Sanders vs. Todd: Fifty Shades of Bad

Is it time to take Bernie Sanders’ candidacy seriously? Apparently not – at least that’s the impression one might get based on Chuck Todd’s disturbing interview of Sanders on yesterday’s Meet the Press.

Rather than provide any evidence on which to evaluate Sanders’ candidacy, Todd instead reminded us why, as political scientist Tom Patterson documents in his very fine book Out of Order, the media remains ill-suited for covering presidential campaigns. Writing in 1994, Patterson argued that in the post-1972 primary-centered nominating era, the media had anointed itself as the main intermediary between voters and presidential candidates. The problem, Patterson argued, is that the incentives driving media coverage, including the need to draw an audience, maintain ratings and earn advertising revenue, are not conducive to providing the information that can help voters determine whether candidates are qualified for the presidency. Rather than examining the details of candidates’ policy views and qualifications, journalists instead cover the presidential campaign as a horse race, focusing in particular on candidates’ campaign strategy and personalities. And rather than allow candidates to speak for themselves, journalists substitute their own interpretation of candidate statements in the context of the horse race, with a focus on negative reporting and (often media-created) controversy.

Although now two decades old, Patterson’s argument is perhaps even more relevant in today’s era in which the mainstream media finds their election coverage dominance challenged by cable news and social media. As evidence, one need look no further than yesterday’s Meet the Press fiasco of an interview. As one of Sanders’ first nationwide appearances as a presidential candidate, you might think Todd would take the opportunity to probe more deeply into the Senator’s not uncontroversial policy proposals, such as providing free tuition to students attending public colleges, or raising the marginal tax rates, or how he might deal with ISIS. But you would be wrong. To begin, Todd spend the first part of the program discussing the unfolding Dennis Hastert scandal in a not-so-subtle effort to tell us what it says about Congress as a whole. (Answer: nothing, but that’s not newsworthy so….) When Sanders finally made his appearance about midway through the program, Todd begin with one useful question regarding whether the Senator would support the House bill to extend the U.S. Patriot Act then under debate in the Senate. Sanders said he likely would, reluctantly, although he expressed concern about protecting civil liberties.

At that point, the interview degenerated into full horse-race, candidate-personality mode.  Specifically, Todd  sought Sanders’ views on a topic arguably of far less relevance to the Senator’s qualifications to be president: Hillary Clinton. He began indirectly by asking Sanders to weigh the relative merits of Bill Clinton’s presidency versus Barack Obama’s. When Sanders appeared to praise Obama more than Clinton, Todd pressed further: “You singled out President Obama for praise but not President Clinton. Why?” You might wonder why Todd raised this issue, since Bill is not a candidate for higher office, but Todd’s intention soon became clear when he asked Sanders to comment on Hillary Clinton’s apparent leftward movement on a number of issues, including “same-sex marriage, on immigration … on NAFTA, on trade, on the Iraq War, on Cuba. She has moved from a position, basically, in disagreement with you, to a position that comes closer to your view. So I guess is, do you take her at her word?”

Cue the horse race! To his credit, Sanders refused to take the bait. Instead, he expressed hope that “the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign on the enormous issues facing the American people” and tried to move the conversation to his policy views. Todd, however, had no interest in having a serious debate on the issues; he followed up with: “Do you trust these changes that Hillary Clinton has made? Or do you think she’s been doing it just for primary politics?”

When Sanders again refused to engage Todd in a discussion of Clinton’s motives, the MTP moderator closed with his zinger: Sanders’ 43-year old essay discussing women’s “rape fantasy.” Naturally, Todd chose to highlight the most controversial portion of the essay, while disingenuously implying it was the only portion he was comfortable reading on air: “I’ll be honest with you, Senator Sanders, it’s uncomfortable to read. The only excerpt I’m going to put up is, you wrote this in February of ’72, was sort of a fantasy of men and women, you said, ‘A woman enjoys intercourse with her man as she fantasizes being raped by three men simultaneously.’ Your campaign described it as satire. Can you explain this essay?”

