Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Electric Burger Acid Test

Now that the strange stories here, here, here, and here, of the split between the GOP and Frank Luntz (language strategist, and Rene Belloq to my Indiana Jones) have been replaced by news of their happy reunion, we can turn to the next big--actually, to the big--meta-story of the next two election cycles:
The Republican candidate for president in 2008 will have one major-party opponent, a Democrat. The Democratic candidate will have two: The Republican candidate and the Washington press corps.
Let's start with Bob Somerby, who's been right about this--sometimes depressing, and often over-written, but unquestionably, uninterruptedly, and incomparably right--for at least six or seven years:
When it comes to the notion of “liberal bias,” the other side keeps saying things which are false. And we keep refusing to say what is true! This tendency will badly damage Dems in Campaign 2008, as the press corps rolls out its familiar script: Dem contender are fake, inauthentic. Republicans are straight-talking straight-shooters. This script has been killing Dems for the past fifteen years—and party leaders simply refuses to address it.
(Read the whole thing.)

At Huffington Post, Eric Boehlert spells it out, and connects it to the most recently-emerging strain of the meme: The private lives of Democrats are worthy of intense, sheet-sniffing inspection, because it reveals all about their politics and governing, while precisely the opposite is true of Republicans (and, of course, of the Washington press corps).
Folks, consider yourselves warned. And in fact, the Daily Howler has been sounding the alarm for some time now that the press is ready and waiting to roll out its 2008 presidential narrative about Democrats being phony ("inauthentic," they "play it safe" -- and they're "poll-tested") and the Republicans being genuine, comfortable in his own skin. Joe Klein fills up his new book with page-after-page of this Beltway-pleasing narrative; Democrats lose national elections because their candidates aren't real and voters can sense that. […]

[A]nybody on the left who's crossing their fingers hoping the press puts down its RNC talking points long enough to come in from the cold for the 2008 campaign and finally treat Democrats fairly, is simply kidding themselves. They didn't do it with Gore, they didn't do it with Kerry. The press refuses to change willingly […]. Because there are prominent people within the Beltway pundit ranks who think what's on Hillary Clinton's iPod is a) revealing because b) it proves she's a phony.
(Read the whole thing. Also, for grins and giggles, check out Atrios, who's initiated a sauce-for-the-goose series on the marital lives of mainstream media bigshots.)

Why would this be so? Many hold that the explanation can be reduced to two words: cocktail weenies. The Washington press corps is so addicted to attending the "right" dinner parties that they daren't risk biting the hand that feeds them (hor d'ouevres), even if they could imagine it.

My take is slightly different, but only slightly: It's a combination of the Cocktail Weenies Theory and a class snobbishness in DC that's always felt more at home cuddling up to Republicans than to Democrats. After all, Democrats have cocktail parties too, but the full-year residents of DC would say, as Sally Quinn wrote in a too-honest-to-live little essay back in 1998:
When Establishment Washingtonians of all persuasions gather to support their own, they are not unlike any other small community in the country.

On this evening, the roster included Cabinet members Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala, Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Bob Livingston, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, PBS's Jim Lehrer and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, all behaving like the pals that they are. On display was a side of Washington that most people in this country never see. For all their apparent public differences, the people in the room that night were coming together with genuine affection and emotion to support their friends -- the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt and his wife, CNN's Judy Woodruff, whose son Jeffrey has spina bifida.

But this particular community happens to be in the nation's capital. And the people in it are the so-called Beltway Insiders -- the high-level members of Congress, policymakers, lawyers, military brass, diplomats and journalists who have a proprietary interest in Washington and identify with it.

They call the capital city their "town."

And their town has been turned upside down.

With some exceptions, the Washington Establishment is outraged by the president's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The polls show that a majority of Americans do not share that outrage. Around the nation, people are disgusted but want to move on; in Washington, despite Clinton's gains with the budget and the Mideast peace talks, people want some formal acknowledgment that the president's behavior has been unacceptable. They want this, they say, not just for the sake of the community, but for the sake of the country and the presidency as well.

In addition to the polls and surveys, this disconnect between the Washington Establishment and the rest of the country is evident on TV and radio talk shows and in interviews and conversations with more than 100 Washingtonians for this article. The din about the scandal has subsided in the news as politicians and journalists fan out across the country before tomorrow's elections. But in Washington, interest remains high. The reasons are varied, and they intertwine.

1. THIS IS THEIR HOME. This is where they spend their lives, raise their families, participate in community activities, take pride in their surroundings. They feel Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president.

"It's much more personal here," says pollster Geoff Garin. "This is an affront to their world. It affects the dignity of the place where they live and work. . . . Clinton's behavior is unacceptable. If they did this at the local Elks Club hall in some other community it would be a big cause for concern."

"He came in here and he trashed the place," says Washington Post columnist David Broder, "and it's not his place."

