Sauce for Gander

At TAP, Paul Waldman focuses on a specific Glenn Thrush Politico piece suggesting an indie backlash against Obama’s “negative” criticisms of Romney as a classic example of meme-driven, fact-free campaign coverage:

Let’s examine the claim here: Some months ago, Obama held a lead of six points over Romney, and in the latest average of polls, that lead is 1.6 points. Thrush acknowledges that Republicans are coalescing behind Romney, but then sets that aside for the real reason: a backlash among independents, who are angry at Obama for criticizing Mitt Romney. So here comes the evidence for the independents’ negativity backlash!

Or … not. Over the ensuing 1,500 words of the story, Thrush does not offer a single piece of evidence that 1) independents are turning away from Obama, or 2) they’re turning away because he’s criticizing Romney. What he gives us are some state polls showing the race has tightened, and a bunch of comments from people about how there might be a backlash, or there really is a backlash, or no way is there a backlash, and also a bunch of other stuff about what people think Obama and Romney each need to do to win. In other words, he wrote a 1,700-word story attempting to demonstrate a very specific empirical claim—independents are turned off by Obama criticizing Romney and are moving away from him because of it—without a single piece of evidence to support it.

Waldman’s argument was so effective and fair-minded that even Thrush tweeted it made him think.

But it gained additional salience today in connection with the competing meme (which I wrote about earlier today) that Mitt Romney’s over-the-top nastiness was a strategic masterstroke keeping his party “base” happy without offering any substantive concessions to wingnuttery.

Obama “goes negative” (or more often, just comparative) and he’s alienating the very voters he needs. Mitt goes Breitbartian, Drudgian, Rushian, Malkian negative, and he’s cleverly signalling to swing voters that he’s the “fighting moderate” who can be trusted to keep the crazy people in his party at bay while he pursues a wise, centrist policy course. Sauce for the goose, it seems, is poison for the gander.

Both of these memes really can’t be right. There’s every reason to think they are both wrong. But it would make me a lot happier if media coverage stopped focusing on the style of either candidate’s campaigning and paid just a little more attention to what they and their parties are saying they would do if elected.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.