Sanders explained that it was a poorly-written attempt to discuss gender roles in the 1970’s, and likened portions of it to Fifty Shades of Grey (who says the 73-year-old Bernie is not hip?!) Here is his full interview – his discussion of the essay begins at the 4:38 minute mark:

Frankly, having read the essay, I still have no idea what Sanders’ was trying to say. (You can read it here.) But I am persuaded, Todd’s questioning notwithstanding, that it is far less relevant to Sanders’ candidacy than are his policy views or his voting record from almost three decades serving in Congress – none of which Todd deemed worthy of asking about during the entire interview, save for the opening query about the Patriot Act.

Of course, one needs to be careful about generalizing to the entire mainstream media based on Chuck Todd’s abysmal performance yesterday. To date, Todd has not distinguished himself as moderator of MTP, although he may get better as he gains more experience in this format. And Sanders, unlike former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, showed that he could handle himself on the national stage which perhaps should not surprise us given his years in public office at the national level. Still, as we begin another lengthy campaign season, Todd’s performance does not give me confidence that the mainstream media is any more qualified to cover a presidential campaign today than it was two decades ago, when Patterson concluded that for “an institution that asks so much of others, the press has become remarkably derelict in the discharge of its public duty.” Amen.

Here in Vermont, It’s All Bernie, All the Time

Bernia mania has struck Vermont! Can the rest of the U.S.  be far behind?

Vermont’s latest presidential hopeful is slated to kick off his presidential campaign in 15  minutes, and we will be right there (virtually, not literally) with Bernie, live blogging the event.  The kickoff event is taking place at Waterfront Park in Burlington, complete with free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  The site has more than a little symbolism – it is public land he fought for while Burlington’s mayor.  We expect Bernie to take the podium shortly, but right now the crowd is being treated to a series of rally-the-base presentations in anticipation of Bernie’s entrance.

From the Green Mountains to the Redwood Forest to the White House: Is This Land Made for Bernie Sanders?

In the wake of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ announcement two days ago  that he will challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, I have been repeatedly asked the same question: “Why?”

To which I respond, “Why not?”

Yes, I understand that Bernie’s not going to win the Democratic nomination. Even his fellow Vermonters, who have supported Bernie in increasingly greater numbers through a succession of electoral contests dating back more than three decades, are expressing skepticism regarding his chances for national office.  Part of Bernie’s problem is that the very factors that make him so popular in Vermont – he won reelection to the U.S. Senate with more than 70% of the vote two years ago – may not help him as much nationally. We Vermonters are used to seeing Bernie, shoulders hunched, white hair askew, marching grim-faced through our town in the annual Memorial Day parade, or holding court in the local diner. He is our eccentric relative, the grumpy uncle who bends your ear every holiday picnic railing in his distinctive Brooklyn accent against the corporations and the 1%, oblivious to the mustard smeared on his rumpled shirt. “That’s our Uncle Bernie,” we say, smiling, before reaching for the potato salad. “It wouldn’t be a real holiday without him.”

But it’s not entirely clear that a nationwide audience will find his eccentricities so endearing. Running for the Democratic presidential nomination, with the intense media spotlight and a much more diverse group of primary voters, is not the same as greeting voters at the annual Addison County fair. Through the years Vermonters have adapted to – even come to love – Bernie’s curmudgeonly personality, but it is not entirely clear how well his rumpled but lovable Uncle Bernie schtick will play on the national stage. Nor does Vermont provide much in the way of a political base from which to launch a national campaign.

But his problems run deeper than his prickly personality and small-state base. For starters, Bernie’s trade-mark “democratic socialism” likely does not have a very big constituency within the Democratic party.  The last Vermonter to undertake a similarly long-shot quest for the Democratic nomination was the former Governor Howard Dean in 2004. He also sought to position himself as the progressive alternative to the establishment candidates (notwithstanding a rather moderate record as governor in Vermont). Despite an impressive early fundraising campaign and some initially positive media coverage, fueled by polls that for a time put him ahead of the Democratic field, Dean never attracted much more than 25% of the Democratic vote, and his candidacy was essentially dead after the Iowa caucus. (Contrary to myth, Dean’s celebrated “I have a scream” speech merely confirmed his political death – it did not cause it.) Bernie, with his soak-the-rich explicitly class-based pitch, is not likely to expand Dean’s coalition.

