The Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, see, was “just a distraction,” used to divert media coverage so that “a guy that slipped in that nobody paid attention to, Bill de Blasio” could turn New York City into a communist terrorist utopia.
“I think this theory,” Beck says, “might, um, hold water.”
Leslie Savan calls out the media’s uneven reporting on de Blasio and Lhota’s ideological histories.
Everything you ever wanted to know about healthcare, the shutdown and the Republican messaging machine:
Marie Myunk-Ok Lee discusses the current healthcare system’s harsh realities for entrepreneurs and creative types.
Left, New York City Republican mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota, and right, Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio. (AP Photo)
After more than a week of being painted as a commie and worse, Bill de Blasio hit back yesterday against his opponent in the NYC mayor’s race with: TOP 10 FACTS ABOUT JOE LHOTA’S ICON, EXTREME CONSERVATIVE BARRY GOLDWATER. Those include Goldwater’s infamous vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, wanting to use nukes in Vietnam, and his maxim: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” And the de Blasio camp didn’t even get to the John Birch Society championing Sen. Goldwater in his presidential run against LBJ in 1964.
The ugly tit-for-tat began last week, when The New York Times detailed de Blasio’s support of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s. That spawned an outbreak of innuendo—that he somehow supported the Sandinistas’ alleged anti-Semitism (a charge designed to cut into the Democrat’s Jewish vote), that he was a “bleary, dreary”-eyed druggie in college, that he was an unreconstructed commie symp. “Mr. de Blasio’s class warfare strategy in New York City,” Lhota himself said, “is directly out of the Marxist playbook. Now we know why.”
It took a while, but yesterday the Times ran a profile of the young Joe Lhota. In college, he spent “nights in the gallery of the United States Senate, where he sat rapt as Mr. Goldwater, his boyhood hero, orated on the floor.” Lhota, the Times noted, was also accepted into “a right-leaning summer boot camp for undergraduates” that was “the brainchild of a group of conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr.”
(De Blasio could as well have run the Top 10 Facts about Buckley, including his support for Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he called “a prophet,” his admiration for dictators, like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and his notion of the “cultural superiority of white over Negro.”)
Yes, this sort of guilt by association is absurd. Because even though Lhota says, “I still am a virulent anti-communist,” and de Blasio still finds elements of democratic socialism appealing, in truth Lhota is no more a Bircher or white supremacist than de Blasio is a fellow traveler or anti-Semite.
And at first de Blasio shunned the whole approach. “It’s 2013. I’d like to note, I’m not going to stoop to Joe Lhota’s level here,” he said. “I am a progressive who believes in an activist approach to government. You can call it whatever the heck you want.”
But de Blasio has been forced to hit back; the media was keeping him on the defense, chasing him, asking did he ever agree with Marxism, why’d he honeymoon in Cuba? Even allies in the press wanted to know, was his support for the Sandinistas merely a “youthful indiscretion,” as someone at a New Yorker lunch asked him. “No, it’s not a youthful indiscretion,” he said, refusing to take the cowardly way out. “The reason I got involved, was because of United States foreign policy.”
But for some reason, the press isn’t on Lhota’s tail to explain his adulation of Goldwater, much less are they grilling him on if we should we nuke Syria or whether he’d vote against the Civil Rights Act (not a far-fetched question given the Supreme Court’s gutting of section 4 of the Voting Rights Act). The Times certainly didn’t ask him such questions, nor would it occur to most reporters to do so.
This is a case of the media not making false equivalencies but habitually failing to notice actual equivalencies. Politicians’ involvement in left-wing causes stimulates media hormones more than the right-wing ones do. Partly that’s because the center has moved rightward. But even if it hadn’t, America’s red-baiting, McCarthyite past still has the power to taint.
For whatever reason, ventures into lefty world are treated like a dirty bad act, and they produce a kind of slut-shaming. Maybe the body politic needs to believe that it contains something just too awful to fully accept.
De Blasio may become not just NYC’s most progressive mayor but the first big-name pol to break that bleary, dreary mindset.
Read John Nichols’s post on the ideological differences between de Blasio and current mayor Mike Bloomberg.
(Screengrab from nypost.com)
Since Sunday, when The New York Times published a cover story about Bill de Blasio’s 1988 trip to Nicaragua to help distribute food and medicine, and noted his admiration for the Sandinistas, the right-wing press has been salivating: in the Democratic candidate for New York City mayor they think they finally have the “socialist” that they could only pretend Obama was.
