Political Animal


May 15, 2013 5:09 PM A Narrative and The Narrative

By Ed Kilgore

There’s been an awful lot of talk today in political circles, much of it promoted at Politico, about the IRS/AP/Benghazi! firestorms creating a “dangerous new narrative” that could spoil Obama’s second term, or at least give Republicans a boost going into 2014 and 2016. Much of this discussion has been vastly confused by a reluctance or inability to distinguish between a narrative of contemporary politics being promoted by one of our two major political parties and its media allies, and the narrative that’s simply a plausibly accurate description of objective reality.

I got quoted, God help me, in one of the main Politico pieces, saying this:

“The biggest picture [view] is that this reinforces the whole conservative argument that Obama, or liberalism in the day of Obama, or however you want to call it, represents something new and menacing. ‘It’s not just Nixon all over again, it’s 20 times worse,’” said Kilgore, who clearly does not subscribe to that view.
“What is the distinctive political phenomenon of the last four to five years? Is it a radicalized Republican Party, which is what people like me write every single day? Or is it this lurch to the left, this hungry welfare state that’s now so out of control and is threatening our liberties?” he asked rhetorically. “This many data points for the latter point of view is going to be very hard for Republicans to resist. The temptation to go crazy on this is made all the more powerful by the timing, going into a midterm election.”

My point, however inelegantly expressed, was that the “scandals” could well lock the GOP into an intensification of the “narrative” its base and most of its spokespeople and politicians already accept. Perhaps that will boost GOP turnout in 2014 or beyond; perhaps it will even make the “narrative” compelling to some of the swing voters who haven’t much bought it up until now. Perhaps, however, it will backfire, as a similar “narrative” backfired in 1998. Maybe it will incur enormous opportunity costs as Republicans fail to focus on enacting legislation or offering a positive policy agenda of its own or “reaching out” to voter groups suspicion of them or learning any of the other “lessons” they supposedly learned in 2012.

These are all open questions, which is why it’s fundamentally wrong to suggest that this narrative is the narrative driving American politics, aside from the extremely important objection raised by Alan Abramowitz yesterday that it’s dangerous to assume any narratives (much less the individual events contributing to them) have a major impact on actual elections.

So journalists really, really need to be clear about this when writing about “narratives,” since leaping on the latest one as The Final Word can very quickly get you into the professional quicksand that Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei entered today when they declared “D.C.”—which in their world means the only people who matter—had “turned on” Obama.

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.


  • howard on May 15, 2013 5:24 PM:

    wait: you granted an interview to the low-life scum that populate the meretricious politico? whatever led you to do that?

  • c u n d gulag on May 15, 2013 6:11 PM:

    Saweeet Jayzoos, wondering wtf "lurching to the left" means in today's political environment?

    You decide NOT to beat and kick the poor, old, and/or crippled people nearly to death, tear off their limbs, pull out their eyes, and skull-f*ck their eye-socket's while they're still alive, after which you cut their heads off, slam-dunk their heads, and do "The Salsa" in the nearest End Zone, like Victor Cruz of the NY Giants does, after scoring a TD?

  • Th on May 15, 2013 6:22 PM:

    My guess is that the vast majority of people will have no tolerance for flimsy scandal mongering while the economy still sucks. We don't have the luxury of the late '90's tech boom freeing up congressional time for Clinton hating.

  • kindness on May 15, 2013 6:34 PM:

    Let us be clear about Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei. They aren't journalists.

    They are stuff that Karl Roves Dreams are made of. They aren't journalists.

    They are lower than pondscum. They aren't journalists.

    Guillotine yet?

  • Anonymous on May 15, 2013 9:21 PM:

    The GOP is making 2 mistakes:

    1. Firing too soon. Luckily for BO the Republicans have apparently never read any Horatio Hornblower books or watched any of the old naval battle movies. If so they would know that you wait until you are directly alongside the enemy frigate before you fire your cannons. You don't start pounding away when the opposing ship is a mile out.

    Joe Scarborough made a similar point (for different reasons of course). He argued that the Republicans would hurt themselves if they started making wild claims and charges before the investigations had even really begun. Also, if they expend the best ammo now the voters will tire of it long before the midterm or presidential elections.

    2. Neglecting policy development:

    From Ed: "Maybe it will incur enormous opportunity costs as Republicans fail to focus on enacting legislation or offering a positive policy agenda of its own..."

    The GOP used to have members with solid policy chops. Now it seems to be represented by grandstanders like Messrs. Rand, Cruz and Rubio. If the GOP uses the '3 scandals' as an excuse to avoid the heavy lifting required to develop policy and shore up its standing with women, Latinos and other minorities, its long-term position will continue to deteriorate.

    Sometimes it seems like BO's real genius is the ability to goad his opponents into self-destructing!

  • captcrisis on May 15, 2013 10:53 PM:

    c u n d:

    You said it!!