Sanders’ strategists undoubtedly hope that if he does well during the early caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, which typically attract more activist, ideologically-liberal delegates, as well as garnering some favorite-son support in neighboring New Hampshire, the media might anoint him as a viable alternative to Hillary. That, in turn, could enable him to bring in the money he will need to stay in the race for the long haul. It is true that the media loves a horse race, and is not averse to fabricating one if none exists. Still, if Hillary shows signs of faltering, it’s hard to believe the Democratic Party will allow a 73-year old former Socialist mayor of Burlington to be their standard bearer in 2016. Bernie will also be hard-pressed to match the Clinton money machine. Dean gained early attention in 2004 for his ability to bring in money online, and he ended up raising more than $50 million, much of it in small donations, in his presidential bid. Bernie is going to need at least that much just to remain competitive coming out of the February 9th New Hampshire primary. However, although he had a very successful first day of fundraising, it is not clear that relying only on small donors, as he claims he will do, is a viable strategy. He may also need a Sheldon Adelson-type sugardaddy if he hopes to compete past the February 27 South Carolina primary marking the end of the first month of the nominating campaign.

None of this paints a very optimistic picture for Bernie’s chances. So why run? I can think of several reasons. First, as former Governor James Douglas noted when I asked him about the psychology that might drive someone like Bernie to undertake such a quixotic endeavor, “Bernie is a man of strong convictions.” Running for president will give him a very visible platform for airing those convictions. Chief among them is his belief that the growing income inequality between the 1% and the 99% is both immoral and unsustainable. His strategy will be to paint Hillary as in hock to Wall Street and big money, and thus unable to truly fight for the middle class, whereas he has been fighting on their behalf for three decades. At the very least he hopes his candidacy will force Hillary to move the left on economic issues. (It is, of course, also possible that this strategy might instead strengthen Hillary’s appeal by making her appear more moderate.)

Of course, there are more self-interested reasons as well. Bernie already appears for an hour every week on progressive Thom Hartman’s call-in radio show,  and he has likely taken note of how former presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee have parlayed a failed nomination bid into a successful career as a well-paid talking head. Moreover, with more than two years to go before his next Senate election, it’s a low-risk time for Bernie to run for President. If he loses, he can always return to the Senate.

Finally, we shouldn’t discount the ego factor. Douglas likes to recount a story former Vermont Governor Dick Snelling told him regarding how easy it is to succumb to the blandishments of acquaintances urging you to run for higher office. “Twenty of your friends will tell you that you should be governor, that you can do that job as well as anyone else, and you begin to believe it. But these are your friends telling you this!” No doubt Bernie has his supporters who truly believe that he would make a great president, and have told him as much. And he may believe them. So why not run if he believes he could do the job?

More than the general election, presidential nominating contests are difficult to predict, especially this far out. Who really knows what will happen next year? Maybe there’s a smoking email waiting to be uncovered that will drive Hillary from the race! In any case, this isn’t the first time Bernie took a chance on making a fool of himself. In 1987, while serving as Burlington’s mayor, Bernie recorded an album of folk classics. Unfortunately, as Tom Lockwood – the musician who came up with the idea for Bernie to cut a record – recalled, “As talented of a guy as he is, he has absolutely not one musical bone in his body, and that became painfully obvious from the get-go… This is a guy who couldn’t even tap his foot to music coming over the radio. No sense of melody. No sense of rhythm — the rhythm part surprised me, because he has good rhythm when he’s delivering a speech in public.”

Harsh words! But you be the judge. We all know This Land was made for you and me – but was it made for Bernie too?  We are about to find out…in the meantime, sing it Bernie!


Why Mitt Will Run In 2016…Oh, Never Mind!

Earlier today, Mitt Romney announced, in a phone conversation with potential supporters, that he will not run for president in 2016, thus confirming what pundits had been predicting for some months now.  Or not.  (Update: According to Mitt’s statement, while he was confident based on conversations with party leaders, donors and other activists that he would win the party’s nomination, he seemed more uncertain regarding whether he could win the general election.)

