The Facts Machine

"And I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide"

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

ANGRY, GAFFE-PRONE AND UNELECTABLE, OH MY!

Salon's Eric Boehlert has written a comprehensive piece on Gore-ing of Howard Dean. Some choice bits:
Today, the parallels between the Dean and Gore press coverage are impossible to miss. There's the charge Dean is constantly trying to "reinvent" himself, which Gore was accused of in 2000. That Dean is "angry"; Gore was tagged a "savage campaigner" during the primaries. There's the often nit-picking obsession with the "gaffes" that supposedly bedevil Dean; for Gore the problem was "exaggerations." There's even a tedious debate in the press about whether the New York City apartment Dean grew up in was luxurious, just as pundits went back and forth, in all seriousness, over whether as a boy Gore grew up in a fancy "suite" or just an "apartment" inside Washington's Fairfax Hotel.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently ridiculed Dean for beginning "a sentence with, 'Us rural people ...' Dean grew up on Park Avenue and in East Hampton. If he's a rural person, I'm the Queen of Sheba." Somebody might want to tell Brooks (or his editor) that Dean has spent half his life living in Vermont, and his wife still practices family medicine in the tiny town of Shelburne (pop: 6,618). Meanwhile, of course, the Andover, Yale and Harvard-educated Bush's claim to a pure Texas pedigree is rarely questioned.
And of course, Tim Russert rears his giant head:
During the hour-long sit-down, Dean faced off against a clearly combative host, Tim Russert, who prepared for the interview, in part, by asking the Bush Treasury Department to produce what the Washington Post called a "highly selective" analysis of the Democratic tax program, including rolling back scheduled tax cuts. Later in the program came a pop-quiz question about how many men and women currently serve in the military. When Dean said he didn't know the exact number and complained it was like asking him "who the ambassador to Rwanda is," Russert shot back: "As commander in chief, you should know that." Dean estimated there were between 1 and 2 million men and women in active duty; according to the Pentagon, there are 1.4 million.

What a sharp contrast to '99, when Russert had a warm, respectful one-on-one with then-candidate Bush. When the host sprang a specific policy question on Bush about how many missiles would still be in place if a new START II nuclear weapons treaty were signed, Bush answered: "I can't remember the exact number." But unlike his session with Dean, Russert dropped the topic without lecturing Bush that "as commander in chief, you should know that."
And there's plenty on the "anger" meme:
In the wake of "Meet the Press," the Washington Post on July 1 reported that a "new contentiousness" was creeping into Dean's press coverage. The paper made that a self-fulfilling prophecy on July 6, uncorking the Page 1 Dean profile that opened with the image of the former governor's bulging veins. In fact, in just two summertime features the Washington Post managed to use the following words to describe Dean: "abrasive," "flinty," "cranky," "arrogant," "disrespectful," "yelling," "hollering," "fiery," "red-faced," "hothead," "testy," "short-fused," "angry," "worked up," and "fired up." And none of those adjectives were used in a complimentary way. In fact the Post, in an Aug. 4 Is-Dean-mean story, took pains to distinguish him from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom the paper termed "brilliantly cranky."

Soon the rest of the press was lavishing attention on Dean's temper -- researching it, analyzing it, trying to document it. Both Time and Newsweek's August cover stories on Dean dutifully dwelled on the issue of anger. For Republicans the anger angle fit perfectly with the party's plan to attack Dean personally rather than politically. As was true with Gore in 2000, the GOP spin machine is paying less attention to Dean's policy agenda than to his alleged personality defects: "Arrogance" and "anger" are high on that list.

Picking up on the press's handiwork, RNC chairman Ed Gillespie amplified the theme in September, accusing Democratic candidates of using "political hate speech" in their attacks on Bush. Soon the Bush reelection campaign Web site featured an anti-Dean video dubbed, "When Angry Democrats Attack." More recently, a December RNC press release insisted Dean's "Foreign Policy Attack Based on Anger Not Facts." Bush himself sent out a fundraising letter, asking for help fending off "angry attacks" by Democrats. And last week Rush Limbaugh declared Dean to be "mad," "angry" and "fit to be tied."

Lately, it's been hard to tell where GOP spin ends and independent analysis begins. On Dec. 28, the New York Times wrote, "President Bush's campaign has settled on a plan to run against Howard Dean that would portray him as reckless, angry and pessimistic." Two days later a Times headline described Dean as "prickly." On Jan. 3, the paper ran an entire article about Dean's temper.

And yet the anger issue may be fading, perhaps because reporters and pundits haven't actually been able to uncover Dean's temper. As the Times conceded in its obligatory Dean-is-angry article, nobody has seen him explode during this entire campaign. (The Times did manage to detail, secondhand, how years ago as governor, Dean once slammed his fist on a table.) Despite being publicly attacked by his Democratic rivals, by centrists at the Democratic Leadership Council, by Republicans, and by pundits (last month Slate magazine compared Dean to a "suicide bomber"), the candidate has kept his cool throughout.
And the numbers don't back up the "temper thing" either:
More bad news for that beloved press story line: Seventy-six percent of Democrats consider Dean "likable," according to the latest CNN/Time poll. And among the larger pool of respondents, including Republicans and Independents, by a margin of nearly 2-to-1 they consider Dean to be an "optimist," not a "pessimist." (In addition, 40 percent opt for either "moderate" or "conservative" to describe Dean; just 24 percent pick "liberal.") It's the press, egged on by Republican spin and eager to play the role of hardheaded analyst, that has latched onto this notion that Dean is too passionate to be president.
Even if you're not a Dean supporter, Boehlert's piece is very instructive, as is his fittingly similar piece on the media's similar treatment of Al Gore in 2000, from the December 2001 issue of Rolling Stone. If you're a Clark-head or a Gep-aholic, and your guy finds himself the frontrunner, it could (and will) happen to him too.

The Bushies and the RNC are banking on their Gore-2000 media strategy working for them again this November. But will it? Not necessarily, particularly if Dean winds up being the nominee. Howard Dean's campaign, from its grassroots base to its vast internet machine, is much more capable of un-Gore-ing their candidate than that of the 2000 President-elect. Plus, the RNC/media attacks on Dean are peaking at a pretty early point in the campaign cycle, meaning that the Bushies are tipping their hand pretty early (before a single meaningful vote has been cast), and also that the attacks on Dean could be scrapped along with the usual heap of Democratic primary combativeness. And just before I remove my head from Dean's ass for the rest of the day, may I say this: By the time the general election campaign gains a full head of steam, and the general population gets to know the Doctor better, the current media-created incarnation of Howard Dean and the actual Howard Dean people see may bear little resemblance to eachother.

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