Friday, February 15, 2008

When Memes Matter

Atrios has a post regarding the media's love affair with Obama and hatred of Hillary, which links to this article which gives details to it. But the thing is, I think there's a lot more to this than just "the media hates her the way the media will hate him." Because the article highlights a fundamental mistake the Hillary campaign made:

"But instead, the affect she presented to reporters was in perfect keeping with all the stereotypes about her: She was guarded and relentlessly, robotically on-message on the rare occasions when she sat for interviews, displaying little of her charm or humor. She adopted an arch-Establishmentarian posture rather than an inspiring, transformational one..."

The writer insists that Hillary's problem is that she was trapped into a meme that made her out to be this way, but why? This is clearly what they were going for. Everything from denouncing people who referred to her as "Hillary" instead of "Clinton" to the entire "Inevitable Political Machine That Will Destroy Republicans" was a clear sign that she was trying to work this to her advantage. Sure, the media already had these attitudes about her, so why reinforce them?

I suspect that the Hillary people were really trying to steal a page from the Bush manual. The Bush Election Machine had much of this same mystic, and it worked well. But the big difference was the candidate they were selling. While the Bush Machine was scary sharp, the candidate was a "Good Ol Boy" doofus in a cowboy hat who seemed to enjoy clearing brush more than anything. And so while the Machine frightened them, the candidate was friendly, fun, and entirely non-threatening (or so they thought).

Hillary's people messed up because their candidate was already known for being a machine, and the Inevitable Machine meme just made it worse. People didn't just fear her campaign. They feared her. And that fit in so well with the media's meme that they just continued to run with it. Now, it wasn't just "the bitch;" it was the "Bitch's Machine." Or so said the meme. And while that might have been inevitable, Hillary's strategy only made it worse. Her re-branding experts told her to play it soft, but her idiot political advisors told her to go tough, and she went with the advisors; who she's been listening to for years. I suspect history will show that to be her biggest mistake.

A New Democrat

That writer then ends the piece with a dig at Obama:
His success has turned in no small part on his skill at avoiding such flyspecking, and on his rival’s inability to muster the same kind of dexterity. If Obama winds up facing John McCain, a man whose meta-narrative is spun from pure gold, he is unlikely to be so fortunate again.

But why is that assumed? He also mentions how the GOP has done this "again and again," but what is that based on? As I've argued before, the GOP Attack Machine is vastly over-rated. But in what case has the GOP been able to turn a positive media story into a negative? Are we to imagine that the media once loved the Clintons? Was Gore ever a media darling? Can anyone possibly suggest that Kerry has a TV-friendly charm?

Of course not! The Clintons were hated because he was a "bubba" who was too BS-y and she was too bitchy, and they didn't go to the right parties or please the right people. Gore was hated because he was a Boy Scout who got the pile-on they wanted to give to Bill but never could. Kerry was hated because he wasn't Bush and he was another boring Boy Scout who wouldn't stop talking. Sure, the media was able to find things they didn't like, but the real issue is that they just didn't like these people to begin with. It wasn't the Smear Machine that got the media hating them. It was the opposite: The media hated them and gave the Smear Machine a voice. That's all that happened. And without the media, the Machine is impotent. Hillary's largely found that out too. It doesn't do any good to steamroll the press if the press is intent on steamrolling you.

Now, that's not to guarantee at all that they won't turn on Obama too. Perhaps they will. But in no case do we have evidence of a Media Darling Democrat who became a Media Target due to Republican smears. Can anyone name any Democrat who that applies to? Instead, I'm seeing a group of people who have grown to idolize JFK, RFK, and MLK; and a candidate they've already decided is a combination of all three. This has never happened before and I see no reason to imagine the old rules will apply to him. Maybe they will, but precedent no longer applies.

Granddaddy v. The Fonz

And I'm of the opinion that they're going to give even better treatment to Obama than McCain. Not all of them, but Obama's got the better story, and will give them better things to write about. Sure, it's always nice to quote Mr. "Straight Talk". But where's the story? Obama has his story built-in. He's part of a new movement sweeping America that will transform politics as we know it. And if there's anything the herd-like media loves, it's a new movement sweeping America.