And there’s a bonus: They can also get Bill de Blasio to play the Bill Ayers role. As a New York Post headline put it, “Obama to meet Sandinista-supporting de Blasio.”
Although the Times piece dug up details on de Blasio’s youthful non-indiscretions, none of it is truly “news” (as the Times’s Michael Powell later not>ed; nor was it hidden (de Blasio spoke publicly about his time in Nicaraguan just last December). But the Postis excitedly fishing with every bit of red-bait they can muster, no matter how much it may embarrass them.
The virulently anti-union tabloid has even had to make like they support unions. In “de Blasio’s beloved Nicaragua,” the Post writes (going on to quote the human-rights watchdog group Freedom House), “Employees have reportedly been dismissed for union activities, and citizens have no effective recourse when labor laws are violated by those in power.” Those may sound like the tactics of the right’s beloved governors Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and John Kasich (Ohio), but the chance to spark suspicion trumps principle every time.
Recounting the radical acts the young de Blasio was capable of, the Post says, “He also castigated the operators of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor—three years after the accident—for being ‘ignorant.’”
The implication is not only that the operators didn’t deserve such harsh words, but that de Blasio failed to deliver them in a timely manner—something the Post, without a hint of irony, is reporting on three decades after the offense.
But by far the most embarrassing thing the Post has published (maybe ever) is a time-warped attempt to cast the college-age de Blasio as a druggy hippie and part of the “activist set.”
Far out, man—I might be your mayor soon.
City Hall hopeful Bill de Blasio was a much scruffier dude back in his college days, with a hairdo almost as distinctive as son Dante’s Afro, a beard to match and a far-away gaze.
This NYU yearbook photo…indicates that ties were not in style among the school’s activist set.
De Blasio was quite the whippersnapper, let me tell you.
But luckily, his Republican rival, Joe Lhota, provides a glimpse of his yearbook photo in this ad, and the Post should have nothing to complain about.
A 2009 photo of Joe Scarborough on the set of his "Morning Joe," show in New York. (AP Photo/MSNBC, Virginia Sherwood)
It started a while ago, but it may have reached an absurd peak this week: Joe Scarborough, Chuck Todd and the MSNBC morning crew’s whining about Obama’s ostensible tin ear and awful “optics.”
What so unnerved them this time was that Obama gave a speech on the economy in the aftermath of the Navy Yard shootings in Washington. That bad timing is proof, said Joe, that the president is facing a “lame-duck meltdown.”
In the Monday speech, long planned for the fifth anniversary of the financial collapse, Obama attacked the GOP for risking “economic chaos,” with its threats to shut down the government if Obamacare isn’t defunded (which the House just voted for today) and to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Obama addressed the massacre, and he delayed the speech by an hour but no longer because, as he later told Telemundo, “Congress has a lot of work to do right now.”
That set off nearly three days of Morning Joe tsk-tsking, as if they were a swarm of media cicadas. Mika made sad faces, Joe went into his customary high dudgeon, and the other boys, including Mike Barnacle, John Heilemann and liberal Donny Deutsch, joined the concerned circle of consensus.
But it was frequent MJ guest and former George W. Bush aide Nicole Wallace who pointed out the faux pas’s true dimensions. It was, she said, as devastating a moment as when her old boss, asked what was the biggest mistake he made after 9/11, said he couldn’t think of one. “This for me is that moment for Obama,” Wallace said, “where he is publicly showing us he’s incapable of adapting and adjusting to events. It’s incredibly revealing and incredibly damaging to the White House.”
Wallace, a moderate Republican, may sincerely believe this, if only to remind herself that good people can make bad, career-crushing decisions. She’s no stranger to that problem, having worked as Sarah Palin’s adviser in the 2008 campaign—until she realized the Alaskan governor wasn’t fit to be a vice-president. (Wallace later revealed that she didn’t vote that year.)
But no such excuse exists for the rest of the Morning Joe gang or for Chuck Todd. Todd complained about Obama’s misstep all day Tuesday. He led The Daily Rundown the next day by asking, “Where’s the outrage?”—outrage not only that Congress, just blocks from the Navy Yards shooting, wasn’t stirred to debate gun control but outrage that the president didn’t change his plans.
Maybe Obama should have rescheduled. Waiting a day wouldn’t have hurt; and, sure, he should have anticipated the media carping. But the carping itself—not just from MSNBC, of course, but from the usual suspects like Maureen Dowd and Fox News—was way out of proportion. Especially given the outrage that the same media choose not to feel every day.
