Political Animal


October 09, 2012 3:50 PM The Hack Gap

By Ed Kilgore

As I noted earlier, my esteemed predecessor Kevin Drum touched off a bit of a blogospheric firestorm by suggesting last night that the liberal commentariat’s garment-rending criticism of Barack Obama’s debate performance had a lot to do with the MSM ever-more-shrill judgements that it was a route, which in turn had a tangible impact on public perceptions of the debate and even the state of the presidential election. He also observed there was a “hack gap” between the left and right that gave the latter a tangible advantage in spin wars. And in a follow-up today (responding to a sharp rejoinder from Salon’s Joan Walsh), Kevin made it clear he wasn’t urging progressive gabbers to be more hackish, but simply noting it was a difference between the two coalitions that had real-world consequences.

I think Kevin’s analysis of the dynamics of debate coverage has merit. Like him, I watched the debate and wrote up my reaction (which was much like his) without recourse to MSNBC, and like him, I saw the MSM interpretation of events quickly morph from “Mitt wins on style points” to “decisive win” to “rout.” I don’t know how much liberal angst contributed to that devolution, and how much it was just a self-generated feeding frenzy within the MSM, which couldn’t much be bothered with substance and was panting for a tighter race. But I suspect the rapidly spreading news that “they’re going nuts over at MSNBC” helped ease any inhibitions the big talking heads had about treating the debate as Mitt’s Breakthrough.

But Kevin’s suggestion that conservatives would never, ever, do that to Mitt Romney is a bit more questionable. I’m not suggesting that many of them are independent or objective. But their loyalty is more to a Cause than to any candidate.

Let’s do a thought experiment. What if in the debate Mitt Romney, reaching for “the middle,” had said: “You know, Mitch Daniels had it right. We’re in an economic and fiscal emergency in this country, so we need a ‘truce’ on social issues. If I’m president, until such time as unemployment is below 6% and we are on course to balance the federal budget, I will not take or support any steps to change federal law or policy on abortion, contraception, or same-sex relationships.” Do you think Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee would have applauded? No, they would have gone crazy to one degree or another.

Or let’s take another example. What if, at the end of the debate when he had already bashed Obama for his “partisan” approach to enacting health reform and expressed his fond desire to work across the partisan aisle the moment he is elected, Romney had said: “As as a token of my good faith, I promise to help convince my party in Congress not to ram through any major budget, tax or health care legislation on a party-line basis.” The explosion on the Right would have been thermonuclear. They live for the possibility of enacting the Ryan Budget without a single change using reconciliation procedures, and they’ve already promised to do the same thing to gut or repeal Obamacare.

I cite these two examples (and there are others, like a flat promise not to try to reduce income tax rates until the deficit is radically reduced) because they would have been popular, and would have reinforced the very message of reasonableness and responsiveness that Romney was trying to present. But no, most conservatives would not have applauded, and quite a few would have gone just as crazy as Mathews did. It was Mitt’s ability to sound moderate and boost his public image without making substantive concessions that they loved so much.

I bring up this counterfactual scenario for another reason as well. I can’t name individual names because I didn’t watch much reaction that night, but at least some of the liberal unhappiness with Obama was ideological—just like we would have seen from the Right had Mitt strayed from The Path. Obama didn’t just “miss opportunities” to crush Mitt or expose his mendacity; he also went out of his way to express a common interest in deficit reduction and even entitlement reform, and as has been the custom with him lately, to get about as close to endorsing the Simpson-Bowles commission recommendations (hated by many liberals) as he could without crossing the final line. He added insult to injury by conceding Mitt’s bona fides on protecting Social Security, which Romney has hardly earned, and didn’t even mention Paul Ryan’s early and vociferous support for Social Security privatization. In other words, Obama rubbed a lot of liberals the wrong way even as he was putting in an ineffective performance on “style points” and letting Romney get away with some lies and evasions, while parrying others poorly.

