James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hustling to choose your candidates

It has become obvious that Democrats are growing increasingly nervous about who will run for various offices under their party's banner.

Democrats, relax. There is neither need nor purpose in worrying.

The press guys will tell you when they've chosen your candidates.

In fact, obviously, the brokers...Uh, excuse me. That is, political reporters and their editors, already have made some choices.

The Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota is Amy Klobuchar, the Hennepin County attorney. As in several races around the country, the press made that decision before she officially declared her candidacy.

Hey, they know her on a first-name basis, she has a famous last name (her father is a much admired columnist and leader of adventure travel expeditions) and she does not take firm positions that the press guys find unacceptable – as in demanding this country get the hell out of Iraq, for example, or calling for a single-payer health care system. She says the war is a “serious policy error” or some such, but now that we're in it....you know the drill.

Klobuchar attracts support from labor unions, from groups that back only female candidates and a bunch of organizations that are pure in heart and staid in approach to politics. Hillary Clinton's PAC is putting money into her campaign purse. The reporters can write with proud certainty that Klobuchar is –taaa-DAAAAA! -- a “centrist.” (More about what that means later.)

The candidate's only still-standing opponent is Ford Bell, hitherto largely unknown heir to a food-industry fortune, a veterinarian with a specialty in animal cancer who has held several positions in civic and arts organizations, a liberal. He demands both a pullout from Iraq and support for a national health system. He is going to run against Klobuchar in the primary this fall, and he's going to get whipped. She openly mocks him.

She has far more money in campaign funds than Bell. Television in the state gives Bell almost no airtime, while Klobuchar is on air frequently. She gets 10 minutes to his 20 seconds. (A guess, but probably not far off.) Newspapers have from the very beginning given her vastly greater quantities of ink than Bell has received. And many of the mentions of Bell have followed the usual pattern once the press guys have chosen their candidate: It is, in a word, belittling.

Klobuchar plays the press like Oscar Peterson plays a piano. She is a virtuoso – and I do not mean that as criticism. Political reporters generally are men --usually men -- who fail to recognize that they have much reason for modesty. Any politician must learn to play them, which involves stroking egos with just the right degree of softeness, and not all do it well. Republicans tend to do it far better than Democrats, and Republicrats and “centrists” better than liberals, who have a distaste for kissing up to people, any people.

To Minnesota reporters and editors, Bell is “left of center,” sometimes “an unknown” or whatever mildly derogatory term they've settled on now. Klobuchar has been regularly identified as “the front runner” since the day she hinted at running, while Bell is always and at best, a challenger.

In the world of politics, by the way, the label “front runner” carries tremendous power, no matter how arbitrarily bestowed. People believe it is true whether it is or not, and they tend strongly to vote for the person so identified. Who wants to vote for someone who's going to lose anyway? And the vote tells the political reporters that they were right. Circular as a carrousel.

So the Democratic candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by the “quixotic” Democrat, Mark Dayton – who bought the office fair and square with his own money -- will be a Hillary Clinton sort of Democrat.

She's right on some issues that matter to liberals, waffling and, frankly, weak or worse on some of the most important ones. She's running against a right-wing Congressman for the Senate seat. We'll get a modern (extremist) Republican against what liberals have come to call a Republicrat, just the sort of match the press prefers. No outsiders in the mix. The reporters almost certainly will continue to allow the Republican, Mark Kennedy, to identify himself as “mainstream” and “centrist” without calling him on it. Klobuchar will be the “liberal.”

People from other regions of the country no doubt will recognize the story of our Senate race. They are seeing or have seen something similar. The same probably is true of my local congressional race.

The press in the Twin Cities is having a bit of a tough time deciding who will get the solidly and forever Democratic Congressional seat occupied for the past 28 years by Martin Sabo. The district includes Minneapolis and pieces of some heavily Democrat-leaning old inner-ring suburbs.

Marty was at one time a very good congressman, but he retired in place about ten years ago, beaten down, apparently by the Republican tough guys and perhaps dealing (or not) with other problems. He wants Mike Erlandson, his top aide and former state Democratic Party chair, to replace him, but district Democrats endorsed someone else. The endorsed candidate is Keith Ellison, a black state legislator who also is a Muslim, which shows the degree of liberalism in the district.

I think Star Tribune political reporters were all set to rip the meat from the bones of liberal candidates who emerged early in the race, and especially to gnaw on Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, an anti-war liberal who became a candidate before Sabo announced he is retiring. Nelson-Pallmeyer accepted the endorsement of Ellison and is backing him. At a guess, I'd say the political reporters still would prefer to see Erlandson, in the Congressional seat – he's safe, dim, seems never to have had an original thought and will never get out of line.