Just this morning, for instance, Morning Joe mentioned yesterday’s mass shooting on the South Side of Chicago. But that didn’t change the show’s plans, which included a deep discussion on the wonders of the latest iPhone.
Where’s the outrage?! (Well, Joe did briefly rage about the Chicago violence, saying that law-abiding citizens there were asking, “Do you know if there’s a version of stop-and-frisk you can import from New York to our neighborhood?”)
And Joe and company surely spent more time this week bewailing the timing of Obama’s speech than they spent covering another still-unfolding and deadly emergency, the Colorado floods. This selective finger-wagging can go on and on—why didn’t they obsess over the House’s vote to cut food stamps by $40 billion? Or the ongoing misery by sequester? Or anything that’s more important than whatever the media take on with self-intoxicating urgency? (Remember the IRS kerfuffle, the “worst scandal since Watergate,” as Peggy Noonan wrote?)
Of course, speech-timing-gate is just part of the larger Beltway consensus that Obama is a failure as a salesman, on issues from healthcare to Syria to Larry Summers.
Obama, Politico complained, was “incoherent,” moving from calling for intervention in Syria to asking for a congressional vote “to diplomacy [with] Putin, who had spent the summer humiliating him in the Edward Snowden case.”
By giving up on Summers’s nomination to head the Fed, Politico said, “Obama also allowed a vacuum to grow in which liberals in his own party felt no compunction about publicly registering their opposition, whatever their president’s preferences.”
So Obama is a sap who listens to his Democratic and lefty critics, and occasionally changes his mind. That’s pretty much the opposite, in fact, of Nicole Wallace’s slam that “he’s incapable of adapting and adjusting to events.”
He’s either too forceful or too weak, a tyrant or a dupe. He’s never Goldilocks. You can almost hear the Morning Joe crowd: if Obama had postponed his speech in light of the violence in DC, they’d say that means the terrorists have won.
On Morning Joe yesterday, Wallace took another stab at proving the White House is in as much disarray as it was when she worked there; she asked former Obama advisor David Axlerod, Isn’t there anyone who “can walk into the Oval Office and tell the president he just screwed something up?” (Yes, said Axelrod, naming three people off the bat.)
But then, with Joe and Mika absent from the set, guests Carl Bernstein and Lawrence O’Donnell indirectly but firmly critiqued the show’s hysteria itself. Look, said Bernstein, however he did it, Obama avoided war (for now). O’Donnell cited Obama and Kerry’s accomplishments in Syria—”And this comes after a week of everyone complaining about the zig-zag,” he said, adding, “the president is dealing with something as serious as Syria policy…and all you’re getting in the media is a theater review of the performance styles.”
Obsession with performance styles will lead journalists to say the darnedest things. Chuck Todd, the political director of NBC News, said it wasn’t the media’s job to present the facts on Obamacare, asserting, “What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the president of the United States’ fault for not selling it.”
After getting criticized, Todd tweeted that he was misunderstood: “point I actually made was folks shouldn’t expect media to do job WH has FAILED to do re: ACA.”
Actually, isn’t it the job of the news media, a k a journalism, to find facts and report on their distortions? Isn’t it news when politicians lie? That’s a point CREDO is making in a petition to the NBC News president, saying, “Correcting Republican lies is part of your job.”
Read Leslie Savan's piece on John Kerry's recent, triumphant media gaffe.
Secretary of State John Kerry waits to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Ever since Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to stumble into a diplomatic way out of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, the media have had trouble deciding which cliché best describes his persona.
Is he a droning bore or a Biden-league gaffe machine? A Mr. Magoo, safely bumbling through dire dangers, or a shrewd strategist secretly in full control of the situation, his foot-in-mouth moments actually clever feints in the world’s largest poker game?
And depending on how the Syrian situation is resolved, they’ll be asking, Is he (like his boss) a world-class chump or champ?
However the diplomacy works out—Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are talking in Geneva as Putin preens and Assad makes dead-end demands—you gotta give Kerry credit for getting the ball rolling. The Syrian crisis changed, literally overnight, when CBS reporter Margaret Brennan asked him at a London press conference on Monday if there was anything Assad “could do or offer that would stop [a US military] attack?” “Sure,” Kerry said, as we all now know. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
The State Department walked that back, saying Kerry was merely “making a rhetorical argument.” So most media decided that his suggestion was just another gaffe—after all, he had just given them a real flub to snark at, his idiotic promise that any US strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small.” (Obama had to walk that back, saying, “The US does not do pinpricks.”)
