A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Friday, February 20, 2004
CHEAP TALK, CHEAPER NUMBERS: Kos and the highly underrated (the Columbia School of Journalism's election coverage blog) got into a little flap last week over the ethics of blogs publicizing exit polls, with CJR slamming the practice as "irresponsible" and Kos arguing that the concept of journalistic does not apply to blogs. I guess my aspiring moral philospher side pushes me to side with the "moral cowboys" at CJR.

I have two reasons for seriously objecting to the exit polls that Drudge and The National Review have been releasing. The first is the standard objection that exit polls might distort the outcome of elections by discouraging voters who haven't turned out at the polls or otherwise affecting their behavior. Unlike Slate's Jack Shafer, I do think that journalists have a distinct responsibility to the liberal democratic ideals that allow them to exist in the first place. Journalists should realize that it's the "democracy racket" (as Shafer so respectfully puts it) that provides the free press with its raison d'etre, and start acting accordingly. And as political bloggers aim to fill a social role that is at least somewhat similar to that of part-time or amateur journalists, they have a similar ethical responsibility that constrains their activities.

My second objection relates to the specific nature of the exit polls that have been released during this primary season. Although I think that all states should just enact laws banning exit polls completely and that blogs should refrain from publishing them for the above reason, liberal blogs such as Kos and TPM should have been especially reticent to publish the suspect results that Drudge and The Corner have been offering. I note that the Drudged up numbers came with no determinate source (besides some fuzzy reference to "insider media sources"), no sample size, no margin of error, no details on methodology--all in all, no internals of any kind. I don't need to draw on the extensive statistical training I received as a theorist to tell you that those numbers are the statistical equivalent of compost. And to make things worse, when the election is over, the folks who released them don't fill in any of the missing information above; they instead act as though the polls never existed in the first place. And the blogs don't spend any time asking for answers.

In short, not only are these exit poll numbers statistically meaningless, they also come without an ounce of retrospective accountability, which means that Drudge and The Corner--hardly sources with great reputations for accuracy or fairness--could have just made up whatever numbers they wanted, for whatever purposes they chose. I'm not sure if Drudge or the National Review have been up to anything, but given our lack of assurence that they didn't just pull their numbers from the same place they got Troopergate, I don't think liberal blogs should run the risk of being complicit in facilitating whatever shady business they might be up to.
Wednesday, February 18, 2004

That is the highly probably outcome of the Wisconsin results. Yes, Edwards had a good evening yesterday - almost as good as it gets without, well, winning. That still leaves Kerry as having gone 15 for 17, while Edwards has gone 1 for 17.

For this reason, the idea that WI will lead to some huge momentum shift, like Dean's collapse after Iowa, is fanciful. Dean, after all, was "prohibitive frontrunner" before any votes had been cast - and when votes were cast, Dean washed out with a weak 3rd. Kerry's frontrunner status is based on actual votes, and he still won WI. If Edwards had actually trounced him, it might be another story, but it isn't.

Kerry also has a lead of about 400 delegates, about 3 times Edwards' total. Even if they ran neck and neck from now on, Kerry would still be heavily favored to win. Moreover, while Edwards will certainly get a mo wave, it is unlikely that they will run neck and neck on March 2. Too many states are in play for the sort of personal campaigning that shows Edwards at his best. He apparently intends to cherry-pick two or three states - GA, OH, and MN - effectively ceding the rest to Kerry. Even if Edwards won all three, Kerry would still get pretty close to the magic number needed to clinch the nomination.

My guess is that Edwards will at most win one or two on Super Tuesday, one or two more on Southern Tuesday a week later, then fade out as Kerry approaches the finish line. If Edwards washes out on Super Tuesday, it's over.

Of course, the other question to ask is should Edwards win, whether he's likely to or not? Would he be a tougher opponent against Bush in the fall? He is certainly a good retail campaigner, much better than the somewhat wooden John Kerry. Edwards' Two Americas theme is the best presentation of populism in modern times, perhaps ever - if you make less than about $200,000 a year you clearly are in Edwards' America, not George Bush's. Kerry has no such vivid or concise encapsulation of his basic argument.

Moreover, while Kerry trounced Edwards among Dems in WI, Edwards made it close with votes from independents and crossover Republicans. This leads to an argument, pitched by Will Saletan in Slate, that Edwards would pull better with swing voters in the fall.