So the general impression Kevin had that liberals superficially supported, exaggerated and enabled a superficial MSM take on the debate may be a little too pat. And the “hack gap” he talks about, while real, doesn’t reflect unconditional conservative support for any Republican candidate saying anything at all.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Ron Byers on October 09, 2012 4:15 PM:

    There are several today claiming that Obama threw the debate on purpose to build up Romney for the next two. Frankly, I don't know nor do I care if Obama was thinking long game, or if he didn't get enough sleep the night before the debate. I sure don't think Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews have the kind of clout Kevin Drum thinks they have. I do know that the election is in about a month and a lot is going to happen during that month.

  • exlibra on October 09, 2012 4:21 PM:

    [...] liberal commentariatís garment-rending criticism of Barack Obamaís debate performance had a lot to do with the MSM ever-more-shrill judgements that it was a route,

    Did you mean a "rout", as in "utter defeat"?

  • David in NY on October 09, 2012 4:28 PM:

    I think your hypotheticals just don't match this situation, Ed. Obama didn't hand Romney the farm, as in your hypotheticals, Romney could be seen as doing. He just failed to react vigorously to arguments that Romney made, that people on the left felt he should, and in general seemed less than sharp. He tried to communicate in paragraphs, not sentences, and it didn't work. If Romney had stumbled in a comparable way -- not contesting Obama's arguments about medicare, for example, or about his tax policies being unsustainable -- the right would have had his back anyway. They'd have said it was a tie. Not the always liberal press, however. Or the liberal blogosphere. It was all catastrophe, all the way.

  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 4:39 PM:

    You want to see the "hack gap?"

    Watch the Sunday gab-fests.

    Every Republican and Conservative is recycled better than anything else on this planet.
    If we could recycle Conservative hacks into toilet paper, even the poorest people in the world would have their shelves of their hovels stuffed with it.

    Spitzer schtupped a hooker?
    Out with his ass as NY's Governor.
    David Vitter, calling hookers in two states for spank-gasms, he gets reelected.

    Gary Hart goes off with some female campaign worker?
    Off he goes into political retirement. He occasionally writes articles for The Huffington Post.
    Newt Gingrich - serial remarrier, getting blowjobs from another Congressman's staffer while trying to get President Clinton impeached for his BJ, is on EVERY feckin' Sunday show at least once a month.

    There, folks, is your hack gap, writ large.
    Tune in on Sunday's, where on every channel, it's "Meet the Republicans."

  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 4:41 PM:

    I meant to say, that it's not that we DON'T have any hacks - it's just that they're not invited to talk on the TV networks.

  • Tom Dibble on October 09, 2012 4:44 PM:

    I agree with David above. I saw the debate without commentary, and left thinking Obama didn't do a good job of making his case, should have been quicker to recognize Romney's complete reversal on his policies and highlighted that instead of just repeating the rebuttal to Romney's pre-debate policies, and generally looked less comfortable in the debate situation than Romney and much less aggressive at telling Lehrer "Make me" when pushing past the rules.

    The spiraling media narrative has been astonishing, and IMHO baseless. Kevin has a very good point there. It has fed upon itself to become the "official" take on the first debate, regardless of the facts. 70 Million people reportedly saw the debates, which is a large number of people, but many more than that only heard about the debates post-media-spin. That has and does color their perceptions of what went on.

    In my opinion, the idea that the MSNBC shrillness was a result of suddenly realizing Obama is a traditional mid-20th-century conservative ... well, I think those guys are a little too smart to be surprised at how non-progressive Obama is in many things after the past four years. He's got a good progressive record for a President in the 2000's, but we all recognize that the Overton window has shifted far too far to the right for a traditional populist progressive to stand a chance; if you honestly went into the debates thinking of Obama as JFK, I'm sorry but you just haven't been paying attention.

    In any case, I'm with Kevin. The "history book summary" of the first debate will be that Obama was routed by Romney, and it will be that largely because the "liberal" media has manufactured that as the tale of the debate. Right or wrong, the same lackadaisical performances have not been pilloried on the right in such an autocannibalistic fashion.

  • David in NY on October 09, 2012 4:53 PM:

    By the way, I think it's interesting that the not-always-so-liberal Andrew Sullivan was shouting disaster from the first 15 minutes or so. I blame him.