But then of course Putin and Assad took Kerry up on the offer, more or less. As difficult as it will be to reach, much less enforce, an international plan to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal, the whole world sighed in relief. And Kerry-to-the-rescue surprised everyone.
Including himself, according to Andy Borowitz, who “quotes” Kerry saying:
“Whether as a senator, a Presidential candidate, or Secretary of State, I’ve devoted countless hours to thunderous and droning speeches that people have consistently tuned out,” he said. “So naturally, to be listened to all of a sudden came as something of a shock.”
Even after Russia jumped at Kerry’s proposal, most media continued to portray it as a faux pas. Maureen Dowd sniped, “The bumbling approach climaxed with two off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry.” Jon Stewart said Kerry’s “ill-thought-out hypothetical statement” was an act “of Magoo-esque accidental genius,” while Joe Scarborough called the whole thing “Mr. Magoo’s foreign policy.”
More biting, Andrew Sullivan scoffed that, “Kerry, who is already doing a huge amount to make Hillary Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom look magisterial, winged it,” adding, “Sometimes, it seems, Kerry’s incompetence strikes gold.” (After Obama’s Tuesday night speech on Syria, Sullivan went back to favoring the president with a “meep meep,” as one reader complained he’d “gone from slamming Obama for being imperial, idealistic, bloodthirsty, foolhardy…to praising him for his subtlety, nuance, willingness to listen, and so on.” Sullivan hasn’t, however, extended the hosannas to Kerry.)
But as it turned out, Kerry’s statement wasn’t a gaffe or ill thought-out, and he didn’t entirely wing it. “This wasn’t an accident,” a top White House official told The Huffington Post.
In fact, as the Times reported, Obama had raised the idea of securing Syria’s chemical weapons with Putin as far back as June 2012, at the G-20 summit in Mexico. In May of this year, Kerry discussed it with Putin, who asked him to work on the issue with foreign minister Lavrov; Lavrov and Kerry spoke more frequently after the August 21 sarin gas attack that killed some 1400 Syrians outside of Damascus. And before committing his “gaffe,” Kerry was briefed on Putin and Obama’s conversation at the G-20 summit last week about how Syria might prevent US air strikes by surrendering its chemical stockpiles. That conversation was “more constructive than previous conversations on this subject,” an administration official told the Times. “But there was not yet an indication that this could be ripe enough for immediate action.”
Kerry made it ripe, and Putin plucked it off the tree. Whether Kerry intended to make the proposal public when he did is less important than that he consciously (not Magoo-like) let it leave his lips—unlike Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who when asked a nearly identical question by NPR two weeks ago, dodged the question (saying, “I don’t speculate on hypothetical situations”). Kerry, purposely, didn’t dodge.
So was this all planned out, Kerry’s words less slips than tricks-of-the-tongue, long-game moves to throw off foes from Fox News to Vladimir and Bashar? Maybe Kerry isn’t a doofus or a Magoo but a Machiavelli.
Of course, Kerry, like most people, can’t be so neatly packaged. What comes out of his mouth is the result of intention and impulse, foresight and blind spots. Let’s give him props, much as we did Joe Biden for revealing, apparently without White House approval, that Obama supported gay marriage—a revelation that, contrary to fears it would cost him votes in the 2012 election, helped set off waves of equal-marriage legislation and court decisions.
Obama critics can’t stop complaining that his Syria policies don’t follow a straight line. But with luck, the administration’s zig-zagging will lead to a Cuban missile crisis–like solution—achieved back then through a much messier process than the smooth version John and Robert Kennedy presented to the public.
Howard Fineman had it right, likening “America’s ever-evolving policy on Syria” to “Middle Eastern bazaars" where "it’s easy to get lost, haggling is the order of the day, and things are never quite what they seem.”
The way media gravitate toward either/or clichés parallels the either/or choices they’ve tended to present on Syria: either attack militarily or do nothing.
But now an idea has expanded the world’s imagination, making it thinkable that we’re not stuck between two untenable choices. We’ve crossed a blue line and discovered this third thing, diplomacy, which until this week was dismissed as unworkable. And whatever happens, it will be that much harder to go back to seeing this crisis, and maybe future ones, in blinding two dimensions.
Read John Nichols on Obama's decision to pursue a more dipolomatic path in regards to Syria.