The Problem with Pundits

The Problem with Pundits

Pro-Lieberman Beltway pundits who whined about progressive bloggers and sounded noisy alarms about the disastrous impact of a Lamont win will have a lot of explaining to do come November.


In the wake of Tuesday’s Connecticut primary, it’s hard to say which group came across looking more desperate and out of sorts: Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s bungling campaign staff, universally derided as tone-deaf and slow-footed, or Beltway-based pundits who sounded noisy alarms about the disastrous impact a win by Ned Lamont would have. Progressives would be wise to ignore the pundits’ free advice, since it seems to have been driven less by concern about the Democratic Party’s well-being and more by personal affinity towards Lieberman, insecurity about the surging liberal bloggers, and fear that Americans might start holding somebody–anybody–responsible for Iraq.

The Lamont media flailing truly was remarkable. How else to describe longtime Lieberman pal and DC corporate lobbyist Lanny Davis, trolling online through liberal comment sections in search of random anti-Semitic slurs in order to prove thoughtful progressives opposed to Lieberman were really filled with “scary hatred.” Davis also trembled theatrically for a liberal Connecticut buddy who confided that he might not return to the state to vote on primary day “out of fear for his safety.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times‘s David Brooks lashed out at the “liberal inquisition” unfolding in Connecticut, the type of phenomenon that could be understood “only [by] experts in moral manias and mob psychology.” ABC’s Cokie Roberts sang from the choir sheet this Sunday morning, announcing a Lamont win would mean “a disaster for the Democratic Party.”

Roberts’s ABC colleague Jake Tapper labeled Lieberman’s challenge as a “a party purge of a moderate Democrat”; a cliché repeated constantly among the talking heads. Los Angeles Times columnist Jonathan Chait ridiculed grassroots Lamont activists by suggesting “their technique of victory-via-purge is on display in Connecticut.” Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, who in a recent radio interview refused to say whether he actually wanted Democrats to gain control of Congress in November, denounced the “thought-enforcers of the left” supporting Lamont, whom Peretz mocked as “Karl Rove’s dream come true.”

Earlier in the campaign, Washington Post columnist David Broder dismissed Connecticut’s progressives as “elitist insurgents.” Over at the Rothenberg Political Report, Beltway mainstay Stuart Rothenberg was in a tizzy that Lamont’s win would “only embolden the crazies in the [Democratic] party,” the “bomb-throwers.” (Like Broder, Rothenberg opted for terror terminology to describe the democratic process unfolding in Connecticut.)

The Beltway’s simplistic, yet overheated, argument went like this: By voting out a pro-war, conservative Democrat, Connecticut voters (i.e., the “elitist insurgents”) would taint the party nationally by advertising Democrats as being soft on national security. That mindset, trumpeted by Time‘s Mike Allen, among others, represents an absolute refusal by MSM to divorce themselves from the notion that Republicans own the issue of national security and that Americans only trust conservatives to deal with foreign policy. That, despite the fact that a steady stream of polls indicate a majority of Americans are fed up with Bush’s messianic worldview (a record-high 60 percent now disapprove of the war, according to CNN), and more Americans trust Democrats to do a better job protecting the peace as well as fighting the war on terror.

Equally far-fetched is the assumption that a candidate in Connecticut will impact races in the other 49 states. Since when do voters in Oregon, for instance, vote in retaliation for whom citizens in Arizona elect in their primary? Perhaps that was true when the renegade candidate was KKK honcho and Republican David Duke. But Lamont is a multi-millionaire and fourth-generation Harvard graduate. Why would voters in Tennessee be concerned about Lamont, let alone care about him? There’s absolutely no proof that the choice Connecticut Democrats made Tuesday is going to influence elections around the country. No proof, that is, other than the fact that the Republican National Committee’s Ken Mehlman says it’s so.

Aside from the hollow analysis, what accounted for the pundits’ unusually hysterical hyperbole? Part of it was that the pundits took the race personally. Meaning, they really like Joe Lieberman.

— “Joe Lieberman is a thoroughly decent, intelligent, compassionate public figure.” Bloomberg News‘s Al Hunt, July 31.

— “He is transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men.” New York Times‘s David Brooks, July 9.

— “Joe Lieberman is, without question, one of the finest men I’ve known in public life.” Time magazine’s Joe Klein, July 23.

— “I have known and liked Joe Lieberman for more than 40 years,” US News’ Editor at Large David Gergen, Aug. 6. (Gergen’s column in the Hartford Courant was particularly disingenuous, suggesting Lieberman’s only offense regarding Iraq was that he had simply voted in favor of the war in 2002.)

If nothing else, that kind of blatant, public back-rubbing helped draw back the curtain on a dirty little Beltway secret that news consumers aren’t supposed to know: Journalists go easy on politicians they like. Meaning, if reporters and pundits like a politician on a person level than that politician is rewarded with glowing campaign coverage (i.e., Sen. John McCain). But if reporters and pundits despise a politician on a personal level, that politician is penalized with blatantly dishonest campaign coverage (i.e., Vice President Al Gore).

What also drove a lot of the animus was the growing tension between the Beltway insiders and the bloggers, who continue to grab more political authority at the expense of ink-and-paper pundits who are scrambling to maintain theirs. It was no coincidence that Brooks and Broder and Klein and the crew at The New Republic have all in recent months taken public whacks at the progressive netroots, trying hard to undermine them. For instance, Brooks dismissed Daily Kos‘s Markos Moulitsas as the “Keyboard Kingpin,” while Klein proudly announced on CNN, “I bow to nobody in my disdain for bloggers.” For the last few years mainstream media pundits and reporters chuckled over the bloggers’ dismal 0-16 streak in backing candidates in previous campaigns. But the Lieberman stunner (stunning, in that four months ago nobody thought Lamont could prevail), changes everything. As of right now, the bloggers not only have juice, but represent perhaps the most potent force in progressive politics. You don’t think that scares Beltway insiders who for decades saw themselves as the de facto king makers?

Revealing, too, is the fact that MSM pundits and reporters don’t focus on Lieberman’s arrogant decision to abandon the Democratic party in order to hang onto his seat in November by running as an independent. In fact, Bloomberg News‘s Al Hunt simply referenced Lieberman’s me-first strategy as an “insurance policy.” (Imagine if every political loser took out an “insurance policy.”) On Tuesday, wrote admiringly about Lieberman’s decision to “soldier on with an independent bid for his Senate seat” where “he is free to be himself,” while New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin cheered, “Lieberman’s decision to stay in the race as an independent is the right one.” Pundits who normally revere process and pounce on politicians who try to selfishly change the rules in the middle of game, simply shrug their shoulders at Lieberman’s stunning campaign vanity.

But what I think is essential to understanding the Lieberman media phenomena is that, for the most part, the pundits who assailed Lamont’s rise during the campaign were the same ones who signed off on the disastrous war in Iraq and now appear spooked that voters in Connecticut finally decided to hold Lieberman, the de facto Democratic co-sponsor of the invasion, responsible for that foreign policy debacle. They’re spooked because for the last three-plus years there’s been something of a gentleman’s agreement that nobody inside the Beltway, whether at the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, or inside the corporate media world, has been asked to pay any sort of professional price for backing the disaster that is Iraq. But suddenly Democrats in the Nutmeg state have decided enough’s enough. That’s not a trend Beltway insiders want to see spread nationally, which is why so many pundits were eager to marginalize Lamont and his anti-war backers as “crazies” and “elitist” “bomb throwers.”

The problem for pundits is that the November elections will offer a lot more referendums on the war–and nervous name-calling might not be enough to stem that tide.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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