And as I explained at Atrios', McCain's the funny grandfather who tells dirty jokes that make you laugh on fishing trips. Obama's the cool older cousin you try to emulate as much as possible. And for as much as you love your grandfather, you'd much rather hang out with the cousin. It's possible things won't work out that way, but we need to realize that they really might.

Oh, and Bush was your older sister's boyfriend, who gave you good things sometimes, but was kind of a jerk when he didn't want you around. And for as much as he pretended to be your pal, you often got the impression he just did it so he could get into your sister's pants. And he always did. Even now, the media hasn't quite grasped the fact that Bush was just using them.


Doctor Biobrain said...

It's come to my attention that perhaps the "Don't call her Hillary" thing was not the doing of her campaign. While there were many supporters saying that, I don't see anything that suggests they did so at her behest, and there is evidence showing they actually preferred "Hillary". I'm not sure about that, but thought I'd mention it here.

A said...

I don't see why the plausible explanation here isn't just that Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Bush, Dole, Gore, Kerry, Hillary, etc. are just kind of boring. Many of them seem like perfectly nice people, but they don't make for great-leader stories.

That explanation is almost painfully over-simplistic, of course, but I think part of the Democratic Party's problem is trying to split hairs about narratives when the basic issue is simply a lack of charisma. This is confirmation bias at work.

Relatedly, using Dubya as an example is inapposite -- the media turned against him for being a colossal failure and for running the country into the ground. That's informative, and it says a lot about how far a good narrative can carry you past incompetency and failure, but (a) it doesn't say a lot about campaign coverage, which is far more insubstantial and ephemeral than political reporting in general; (b) the slow turn against Bush been too glacial to be intentional — if the media was opportunistic, they had plenty of chances to go after him; and (c) the change in coverage has at least moved in the same general direction as the empirical reality of Bush's incompetency, whereas the entire point of the "turn on the candidate" theory is that it's detached from the evidence — a story for the sake of a story.

If anything, the Bush example demonstrates what you indicate -- that narrative and momentum beat the sexiness of the "fall from grace" story most of the time. The makings of an anti-Bush story were all there during the Presidential race, if any political journo in Austin wanted to write it.

Moreover, I think there's a decent argument that the media never really "turned against" Gore, Kerry, et al. -- none of them even got through the hoop to positive coverage in the first place. The "blood in the water" explanation is sexier, I guess -- but if the candidate doesn't even move papers to begin with, isn't it a moot point? You can't "turn against" without being "for" first.

It's like local news coverage -- it's not boring or saccharine because the reporters are complacent or tricky; they're mostly just filling space with positive blather until something interesting comes along. The "turn on the candidate" story is actually the media narrative of a perfectly straightforward phenomenon being sold after the fact as a conspiracy or inside baseball.

A said...

—To be a little more specific, I think your explanation gives too much credit to "the media" as a monolithic, thinking beast that can even have motives in the first place. The "herd-like" nature of the media is also exactly why the GOP attack machine works and why the Clinton strategy would have been a good one if it actually worked — the snowball-rolling-downhill effect is pretty straightforward.

Look at it this way: if Obama had been just a little bit late to the game, then the Clinton strategy would have worked, and everyone would be talking about what a genius Mark Penn is, and asking if the media would "turn against" Clinton in the general (rather than asking whether they were really for her in the first place, which is the question).

It's a totally self-confirming, non-falsifiable narrative. If the coverage is positive, then it's "will the media turn against them?" If it goes from positive to negative, it's "the media turned against them!" If it's negative or turning positive, there's no story. An explanation without predictive value is a pretty story, not a theory.

The issue this does raise, I think, is less sexy but far more interesting -- that is, the timing of the Clinton campaign in pushing too hard too early, and more importantly Obama's timing in flying under the radar and then pushing just the right amount in November and keeping the pressure on. That is a falsifiable question of political judgment; moreover, comparing Obama to Clinton's advisors leads to the same conclusion (Obama is better at this) without the post ex facto explanation.