But the endorsed candidate not only is Muslim and black, he's also personable, handsome and smart as hell, and is highly regarded in the State Legislature, which means it's dangerous for the Strib reporters to get too snarky with him. It appears to me that they're looking for ways to cut him down to the size they want him to be but haven't yet found anything that will work. One little attempt at messing with his outstanding reputation failed miserably. But we'll see. Erlandson, with his boss' blessing, is going to the primary, so there's still time.

Gotta give the press a little more time to pick the candidate there.

On the national level – that is, the 2008 presidential race, which most Democrats are thinking hard about even if they're also involved in other campaigns -- the press got blindsided. Poor guys don't know what to do.

I recommend patience. They'll sort it out and give you the name of your candidate in due time.

Thing is, they'd pretty much decided that Hillary Clinton would be the candidate, if I read the entrails correctly. They figured to nudge her to the nomination, almost entirely ignoring her tremendous personal failings and liabilities as a candidate until after the Democratic convention. Once she was nominated, they'd do what they've done with many a Democratic candidate – turn on her savagely, publicly disembowel her for the very things that already have decided liberals against her.

The program is at least temporarily on hold, however. Because....

Along came Al Gore. Again.

The Washington Press Corps, which functions as a pack to a degree that makes your average timber wolf seem like a loner, likes Gore as a candidate in a general sort of way. He has all sorts of weaknesses – some of which the press guys made up – that they can exploit once the nominations are set. And he may be easier to push into the nomination than Hillary, who is so deeply and rightly despised by large segments of the population, including, probably, a majority of liberals. And they, like it or not, make up the core of the Democratic electorate.

Gore's movie on the environment is giving him an amazing amount of favorable attention.

The environment, by the by, is about the only area of public policy in which the man's liberal stance seems genuine. In all others, including even legal abortion, he is a late-comer and not to be entirely trusted. His career is marked by votes against gun control, statements against gay rights, votes to approve the nominations of extreme right wing judges and for war, the Pentagon and arms dealers.

You can see the reporters' dilemma. They need to think this one over. They may even need to find another candidate they can agree on. They might have gone to Joe Lieberman for that, but Joe is getting his ass kicked in his home state by people who are fed up with a Republican – a Bush Republican at that – who runs as a Democrat. Lieberman probably will hold onto his Senate seat, but he's not going to make it to the All-Star Game a second time.

John Kerry has never given up the idea of running again, and he's pushing really hard lately, but the press corps doesn't seem to be taking him at all seriously, nor are most Democrats. The pack has a “been there, done that,” attitude that's all but impossible to overcome, especially when party regulars agree. Gore may have a chance to get past that, but it's a slim chance.

Of course, some liberal candidates initially will be in the Democratic mix, and one or two will capture the hearts of liberal voters. The press will tear them up in short order, just as it did Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and others the last couple of times around. Ways will be found to make them look absurd.

This reads as though the whole sorry show is scripted, doesn't it?

It is, but not as consciously as I make it appear. It isn't planned by a committee of reporters and ratified by the rest. It happens because there are very few in the political reporting game who have the guts do anything or say anything other than exactly what the rest of the pack is doing and saying. They look over their shoulders and sniff out the consensus more ardently than they look for real stories. And that's another reason politicians who are “outside the norm” won't get a fair shake: Consensus does not lead to acceptance of mavericks.

For the most part, political reporters do not see themselves clearly, nor do they understand how utterly predictable they are. Their overweening egos preclude self-knowledge.

After every presidential campaign, there are roundtable discussions for the press guys and their bosses. Every time, the press agrees that the pack mentality led to some really bad coverage, and that things must change. And not a single change is made.

That is true, I swear it. It has been going on for five or six presidential cycles now. The thing is, every political reporter decides within minutes that it was the other guys who made mistakes, if, indeed, there were any mistakes.

(Yeah, I know it takes a substantial ego to write this kind of thing, too -- to write anything for public perusal, for that matter. The keys to keeping it honest are seeing and admitting most of one's errors, at least when they're pointed out, and not overstepping one's role or abilities. As Will Shakespeare said, “Ay, there's the rub.”)

The deepest root of the problem is that political reporters, with few exceptions, come quickly to see themselves as players. They think all that first-name kidding around and the so-serious conversations with the real players, the members of Congress and key aides and cabinet members and such, amounts to genuine discourse and that they are part of the power structure and regarded as equals, or at least with great respect.