To me, Mitt’s announcement was not nearly as entertaining as the media reaction to it. Since at least Romney’s visit to Iowa last October on behalf of Senate candidate Joni Ernst there has been growing speculation that Mitt was considering entering the presidential race for a third time. However, now that Mitt made his announcement some of those same experts are scrambling to tell us why it was obvious Mitt was not going to run. The most common explanation seems to be that he took the pulse of the party activists, sensed lukewarm support, and decided to pull out. This could very well be correct. If so, it is consistent with the argument that some of my political science colleagues have made regarding how parties decide more generally who to back during the so-called invisible primary. But I would be far more confident in this story if pundits and colleagues had been telling me before Mitt’s decision why the signs indicated he was going to drop out due to lack of support.

Instead, I saw a lot of twitter comments like this:

“The Daily Beast ✔ @thedailybeast
9:19 AM – 30 Jan 2015”

And this:

Mark HalperinVerified account ‏@MarkHalperin
“To be clear: I don’t know what @MittRomney will say this morning, but every talk I’ve had w/ Mitt World leads me to believe he will run”

And this was only the tip of the iceberg. Many print journalists were making similar arguments for why Mitt would run. My point is not to pick on those who incorrectly believed Mitt was poised to throw his hat in the ring.  To the contrary: If it was so obvious that Mitt was going to be culled from the field by party activists (and that he was being culled), why did so many smart people make the case for why he was running and, in some instances, why he should be running?  The reality is that it was pretty easy to believe Mitt would run, particularly if you wanted him in the race.  Early polls had him leading the Republican field and even beating Hillary in a one-to-one matchup.  (Never mind that polls are completely unreliable predictors at this stage of the race.) Recent events overseas, such as the rise of ISIS and Putin’s gamble in the Ukraine seemed to validate his foreign policy views.  Some argued that we would see the “authentic” Mitt this time around and that he was battle tested.  In explaining why Mitt would want to run, media pundits cited his purported dissatisfaction with the weak field of Republican candidates.

For all these reasons the group of “insiders” who some have fingered as putting the kabosh on a third try were previously, according to very recent media reports, actively working to persuade him to take the plunge. No wonder the estimable Gloria Borger could write in mid-January, “What a difference a few months makes. Now, multiple sources inside the Romney bubble tell me (and everyone else) that they ‘bet’ that he gets in the race.” In short, if the story of Mitt’s decision not to run is that he was culled by the party leaders, that culling didn’t seem very obvious to those who were reporting on the process. Instead, many very smart people seemed generally convinced until today that he was going to run. Indeed, many of them were making the case for why Mitt should run, arguing that he would be a formidable candidate in 2016.  Yes, to be fair, there were others who argued against a third run by Mitt.  However I have yet to see evidence of a groundswell of opposition among party activists against a third Romney run.  This is not to say it didn’t happen.  It is just that it is hard to detect in the media coverage leading up to today’s announcement, and it is why I don’t necessarily buy the post-hoc rationalization that Mitt dropped out due to a lack of party support.

Why didn’t Mitt run? At this point I don’t know. I suspect no one else except Mitt himself does either. But that’s not going to stop many pundits from saying, “I told you so.” Just remember that some of them are the same people who were previously convinced a third run by Mitt was in the cards.

UPDATE: 3 pm.   And so the media correction begins:  Romney didn’t decide – the party decided for him!  It would be a lot more convincing if they told us this before Romney’s decision.

Next up: why the media case for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the culprits in deflategate is so compelling – and why the same pundits will soon report how it was obvious it was all due to the weather.

In the meantime, let’s give the last word on Romney’s run to that well-known political pundit Emily Litella

Live Blogging the State of the Union

Hi all,

It’s been awhile, so I may be a bit rusty, but it’s time for another live blogging of the president’s State of the Union address.  As always, I’ll be watching this on CNN.   I hope you can join in using the comments sections.  Remember, part of the fun here is giving some history on the State of the Union, but it is also a chance to poke some holes in the media coverage as well.