That is an interesting debate, but it's not a media narrative, precisely because it's predictive rather than retrospective -- right or wrong, it's not a "story"; the story is all in who wins.

[... it occurs to me that we should discuss these things over at, e.g., ObWi, where other people might get involved. Why would you feed your useful insights into the black hole that is Atrios' comment threads? You're contributing to informational heat-death!]

Doctor Biobrain said...

Actually A, I don't necessarily think the media is as influential as they're given credit for. I mean, we all know that the typical person doesn't watch real news, let alone political news. So I don't see how they can be to blame for what people think. At most, they throw politicians off their message and make them waste time with stuff that isn't that important (such as dealing with anything the news says).

So the focus of what I was saying was only as much as the media does have an impact, not to suggest that it's a very big impact. As I've said before, the biggest thing that lost us the last two elections was election theft, not the media.

Oh, and just so you understand, the journalists here in Austin LOVED Bush as governor. Even the local alternative paper saw him as the invincible candidate for president, which completely baffled me, as I was a longtime reader and didn't see what they were talking about. I actually think I caught them in a slip-up after the 2000 election, when they ran a pictorial that acted as if he had won. If I remember right, it was an "All the President's Men" thing. Yet...there was no win to justify it. They publish on Thursdays, but we still didn't have a decision by then, but they ran it anyway. They were so confident he'd win they created the whole thing beforehand; or so I believe. And let me tell you, they were quite liberal and opposed his policies, but liked him as a man. Even at the time, I knew they were wrong. The press narrative on Bush began the day he announced he was running for governor, and they controlled the media since then. Even now, I don't see that they're that negative on him. And by "negative," I mean the kind of coverage Clinton got. But I guess they don't still treat him like a hero, so that's something.

As for why I wrote that at Atrios', it was actually with the intent of having HIM read it. I love his blog, but you're right in saying his comment section is useless. But I'm under the impression that he's still somewhat fond of the Hillary side of things, so I've been writing comments there with the hope that I can put him on a better course. He says he reads his comments, so that was my hope.

And to tell you the truth, I don't read Obsedian Wings. In fact, I had to do a search just to find out what ObWi meant. The only analysis blog I read is Digby. The rest of them are more news oriented with a little big picture analysis thrown in on top. I'm just one of those people who just wants straight data and little else. I tend to not listen much to other people's opinions anyway. Either I already know what they're saying or they're wrong. On top of Yahoo News, I read TPM, Carpetbagger, Atrios, Juan Cole, Bagnews, and Digby; as well as the people they link to. They generally tell me what I need to know and I don't have time for much else.

Even still, I've gotten a few readers to click through from Atrios, and that was worth it right there.

A said...

So the focus of what I was saying was only as much as the media does have an impact, not to suggest that it's a very big impact. As I've said before, the biggest thing that lost us the last two elections was election theft, not the media.

Well, the point is that "blood in the water" -- as in, the notion that the media build politicians up just to tear them down -- isn't so much about the impact of the media for me. It's about buying the media's own explanation for the media's own behavior.

I mean, that's the Democratic Party's biggest error, right? They talk about what they're doing while they do it. They vote for a war to "appear strong on security," like no one's listening as they admit, on-face, that it's a token vote -- pure patronizing -- and then wonder why people don't see them as "credible on national security." They can't do anything without talking about their thoughts, while the Republicans have at least the sense to keep their mouths shut.

Their attack machine works because they don't call it an attack machine. They just do, and if you try to point it out, they play dumb. The more you try to analyze it, the further you get from the solution; your insight works against you. It's the Chinese finger trap of politics.

Sigh. Anyway, that's how I see it right now.

Oh, and just so you understand, the journalists here in Austin LOVED Bush as governor. Even the local alternative paper saw him as the invincible candidate for president, which completely baffled me, as I was a longtime reader and didn't see what they were talking about.