If this were peacetime, Edwards would be our strongest candidate against Bush. It is not peacetime.

The tiger in the grass in this election is national security. That tiger has been sleeping like a lazy housecat during the Dem primaries, but it will be stalking in the fall. We all know that Bush's strategy is to run as a War President. His message will be something like "Strong, decisive leadership in a time of crisis," against a backdrop of all 9/11 all the time.

This message may or may not work with swing voters this fall - but we need to assume that it might. Historically, national security was the GOP's strong suit during the Cold War years. The end of the Cold War took it away, and made Clinton possible - but Osama brought it back.

John Edwards has nothing going for him on national security. He has no background to speak of in it, and it is nowhere in his Two Americas theme - where the rest of the world exists only as a place where lost jobs go. Moreover, his whole Johnny Sunshine persona works against him. I don't doubt that Edwards can stick a knife into Bush even as he smiles, but how does he get through Bush's national-security armor.

As a poster at Daily Kos put it, can you really picture Edwards in the Situation Room?

It is easy to picture John Kerry in the Situation Room. He faced war first-hand, and came back to protest it. His focus in the Senate has been largely on foreign policy (one reason he has few bills to his name). In this campaign he has shown his readiness to take it directly to Bush on national security.

Even Kerry's appearance and manner work well for him on this issue. Wooden, perhaps, but so is an oak tree. Kerry projects solidity and gravitas, qualities associated with steadiness in a crisis - and just the qualities that Edwards, for all his charm, does not project.

If we can force Bush out of his Fortress of Terra, to fight the campaign on bread-and-butter domestic issues, we will win. Kerry can do that. It is far more doubtful that Edwards can.

Which is why we should support Kerry as our nominee.

-- Rick Robinson
WAS I right or was I right?

(A reply by Rick will quickly stop my gloating...and for the record, Dan was even more right than I was...)

I not sure if I'm that happy about it. I do agree that more competition and extending the primary process until March is not a bad thing: that means more free (mostly) positive media about the frontrunner and more buzz for the Dems. But I am now convinced that whatever merits Edwards may have as a person and even a candidate, an Edwards presidency would be exactly what the Dems and the international community don't need at the current time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004
TWO WAY "INSIDE BASEBALL" VIEWS on this year's compressed primary schedule--former Clark communications director Matt Bennett (very smart cookie) and Lieberman campaign director Craig Smith are having a civil and erudite exchange over on this topic at TNR.

I agree mostly with Bennett, although he downplays the nexus that occurred in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire: the media, who wanted to further the Iowa momentum storyline, exploded a couple of stumbles Clark made that week (and served him up possibly the most hostile and non-substantive gotcha debate questions I've ever seen) into a week of blanket negative coverage, continuous with their massive assault Yeeaarrgh-led assault on Dean, and in contrast to the backlit glow they were giving to Kerry and Edwards.

Yes, Clark honestly made those stumbles, but it was that it fit so nicely into the media narrative (certainly more nicely than the unprecedented 2,000-person rally we had two days before Iowa) that the Iowa losers' campaigns were "losing momentum." Note that while the whole world knows about Clark's testy "I'm a General, he's a Lieutenant" retort to Dole (usually without the context of Dole baiting Clark by saying he'd been demoted to a Colonel and Kerry promoted to a General), no one in the Feb. 3 states knew about Kerry saying that the Democrats should just forget about competing in the South. It's about selection and framing, and this race was framed completely in terms of two aspects of that horrid and talking-head created neologism "electability" (yech!): (1) the media's judgment of a candidate's "presidentialness"; and (2) "momentum."

By the way, to term what the media reported as "momentum coverage," as Bennett does, is I suppose accurate, except that it commits the sin of significant understatement. I would have liked very much if Bennett had a bit more explicitly called the media's use of the word "momentum" for the BS it is: as it's 90% media-driven buzz, the word is completely self-referential whenever it comes out of the mouth of a journalist or media talking head, and no responsible journalist who is directly involved in election coverage should ever use the word in the objective mood. As it is precisely the media who create "momentum," it is an automatic conflict of interest for them to claim to report on it from an objective prespective, unless they pledge themselves to doing only meta-analysis of the election coverage, rather than the election itself.