  • Trey in Dallas on October 09, 2012 5:04 PM:

    I'm with David. Andrew Sullivan's utter hysteria has driven this narrative more than everyone else put together.

  • BG Klin on October 09, 2012 5:28 PM:

    The interesting thing to me is that if "Republican hacks" really are all Mr. Kilgore says they are, then they shouldn't really be called hacks. Were they hacks, they'd actually be a whole lot easier to defeat.

  • LAC on October 09, 2012 6:22 PM:

    Tom Dibble, ditto on your assessment.

  • KK on October 09, 2012 7:51 PM:

    I tend to go with Toms assessment. When I watched I was struck by several things. Firstly, Romney was just out and out lying from minute one. Secondly, Ob was just too conciliatory to him. I think that undermined him in the eyes of the true D's, the old bitch slap sighted previously. I would like to say to others that Obama won't f with my Medicare, unconditionally, I am under 55 and since Greenspan I've been paying 2.5 more of my income on every dollar. In my case ive paid for my parents and mine. He didn't say that and hued too close to the deficit reduction crap. That in itself undermined him and brought back grand bargain trust issues. Under that frame I was very disappointed. I didn't see the route to end all routes but I very much understand the bases disgust.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on October 09, 2012 9:45 PM:

    The problems isn't that Obama lost a debate. The problem is that Mitt Romney felt no compunction about lying non-stop to the country and the world, Obama didn't challenge it, and the media, composed of nothing but intellectual mediocrities under no constrictions to prioritize truth -- if they even recognize it when they see it -- wrote about the thing as if it were two elk involved in the seasonal rut. To the media, it's nothing more than theater, and that includes the likes of people like Charlie Rose. Go back and watch the PBS Rose shows after the "debate" and see if it doesn't make you sick to your stomach.

    Add to that Obama simply bent over and asked the Lyin' Sack of Mitt which orifice he preferred while the fake alpha male continued an unabated vicious, aggressive lie fest.

    It wasn't a debate. It was lie punk taking advantage of yet another Democrat unwilling to take his own side in a fight.

    The country, the media especially, doesn't give a fuck about details or the truth of the policies that are being used to dismantle their country. It was reality TV, and may the biggest dickweed win.

    This is what this country has become. And it is sickening.

  • Slideguy on October 09, 2012 10:33 PM:

    It's really pretty simple. I expect the president of the United States to be carrying guns when he goes to a gunfight. I expect him to stand up for me, a senior on Social Security. I expect him to show up and fight for me. I don't want to hear that he and Romney are not that far apart on Social Security, when I know that Romney wants to end it, and Obama never expects to have to need it. I need a president who will stand up to these bastards and fight. Alas, I have no choice but to vote for him since the other guy is so bad. But I really wish I had a choice.

  • Slideguy on October 09, 2012 10:37 PM:

    It's really pretty simple. I expect the president of the United States to be carrying guns when he goes to a gunfight. I expect him to stand up for me, a senior on Social Security. I expect him to show up and fight for me. I don't want to hear that he and Romney are not that far apart on Social Security, when I know that Romney wants to end it, and Obama never expects to have to need it. I need a president who will stand up to these bastards and fight. Alas, I have no choice but to vote for him since the other guy is so bad. But I really wish I had a choice.

  • Robb on October 10, 2012 8:12 AM:

    I think Kevin is basically right.

    The Fox News pundits would not take Romney to town, not without significant caveats. Fox News is far more disciplined as a propaganda network than MSNBC and has a better understanding of how candidates are a means to the end.

    All this reporting on how the debate performance is boosting Romney... sigh.
    Just last week every wonkish reporter was showing how "debates don't affect polls, but COVERAGE DOES."
    The way liberals reacted affected the way "centrists" cover the debate.

    Granted, Obama needed to do better than he did because the media had every incentive to hope for a Romney win and keep their "news" fresh. Obama needed to win decisively in order to score any kind of win, but if the lefties would have refrained from mourning, there's a chance the coverage wouldn't be so severe.