Only about one in a hundred fully understands that if a reporter who lunched with a powerful committee chairman yesterday leaves the job today, that same bigwig will fail to recognize that same reporter on the street tomorrow.

Also, most of today's journalists at all levels are children of the power structure, or at least the suburban middle class. They identify with the people in power and lack the requisite skepticism about aims, motivations and methods. They lack zeal for rooting out lies, if the lies are comfortable to accept. And they're not at ease with people who stand in outspoken opposition to the political and corporate elite. A Kucinich or a Dean makes them edgy and uncomfortable, and also tends to trigger their unearned sense of superiority. It pretty much goes without saying that the reporters also are afraid of the power of the right wing zealots. And they are sensitive to the opinions of their bosses, who often are members of the same clubs as the zealots.

So they favor “centrists.” And that word is defined essentially as someone who is of and for the power structure as it exists. Disagreements are allowed, but only within narrow limits.

Today's political reporters, in fact, have a good deal in common with Candide. They may despise George W. and Turd Blossom and Rummy and the seriously paranoid Dick Cheney, but they fear those who are different and who challenge the system and shout out that the emperor's bare behind is visible. Their own backsides look pretty naked, and somewhere within their dull little heads, they must know that, and the knowledge makes them cling still tighter to each other and the consensus.

Most reasonably bright people know that there's something wrong with much of the political coverage they hear or read, but it can be difficult for someone who's not a wordsmith to figure out exactly what's off center. The thing is, you need to really see the words you read, see why they were strung together in the way they were, and what they say beyond what they purport to say.

A couple of examples of what we all need to look for in this apparently endless political season:

Steven Thomma, Knight Ridder's chief political correspondent, recently wrote a piece about the widening gap between Democrats in the rest of the country and the people, including the Clintons, who still control the party structure. He's one of the very few reporters to publicly and fully recognize the gap.

But. Thomma's lead paragraph was this: “Anti-war and anti-Bush fervor is growing among rank and file Democrats, threatening to pull the party to the left and creating a rift between increasingly belligerent activists and the party's leaders in Washington.”

In that one taut paragraph, Thomma hit a bunch of hot buttons and conveyed the unmistakable impression that those who oppose the in-beltline leadership are impractical, unreasonable and more than a little wild-eyed.

The word “fervor” in such a context makes the average American uncomfortable. We don't trust fervor. We want calm deliberation. A whole lot of Americans also are wary of “anti-war” if not “anti-Bush;” it brings to mind the melees of the 1960s and early '70s. And, yes, there are other ways to say it, at least at first mention.

We also are on our guard against “belligerent activists,” and after decades of preaching about the evils of communism and socialism and such, very few Americans are sympathetic to the “left” – even if that's the direction they really want to take. It automatically triggers a negative response.

However, the real hook in the paragraph is that the “rank and file” is “threatening to pull the party to the left and create a rift...” Note that it's not the party leadership, a small number of people who are protecting their own comfortable livelihoods, who are threatening, but the very large number of dissatisfied rank and file party members (nobodies) who are responsible for creating that rift.

Who's right and who's wrong in the writer's eyes is clearly established in the first paragraph, but you might not notice that if you're not looking for it. He can be, and is, more even handed in the remainder of the article. The point was made at the start.

One more:

John Whitesides, of Reuters, wrote a piece a few days ago about the Connecticut Senate race, in which Ned Lamont, a businessman, is making a good showing in trying to take the Democratic endorsement away from Bush-supporter Joe Lieberman, Gore's erstwhile running mate.

There's a pretty heavy slant in Lieberman's favor throughout the piece, but the real kicker is in this comment about Lamont: “His message has made him a darling of Internet bloggers who have funneled money and grassroots muscle to his campaign.”

Wow. Any time a reporter calls a politician a “darling of” anything, you know it's a putdown. Darlings are precious and cute and childish and they are favorites of some group we don't like. The word has power, and in such a context it's entirely negative.

Not only that, but Lamont is a darling of bloggers – a serious condemnation by the corporate press and, sadly, a good many of its readers who don't look beyond the corporate newsies for information. Right wing extremists, liberals such as myself and straight news organizations are lumped together as one entity. Oh, and “grassroots” is all right, even good, in many political situations, but “grassroots muscle” suggests there's something fishy and a bit gangster-like in this movement.

Read very carefully, friends, and be sure you see the messages within the messages.