Well, I was still an undergrad at UT at time, so I was getting a, uh, different perspective. The few Austin journalists I know were all still students at the time, so I'll take your word for it. :)

Based on my (admittedly limited and anecdotal) evidence, I'm still convinced that there were some potential stories bubbling about that could have been told; but on the other hand, the people who did know better back then also knew enough not to cross those guys.

And to tell you the truth, I don't read Obsedian Wings. In fact, I had to do a search just to find out what ObWi meant.

Tsk tsk. That's publius' home now; he's still excellent, and the other bloggers there -- especially hilzoy -- are just as good.

The only analysis blog I read is Digby.

I used to have Digby, ObWi, and LGM on my list, but nowadays it's pretty much just OW. Digby's backed off too much during the primary -- it's very disappointing.

The rest of them are more news oriented with a little big picture analysis thrown in on top. I'm just one of those people who just wants straight data and little else.

Well, the top two posts on OW right now are just a straight list of everything Obama and Clinton's did in the Senate -- can't get much more "raw data" than that.

Not that I don't agree -- after a while it's like going in circles. The analysis becomes the widely-accepted-yet-never-followed conventional wisdom, while the political realities remain largely the same. Hopefully there really is something afoot this year. The war of attrition is wearing on me.

I used to put a lot more effort into trying to put things into terms that everyone could understand; I don't know if I failed or got tired of it, but it's gotten harder and harder. It feels like every new insight now is either that there's no depth to a problem, or a problem is so deep that it can't be dug out.

That, and Obama seems to get it -- the tactics and the strategy and reaching across the aisle -- better than I ever did, and he's able to put it into practice, too. The few things I do learn that I still find interesting increasingly seem to come from him -- and if he loses, I'm not sure what my insights count for anymore; they're generally not better than his, and by definition can't be as practical. I wish I wasn't putting so much on Obama's shoulders, and by now I should know better, but Bush's politics of the absurd and obscene has been almost too much to take for the last eight years -- I'm not sure if I can handle a politics of the utterly banal.

This is all too depressing right now. Time for bed.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Ok, I didn't know you were in Austin. Weren't you reading the Chronicle at the time? While they didn't agree with Bush politically, they clearly saw him as invincible and didn't have a big problem with him. I'm thinking they were part of the practice Karen Hughes used to get warmed up for the big show. I think that's one reason why Bush beat Gore in Austin, because the Chron didn't diss Bush enough. Depressing.

Oh, and when I said "raw data" I meant just like news stories. Like what Carpetbagger does, who is my favorite writer. And don't tell anyone I said this, but I do think Digby's material has gotten a bit on the repetitive side lately, and lacking the punch I used to like. But that's the biggest blogroll I'm on, so I won't complain.

As for Publius, I purposefully gave him up after he left his blog. I said I didn't read group blogs at the time when I complained about him leaving, and I still don't. But partly, I was just upset because I had just recently gotten him to add me to his blogroll, and when he left, I didn't go with him. I still get a few clicks from the old site, but not nearly as many as I used to. Same thing happened with Michael Berube, when he left his blog. That sucked. I don't think I've been added to many blogrolls after that and definitely nobody big. Perhaps that should tell me something.

Even now, I'm more likely to get clicks due to comments I leave than through blogrolls. That's why I write way more comments than I write posts; just as a marketing technique. Whenever I have something basic to write, I write a comment. I try to only use the blog when I have something big to say. I'm really too much of a perfectionist when it comes to this stuff. A blogpost usually takes me at least an hour. But then again, maybe I'd get more traffic if I posted the little stuff too.

A said...

I think that's one reason why Bush beat Gore in Austin, because the Chron didn't diss Bush enough. Depressing.

Personally, I find the notion that people take the Chronicle seriously kind of a downer. So I'm just going to chalk that one up to homefield advantage. :)

But then again, maybe I'd get more traffic if I posted the little stuff too.

Speaking of Atrios...