Oh, and also note the reference to a fellow Canadian for Clark in Bennet's Tuesday arguments: who knew we had Mike Myers on board?

OK, so I promise I'll talk about something else besides the primaries, someday.

(via Drew from the WCW)
Monday, February 16, 2004
A REAL INTRODUCTION: I wanted to give more of a formal welcome to Rick, who wasn't just a co-blogger at the unofficial Wesley Clark Weblog--he was a fantastic (or "fabulous," in what seems to be the suddenly Queer Eye-ified current political lingo) political analyst and I'm sure he'll be introducing some very sharp race coverage in the days to come.

And, of course, a real welcome means that I'm going to disagree with him right off the bat. I for one do not think that Kerry has the nomination completely locked up. The American media seems to be bound to a number of standard narrative conventions, and one that it cannot seem to resist is the mano-a-mano contest, in which the underdog always has some shot of landing a knockout blow. And the one-on-one contest it seems to have wanted since a couple days after Iowa--when they prejudged Dean too unhinged and Clark too gaffe-prone to be serious candidates--is Kerry versus Edwards.

And what the pundits want, they get, especially in the context of a seriously compressed primary, when the network and cable news channels have amazing weight (for anyone who doubts, I invite you to examine the growth of Kerry's and Edwards' support in the February 3 states between the New Hampshire primary and 2/3; run a regression between that line and the proportion of positive news coverage and I'll bet you a ton of money that you'd get some sweet significance). So Kerry may still have to fight hard to keep Edwards from getting air in Wisconsin and from developing a Super Tuesday surge.

So who am I cheering for? Despite my natural attraction to underdogs, and the benefits of extra media attention the Dems would have gotten from an extended primary season, I’m guess I've been left hoping that Kerry squishes Edwards easily by March 2. It’s mainly because I’ve decided that Edwards, even more so than Kerry, is over-leveraged by the media and is really the wrong man right now.

My biggest criticism of Edwards is that he is so light in so many ways. He has an even thinner resume than the one Dubya had before 2000. Some call him Bill Clinton reborn--almost as much charisma, none of the bimbos. But a Clinton isn’t what we need right now, in this time of Bush-led continual war. Clark’s defeat doesn’t at all prove that voters don’t vote on foreign policy--it just proves that Democratic voters don’t, especially when there’s no one pushing them to do so. But the 2002 midterms clearly showed that the Republicans can push very hard and win on national security alone.

And even if Edwards' bright smile and "Two Americas" ("Revenge of 'It's the Economy, Stupid!'"--which I'll admit is a well-developed message) were enough to beat Bush, America and the world would still be in a dangerous muddle. When it came to foreign policy, Clinton had good intentions, but for a mix of reasons, was never able to consistently execute a coherent grand strategy for America and the West in the post-Cold War era (on this point, at least, I’ll agree with Prof. Gaddis). And it's precisely this lack of coherence that allowed Bush’s cadre of neocons to so easily fill the conceptual vacuum with their radical foreign policy.

The bottom line is that the Democrats need to a presidential nominee who is committed to turning them into a party that takes foreign affairs seriously--a nominee who can be the architect of a coherent, constructive, and progressive vision of America's place in the world. I don't think that the Democrats could win without such a vision, and even if they did, I think that a win without such a vision would be harmful to both the prospects for re-election in 2008 as well as the prospects for world security in general.

So that’s why the nomination of the seemingly safe and saccharine Edwards may scare me most at all: not because of any hidden agenda he might have, but because making the world safe from both the fundamentalisms of the religious fanatics as well as the neocons requires an agenda that Edwards is really completely lacking. And that's why I'm willing to settle for the sometimes underwhelming liberal Senator from Massachusetts--with luck, Clark and Edwards (and maybe even Dean) will have a significant role to play in the upcoming campaign, and they’ll bring enough energy to win this thing in November.
Sunday, February 15, 2004
Eric has invited me to co-blog here, following on, so to speak, from my tour of duty over at WesleyClarkWeblog. Some of you who are blog junkies may recognize me from my too-numerous posts over at Daily Kos.

The Dem primary race is now effectively over, so the focus moves to the general election campaign - which looks to be one long knife fight from now till November. I expect to have a good deal to say about it here, but for now I'll settle for a quick hello, and a hearty thanks to Eric.

-- Rick Robinson