Much Ado About Very Little

Posted on 04. Nov, 2009 by in Uncategorized

One of the main reasons I decided to pursue a career in journalism was to try, perhaps in vain, to correct something I often see in the media, which is the easy acceptance of narratives pushed by one group or another in service of advancing their agenda. I understand the appeal if you’re a reporter. Often, someone’s gone through the effort of thoughtfully selecting, packaging and presenting a specious (and occasionally, hypocritical) set of arguments or talking points which can, in turn, be re-gifted without critical examination because, hey…we’ve got deadlines to hit and people like tightly-wrapped stories.

That’s not to say that all, or even most, journalists simply swallow whatever they’re pushed. Far from it, in fact. But a lot of the post-game political commentary on this week’s gubernatorial and Congressional elections just strikes me as people not wanting to do their job. Here’s the narrative as it now stands (it’s really too bad that we’re a few days into November already, because I could have seen a few “Red October” headlines, but then people would start thinking about a Communist Sean Connery, probably, so perhaps not):

The New York Times lead headline is, “Republicans Bask in the Glow of Victories in N.J. and V.A.”. The Politico called the election results, “an unmistakable rebuke of Democrats, reshuffling Obama’s political circumstances in ways likely to have severe near-term consequences for his policy agenda and larger governing strategy.”

But is that actually true? I’ll grant that the election of Republican Chris Christie over Jon Corzine in New Jersey is a glancing blow against the president, given his heavy campaigning in a state that tends to vote Democratic. But Corzine was seen by voters as both being corrupt and having failed to deliver on his campaign promises ( for example,he raised, not lowered, property taxes). In contrast, President Obama’s approval ratings in the Garden State still sit at a comfortable 57 percent. It may have been the case in N.J. that the electorate simply turned on a politician that failed to address local issues, rather than making a statement about the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Virginia, on the other hand, Democrats ran a lackluster candidate and also fell victim to an equal opportunity historical trend. Still the president’s approval/disapproval split in the Commonwealth was 49/50, so it can’t be said that his popularity was a make a break factor in the race.

However, much was also made of the special election in upstate New York that pitted far right Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, against a moderate Republican, Dede Scozzafava, and a Democrat, Bill Owens. GOP heavyweights like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh were highly visible supporters of Hoffman, and their involvement actually contributed to Scozzafava dropping out of the race, as conservatives considered her to be too liberal due to her stances on gay rights and abortion. Owens actually ended up winning the seat in a Congressional district that had not voted for a Democrat in over a century. University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato explains why the loss in NY-23 is a major one for the GOP:

For Republicans, the defeat in New York’s 23rd district is more profound than the loss of a single U.S. House seat, even one held continuously by the party since the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. The G.O.P. now is left with a mere two seats out of 29 in the Empire State’s delegation to the House of Representatives. In the mid-1990s, the party held 13 House seats, plus a Senate seat and the governorship.

Republicans will not be a majority party again until they find a way to include moderates in their conservative coalition, not just in New York but throughout the Northeast, the central industrial states, and the Pacific states.

Democrats, often known for their own circular firing squad tendencies, benefited from the GOP feasting on its own for once, in a district that went narrowly for Obama last year. But, perhaps more importantly, the president picks up another Congressional seat that can help with health care reform (the former holder of the seat is John McHugh, a moderate Republican who was selected by Obama to be Secretary of the Army).

In any case, this is a much more nuanced state of affairs than the conventional wisdom allows for. It really is important that reporters and news organizations try to resist the urge to construct the easy story. Don’t be afraid to report and give the people a real view of what’s happening.

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