The most memorable scene in “Boys on the Bus,” the iconic 1973 portrait of life on the presidential campaign trail, comes when Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern engage in a boring debate just days before the California primary.
For political reporters, writing a debate story on deadline is perhaps the most challenging task on the beat, and author Tim Crouse spot-on captured the awful state of dread that descends when filing time is just minutes away and not a shred of real news has emerged from a confrontation in which two rivals stuck unerringly to their same old, same old talking points.
“Walter, Walter, what’s our lede?” Crouse recorded one desperate newshound yelling at the deadline-every-minute Associated Press reporter Walter Mears, whose talent for spotting a nugget of news in a field of mush was unerring.
The episode for decades has symbolized the herd mentality of the press pack, but what rarely gets noticed is that Mears’ lede – both candidates agreed they wouldn’t pick George Wallace for a vice president – was unconventional; the news of a debate is most often what the wannnbes disagree about – “Candidates Trade Jibes,” as the hoary headline cliché has it — not what they agree on.
Which brings us, by way of Hogan’s barn, to the winner of this week’s Little Pulitzer for Investigative Punditry, a splendid, must-read perceptual scoop by Ed Kilgore, writing in the New Republic.
The longtime centrist Democrat policy wonk finds, hiding in plain sight, the really significant lede of the recent Republican presidential debates: while the MSM has focused on issues where the GOP field has been squabbling – Candidates Trade Jibes on Papillomavirus Vaccine! – what’s far more important is their unanimous agreement on more fundamental matters:
But there are a host of other issues where the Republican candidates are in too much agreement to create a lot of controversy during debates or gin up excitement in the popular media. Areas of agreement, after all, rarely provoke shock or drive readership. But the fact that the Republican Party has reached such a stable consensus on such a great number of far-right positions is in many ways a more shocking phenomenon than the rare topic on which they disagree.
Kilgore notes five issue areas of Republican consensus which, not too long ago, would have been considered well out of the mainstream, even in the GOP: 1) the monetary system (Rein in the Fed!); 2) union-busting (Smash the NLRB – right-to-work laws now!); 3) radical anti-environmentalism (Abolish the EPA!); 4) anti-abortion extremism (Litmus tests for judges!); 5) 19th century-style capitalism (Let’s stop choking the economy with child labor laws!)
Most remarkably, the 2012 candidate field appears to agree that there is absolutely nothing the federal government can do to improve the economy—other than disabling itself as quickly as possible. Entirely missing are the kind of modest initiatives for job training, temporary income support, or fiscal relief for hard-pressed state and local governments that Republicans in the past have favored as a conservative alternative to big government counter-cyclical schemes. Also missing are any rhetorical gestures towards the public-sector role in fostering a good economic climate, whether through better schools, basic research, infrastructure projects, and other public investments (the very term has been demonized as synonymous with irresponsible spending).
Add all this up, and it’s apparent the Republican Party has become identified with a radically conservative world-view in which environmental regulations and collective bargaining by workers have strangled the economy; deregulation, federal spending cuts, and deflation of the currency are the only immediate remedies; and the path back to national righteousness will require restoration of the kinds of mores—including criminalization of abortion—that prevailed before things started going to hell in the 1960s. That Republicans hardly even argue about such things anymore makes the party’s transformation that much more striking—if less noticeable to the news media and the population at large.
It’s been fascinating to watch how quickly right-wing Tea Party types turned on erstwhile savior Rick Perry, for uttering heresies about illegal immigration (and how swiftly he groveled for forgiveness for making sense).
At a time when Republican elites are now begging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter the race and save them from Mitt Romney, it would be even more interesting to see how the politics of a Northeast industrial state pol would go over with a tar-and-feather crowd that boos gay soldiers and cheers the death of people without health insurance.
Insipid inanities or inane insipidness? You be the judge: The last time we flung a fired up fondue dish into the big screen, it was the televised image of the vile Eric Cantor that had the missus packing us off to anger management school. Now comes the sudden return of Thomas Friedman, ubiquitously driveling all over cable news as he flogs his latest self-help volume for curing the planet’s ills, that imperils our 103-inch Panasonic plasma replacement set.
So we credit Andrew Ferguson, whose Wall Street Journal review of Friedman’s latest extra-large serving of tripe raised anew the question of why anyone would interview this guy, let alone treat him as some kind of wise man (memo to Anderson Cooper: on your knees and slobbering is not your best look).
Faced with era-defining challenges,” he writes, “the country has responded with all the vigor and determination of a lollipop.” One chapter is called “Homework x 2 = The American Dream.” He advocates “empowering powerful breakthroughs” and notes that “the cloud . . . is driving the flattening further and faster.” (Pointless alliteration + runaway metaphor = Friedmanism.) Certain phrases crop up so often that they must have been rejected book titles: “Average is over” is one of the new ones, if you want to give it a try. (You’ll be hearing it on “Charlie Rose.”)
Mr. Friedman can turn a phrase into cliché faster than any Madison Avenue jingle writer. He announces that “America declared war on math and physics.” Three paragraphs later, we learn that we’re “waging war on math and physics.” Three sentences later: “We went to war against math and physics.” And onto the next page: “We need a systemic response to both our math and physics challenges, not a war on both.” Three sentences later: We must “reverse the damage we have done by making war on both math and physics,” because, we learn two sentences later, soon the war on terror “won’t seem nearly as important as the wars we waged against physics and math.” He must think we’re idiots.
Except: forming such a thought would require actual insight.
Anyway, for those, like us, seeking therapeutic treatment for Friedman rage, here’s a lovely rant from Gawker’s “Hacks” column, along with a brief excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s classic leveling of “The World is Flat.”
On an ideological level, Friedman’s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we’re not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we’re not in Kansas anymore.) That’s the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that’s all there is.
ICYMI: A guide to unnecessary journalism phrases (feel free to report any you find lurking here).