"This is a company town," says retired senator Howard Baker, once Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. "We're up close and personal. The White House is the center around which our city revolves."

Bill Galston, former deputy domestic policy adviser to Clinton and now a professor at the University of Maryland, says of the scandal that "most people in Washington believe that most people in Washington are honorable and are trying to do the right thing. The basic thought is that to concede that this is normal and that everybody does it is to undermine a lifetime commitment to honorable public service."

"Everybody doesn't do it," says Jerry Rafshoon, Jimmy Carter's former communications director. "The president himself has said it was wrong."

Pollster Garin, president of Peter Hart Research Associates, says that the disconnect is not unlike the difference between the way men and women view the scandal. Just as many men are angry that Clinton's actions inspire the reaction "All men are like that," Washingtonians can't abide it that the rest of the country might think everyone here cheats and lies and abuses his subordinates the way the president has.

"This is a community in all kinds of ways," says ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts, whose parents both served in Congress. She is concerned that people outside Washington have a distorted view of those who live here. "The notion that we are some rarefied beings who breathe toxic air is ridiculous. . . . When something happens everybody gathers around. . . . It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit. We think being a worthwhile public servant or journalist matters."

"This is our town," says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democrat to forcefully condemn the president's behavior. "We spend our lives involved in talking about, dealing with, working in government. It has reminded everybody what matters to them. You are embarrassed about what Bill Clinton's behavior says about the White House, the presidency, the government in general."

And many are offended that the principles that brought them to Washington in the first place are now seen to be unfashionable or illegitimate.

Muffie Cabot, who as Muffie Brandon served as social secretary to President and Nancy Reagan, regards the scene with despair. "This is a demoralized little village," she says. "People have come from all over the country to serve a higher calling and look what happened. They're so disillusioned. The emperor has no clothes. Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this."

"People felt a reverent attitude toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," says Tish Baldrige, who once worked there as Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary and has been a frequent visitor since. "Now it's gone, now it's sleaze and dirt. We all feel terribly let down. It's very emotional. We want there to be standards. We're used to standards. When you think back to other presidents, they all had a lot of class. That's nonexistent now. It's sad for people in the White House. . . . I've never seen such bad morale in my life. They're not proud of their chief."

NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell adds a touch of neighborly concern. "We all know people who have been terribly damaged personally by this," she says. "Young White House aides who have been saddled by legal bills, longtime Clinton friends. . . . There is a small-town quality to the grief that is being felt, an overwhelming sadness at the waste of the nation's time and attention, at the opportunities lost."

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss sees this scandal not only from a historical perspective but from a resident's. "There's never been a sex scandal affecting a president while in office," he says. "In a distilled way, the sense of centeredness, stability and order depends on who is in the White House and what's going on there. When everything is turned upside down it affects our psyche more than someone who might be farming in Wyoming."

Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton and considered one of the few "wise men" left in Washington, gives yet another reason why people take the scandal more seriously here. "This is an excitement to us, a feeling of being in on it, and whichever part of the Washington milieu we come from, we want to play a part. That's why we're here."
(Read the whole thing. And if it makes you want to put people up against the wall, consider that that impulse may be on the right track.)

The point remains the same: The Republican candidate for president in 2008 will face one opposing party; the Democratic candidate will face two.

Lance Mannion has a good take on it, unpacking (I loathe the abuse of "deconstructing") the "have a beer and a burger with him" master trope. His punchline:
This beer and burger thing, it’s another way of describing the common touch.

This being a democracy, having the common touch is in fact a qualification for public office.

Not the qualification, but certainly a qualification.

Some aristocrats have it, and some sons and daughters of the working classes don’t.

And whatever it is, it is not a matter of being a charming frat boy, or of not being the kind of A student who always has his homework done.

And whatever it is, should the Democrats find and nominate someone who has it, you can bet the Media Elite will do their best to tell us that that person doesn’t really have it or that the Republican candidate has it more authentically.

Or if they find someone who has it and the Media Elite can’t deny it, they’ll change the rules. Having the common touch will be a sign of the Democrat’s bad character. He, or she, will be dismissed as being someone who tries to be "all things to all people."

This has already been done.

You may remember that the Democrats had someone who was at home among the people, who liked crowds, who loved to talk with voters, who wasn’t just someone voters felt they could share a beer and a burger with but who wanted to share beers and burgers with them, who was someone people felt they could tell their problems too because he felt their pain.

You probably also remember how the Media Elites felt, and still feel, about that guy.
Lance finished up, a few days later, with a delightfully allusive piece, for which this is the punchline:
The Democrats can take control of both houses of Congress, they can put a Democrat in the White House, but unless they take control of Vanity Fair as well, the MSM will likely remain dismissive and hostile and in league with the Republicans to regain their power.
Read the whole thing. (And not just because it's Lance.)

(Cross-posted at Preemptive Karma)

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