Yawning Towards November

Is it true that people involved in MSM political coverage have a vested interest in making presidential elections look incredibly close no matter what? Sure. Is it also true that for a whole host of reasons political actors have a vested interest in exaggerating the differences between the two major parties and the consequences of any one election? That’s true as well.

But Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi takes those largely irrefutable premises, and reflecting his own vested interest in his own well-established point of view, breezily dismisses the 2012 presidential contest as an impending Obama blowout that won’t make much difference in real life. And not only that: it’s boring!

Well, when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and it would take a very unusual election to shake Matt Taibbi of his conviction that major-party politics in this country is largely a bread-and-circuses diversion from the underlying reality that corporations are in charge of the real show. If you think that, then of course anything short of an overturning of the fundamentals of American society will be of limited significance or interest to the sophisticates who have figured it all out.

But however you feel about Taibbi’s premises, his specific claims about Election ’12 are, to put it mildly, not terribly well documented. There’s this, for example:

The Republican base is angrier and more determined than it ever has been, yet Republican voters picked as their nominee the one candidate in their slate of primary challengers who depresses them. This is exactly the John Kerry scenario. Kerry was never going to win, either, and everyone pretty much knew that, too. But at least in the Kerry-Bush race there was a tremendous national debate over the Iraq war, which many people (incorrectly, probably) thought might end more quickly if a Democrat was elected.

This year, it’s not like that. Obviously Republican voters do hate Obama and genuinely believe he’s created a brutally repressive socialist paradigm with his health care law, among other things. But Romney was a pioneer of health care laws, and there will be dampened enthusiasm on the Republican side for putting him in office.

In 2004, is it true “everyone pretty much knew” Kerry was going to lose? I seem to recall that wasn’t at all clear on Election Night, when the exit polls showed Kerry winning Ohio (and with a small lead in Florida), and his high command was toasting him as the next president of the United States, or even the next morning, when Kerry’s decision to concede was hotly contested. It wasn’t just MSM bloviators who thought Kerry would win a couple of weeks (or a couple of months) out, either; the widely subscribed-to “incumbency rule” of political science (that undecided voters would break against an incumbent late in a close race) suggested Bush was in deep trouble. Were all these people, right up to and even beyond Kerry’s concession, lying to us? And was it really liberal lack of enthusiasm for Kerry that beat him in the end? Personally, I’d argue Kerry might well have won had he chosen a different general election message that didn’t overemphasize his Vietnam war record, or if he hadn’t made a fatal lapse into Senate-talk in explaning his vote on Iraq appropriations. Taibbi’s entitled to his opinion on this, like everyone else, but it’s simply not true “everyone knew” the results were foreordained the moment Kerry became the presumptive nominee.

As for the stakes in the current elections, Taibbi is equally dismissive of anyone’s point of view but his own:

Obama versus Bush actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites. But Obama and Romney feels like a contest between two calculating centrists, fighting for the right to serve as figurehead atop a bloated state apparatus that will operate according to the same demented imperial logic irrespective of who wins the White House. George Bush’s reign highlighted the enormous power of the individual president to drive policy, which made the elections involving him compelling contests; Obama’s first term has highlighted the timeless power of the intractable bureaucracy underneath the president, which is kind of a bummer, when you think about it.

Okay, I get it. But even if you think Obama has been a disastrous failure, or has betrayed the progressive coalition that supported him in 2008, the fact remains that if Mitt Romney is elected president and (as will probably happen if he wins) Republicans maintain control of the House and secure control of the Senate, the Ryan budget will almost certainly be enacted and implemented during 2013. If Obama wins, it won’t. If Romney wins, the odds of a constitutional right to abortion surviving the next four years go down to something like single digits; If Obama wins, it’s a very different proposition. If Romney wins, a war with Iran becomes something like a 50-50 proposition; not so much if Obama wins.

Perhaps none of these things matter as much as Obama’s failure to reverse many Bush-era civil liberties policies, his failure to pursue single-payer health reform; his failure to nationalize the banks or pursue criminal penalties against corporate malefactors; his failure to convince the country that Keynes was right after all. But they actually do matter to a lot of people who will be affected by little things like the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social net, and the potential unravelling of the constitutional structure that has made anything approaching progressive policies possible over the last several decades.

But it will all be so boring, concludes Taibbi, presumably for the benefit of those of us who don’t buy his assumption that it’s already over and really doesn’t matter:

Obama versus Romney is the worst reality show on TV since the Tila Tequila days. The characters are terrible, there’s no suspense, and the biggest thing is, it lacks both spontaneity and a gross-out factor. In Reality TV, if you don’t have really sexy half-naked young people scheming against each other over campfires in the Cook Islands, you need to have grown men eating millipedes or chicks in bikinis drinking donkey semen. And if you don’t have that, you really need Sarah Palin.

I dunno. If Taibbi’s wrong about the fore-ordained outcome, then I think it could get pretty savage down the road, and even a both-sides-are-all-corporate-whores pundit like Matt should understand you don’t need Sarah Palin now that Palinism has become the prevailing ethic of the GOP. But yeah, it may get boring. But I’m sure Taibbi will find ways to remain entertaining in describing the ludicrous futility and poor taste of it all. It’s sometimes easier to mock the whole show when you really just don’t give a damn.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.