Sunday, November 25, 2007

I Was A Mindless Drone: Please Forgive Me

Mark Halperin has a stupid op-ed in today's New York Times. It's basically an apologia for having believed that presidential campaigns are a better way to choose candidates than policy positions and past actions -- because Richard Ben Cramer misled him into thinking that was the way to do it in his book, What It Takes:

MORE than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes,” about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns.

I’m not alone. The book’s thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage.

Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has “what it takes” to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.

For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.

But now I think I was wrong. The “campaigner equals leader” formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.

Yeah, Mark, you were wrong. But please spare us the "shared the view" excuse. It wasn't every political journalist who valued style over substance:
Why I’m not a proper political journalist:

In his op-ed today, Mark Halperin describes George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign as follows:
He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House; he was surrounded by disciplined loyalists who created a cheerful cult of personality about their candidate.

Meanwhile, I didn’t do the up-close-and-personal stuff; I looked at what he actually said about policy. And from my point of view he “came across” as someone who lied, systematically and consistently, about taxes and Social Security. I did notice the cult of personality — but it scared me:
This suggests a terrible prospect. Soon we may have a president who lost the popular vote, who won the electoral vote only after bitter controversy, who needs to act with unprecedented humility and discretion to avoid ripping the country apart. But he will have surrounded himself with obsequious courtiers.

But you see, I’m just a shrill Bush-basher; we should leave judgments about character up to the professionals who thought Bush was a bluff, honest guy you’d like to have a beer with.

Astute observation from Emptywheel:
The reason I say it's hysterical, though, and not just pathetic, is in Halperin's description of how he determined that he had been wrong--his analysis of the two presidents he has covered in the last sixteen years. See, Halperin describes those two presidents as both being great politicians--"wildly talented."
Our two most recent presidents, both of whom I covered while they were governors seeking the White House. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are wildly talented politicians. Both claimed two presidential victories, in all four cases arguably as underdogs. Both could skillfully serve as the chief strategist for a presidential campaign.

And then he proceeds to describe how the characteristics that made these "wildly talented" politicians made them failed presidents. Of note: he sees them both as failed presidents, Clinton and Bush. Here's how he supports his claim that Clinton's was a failed presidency:
For instance, being all things to all people worked wonderfully well for Bill Clinton the candidate, but when his presidency ran into trouble, this trait was disastrous, particularly in the bumpy early years of his presidency and in the events leading up to his impeachment. The fun-loving campaigner with big appetites and an undisciplined manner squandered a good deal of the majesty and power of the presidency, and undermined his effectiveness as a leader. What much of the country found endearing in a candidate was troubling in a president.

See where I'm going with this? Halperin claims that a guy who presided over tremendous economic growth, some innovative policy solutions (many of which I dislike, but admire for their pragmatism), and real success in foreign policy, had a failed presidency. He claims that a guy whose approval ratings stayed high during a trumped up impeachment "ran into trouble." Halperin clings to the Village's caricature of the Clinton presidency all so he can claim both Clinton and Bush failed. And in the process, he ignores a great deal of hard work and policy wonkiness that, in fact, made Clinton a successful president. Precisely the kind of characteristics you'd want good presidential journalism to cover--a candidate's comfort with the complexity of policy issues that translates into competent governance.

You see, Halperin tries hard to explain away his failures of judgment and discernment as failures of process. But in the process, he only emphasizes those failures of judgment. If Halperin really believes that Clinton and Bush experienced the same level of failure in office; if he remains ignorant of Clinton's considerable discipline (in all matters not involving his penis) and hard work and policy acumen, then he has proved his own failures of basic observation, not a failure to cover the right topics.

More commentary here.

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