The Hack Gap

As I noted earlier, my esteemed predecessor Kevin Drum touched off a bit of a blogospheric firestorm by suggesting last night that the liberal commentariat’s garment-rending criticism of Barack Obama’s debate performance had a lot to do with the MSM ever-more-shrill judgements that it was a route, which in turn had a tangible impact on public perceptions of the debate and even the state of the presidential election. He also observed there was a “hack gap” between the left and right that gave the latter a tangible advantage in spin wars. And in a follow-up today (responding to a sharp rejoinder from Salon‘s Joan Walsh), Kevin made it clear he wasn’t urging progressive gabbers to be more hackish, but simply noting it was a difference between the two coalitions that had real-world consequences.

I think Kevin’s analysis of the dynamics of debate coverage has merit. Like him, I watched the debate and wrote up my reaction (which was much like his) without recourse to MSNBC, and like him, I saw the MSM interpretation of events quickly morph from “Mitt wins on style points” to “decisive win” to “rout.” I don’t know how much liberal angst contributed to that devolution, and how much it was just a self-generated feeding frenzy within the MSM, which couldn’t much be bothered with substance and was panting for a tighter race. But I suspect the rapidly spreading news that “they’re going nuts over at MSNBC” helped ease any inhibitions the big talking heads had about treating the debate as Mitt’s Breakthrough.

But Kevin’s suggestion that conservatives would never, ever, do that to Mitt Romney is a bit more questionable. I’m not suggesting that many of them are independent or objective. But their loyalty is more to a Cause than to any candidate.

Let’s do a thought experiment. What if in the debate Mitt Romney, reaching for “the middle,” had said: “You know, Mitch Daniels had it right. We’re in an economic and fiscal emergency in this country, so we need a ‘truce’ on social issues. If I’m president, until such time as unemployment is below 6% and we are on course to balance the federal budget, I will not take or support any steps to change federal law or policy on abortion, contraception, or same-sex relationships.” Do you think Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee would have applauded? No, they would have gone crazy to one degree or another.

Or let’s take another example. What if, at the end of the debate when he had already bashed Obama for his “partisan” approach to enacting health reform and expressed his fond desire to work across the partisan aisle the moment he is elected, Romney had said: “As as a token of my good faith, I promise to help convince my party in Congress not to ram through any major budget, tax or health care legislation on a party-line basis.” The explosion on the Right would have been thermonuclear. They live for the possibility of enacting the Ryan Budget without a single change using reconciliation procedures, and they’ve already promised to do the same thing to gut or repeal Obamacare.

I cite these two examples (and there are others, like a flat promise not to try to reduce income tax rates until the deficit is radically reduced) because they would have been popular, and would have reinforced the very message of reasonableness and responsiveness that Romney was trying to present. But no, most conservatives would not have applauded, and quite a few would have gone just as crazy as Mathews did. It was Mitt’s ability to sound moderate and boost his public image without making substantive concessions that they loved so much.

I bring up this counterfactual scenario for another reason as well. I can’t name individual names because I didn’t watch much reaction that night, but at least some of the liberal unhappiness with Obama was ideological–just like we would have seen from the Right had Mitt strayed from The Path. Obama didn’t just “miss opportunities” to crush Mitt or expose his mendacity; he also went out of his way to express a common interest in deficit reduction and even entitlement reform, and as has been the custom with him lately, to get about as close to endorsing the Simpson-Bowles commission recommendations (hated by many liberals) as he could without crossing the final line. He added insult to injury by conceding Mitt’s bona fides on protecting Social Security, which Romney has hardly earned, and didn’t even mention Paul Ryan’s early and vociferous support for Social Security privatization. In other words, Obama rubbed a lot of liberals the wrong way even as he was putting in an ineffective performance on “style points” and letting Romney get away with some lies and evasions, while parrying others poorly.

So the general impression Kevin had that liberals superficially supported, exaggerated and enabled a superficial MSM take on the debate may be a little too pat. And the “hack gap” he talks about, while real, doesn’t reflect unconditional conservative support for any Republican candidate saying anything at all.

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.