Sunday, September 19, 2010


Allow me to introduce this blogpost by summarizing the relevant point of the last one: When the Virginia Tech Hokies opened their football season against the Boise State Broncos, it was clear that “the narrative” was all about Boise State. The Hokies were but a test for the Broncos, who were rapidly becoming “America’s Team.” The game announcers took every opportunity possible to talk about Boise, and then some. Their rooting interest was clear; they wanted Boise State to win that game, go on to finish the regular season undefeated (which they have done before), and finally, be given the chance to play for a National Championship in January. That, and that alone, would be the only story worthy of this football season.

The nice thing about football, though, is that Virginia Tech didn’t have to worry a bit about “the narrative.” It didn’t matter that the announcers were falling all over the Broncos. They could babble all they want about the boys from Boise, but Tech was still able to play on a level field. Accordingly, despite falling way behind early in the game, the Hokies came back and damned near won it. But that’s football. Politics is a tad different. In politics, “the narrative” does affect the outcome. In fact, sometimes, no matter what the politicians say or do, they get swept up in “the narrative” and lose to a lesser opponent. Such is the power of the media to influence the minds of the American public, particularly in situations when most people are not particularly intrigued by an election and therefore don’t bother to invest the time in thinking for themselves.

During Presidential election years, “the narrative” is somewhat less important because, relatively speaking, the electorate is paying attention. Not so for the Midterms. There’s no national race to captivate the casual observer. The White House and Supreme Court are not at stake – just the Congress. And given the general level of cynicism about that decreasingly-august body, many if not most Americans are likely to yawn their way through the entire Midterm election buildup. That is when “the narrative” is most crucial. The talking heads speak their peace, the electorate listens in a semi-interested state, and slowly but surely, the prevailing story starts to seep into their subconscious, with little else to serve as competition. In short, if you want to know what’s going to happen in a Midterm election, turn on the TV and pay attention; if there’s a consensus among the motor mouths, you can figure out the outcome. And this year, there seems to be pretty strong consensus. Let’s examine it.

“Right now, the Tea Party doesn’t matter. The Republicans don’t matter. The economy and the Democrats are handing the G.O.P. a great, unearned revival. Nothing, it seems, is more scary than one-party Democratic control.” So said David Brooks in a recent New York Times column. His comment might be hyperbolic, but its central point is universally accepted: this Midterm will be a referendum on the Democrats. On Barack Obama. On a Congress controlled heavily by the Democrats. And on the particular way in which that Party has managed their stranglehold over Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Narrative begins and ends with Barack. And it is hardly a kind story. Indisputably, Barack campaigned as a transformational figure. “We are the change we have been waiting for.” If that means anything, and that is increasingly being called into question, it means that if you elect Barack Obama, you will get bold leadership in a new and progressive direction. This isn’t just about “stabilizing the economy.” It’s about empowering the disempowered all over the nation, and cleaning out all the barns inside the Washington Beltway.

Say what you want about Barack Obama, the narrative continues, but as a man who promised transformational leadership, he has been a clear failure. Our troops are still mired in a seemingly pointless war in Asia. Wall Street is once again enjoying salad days, while Main Street suffers with bread and water. All the hype about closing Gitmo has turned out to be just that – hype. And rather than fighting homophobia, Barack’s Administration is on record supporting the “Defense of Marriage Act.”

Where, asks the narrative, is the “change we have been waiting for”? Certainly not in the elimination of partisanship in Congress. Congress seems as polarized as ever, if not more so. But ironically, Barack’s progressive base is furious that he did not use his bully pulpit to “out” the Republican naysayers. If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it dozens of times: “Did he not realize that his Party controlled Congress? Why didn’t he just make the Republicans filibuster? Why was he always so willing to compromise before the Republicans were even put to the test? First, single payer. Then the public option. Then Wall Street Reform. Does this guy stand for anything other than his desire to win elections?”

And that, says the narrative, is what his own base is asking. Those who didn’t vote for him are largely asking very different questions: Is he a Muslim? Is he an American? I would include the question “is he a socialist?” but it seems pretty clear that they’ve already answered that question (in the affirmative).

So, “the narrative” continues, if you exclude the great apathetic center, you’ve got two groups of potentially passionate people in the electorate. One group is loaded for bear to kick Barack and his Party from office. And the other is dismayed at the idea that their erstwhile hero, the man who would transform Washington, has turned out to be just another wimpy politician. All hat, no saddle, as they say in fly-over country. And the upshot is that all the energy in this Midterm will be coming from the right. They’ll be mobilizing their troops to fundraise and then get out the vote. As for the Democrats, the base will presumably vote for the Party of Blue, but they’ll do so grudgingly, listlessly, and ultimately to little avail. Barack Obama might well have his second act, but it will have to be after the Midterm, when he is facing a Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Indeed, concludes the narrative, if the Democrats keep the Senate it will only be because there is so much enthusiasm on the Republican side that they have forgotten Bill Buckley’s admonition to always support the most conservative, electable candidate. In other words, the only problem the Republicans face is over-confidence. As for the Democrats, they’re walking around like a college kid with a hangover and a bad memory of who they hooked up with the previous evening.

So there you have it. That’s the story that the talking heads are providing on TV, in the papers, over the Internet, and everywhere else politics is being spoken. It’s hardly the only possible interpretation of the past two years. If you ask the White House operatives, they’ll tell you that Barack Obama has stopped American combat operations in Iraq, brought our economy from the brink of disaster, and passed a historic and much-needed health care reform bill. They’ll also tell you that he has restored the popularity of America throughout the world with his thoughtful, respectful, fair-minded and dignified style – one that is perfectly suited to bringing the long-awaited peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The thing is, there is never only one story. Surely, if you were hanging around Blacksburg, Virginia prior to the Boise State game, you would have heard all about the promise of the Hokies’ season, and the Broncos would have been a mere afterthought. And if you’re spending time in primarily African-American neighborhoods, I suspect you’re still hearing a whole lot of love for Barack Obama. But nowhere, and I mean nowhere, is anyone toasting the Democratic Congress. And they, not Obama, are the ones who will be up for re-election this fall. So without anyone to defend them, it is difficult to know what exactly can be done at this point to fight the power of the prevailing narrative.

How powerful is that narrative? Consider that according to recent polls, most Americans agree with the Democrats that the so-called “tax cuts for the rich” should be eliminated. And yet which is the party where more than 30 Congressmen recently broke rank with their Party on the issue? You guessed it -- the Democrats. They are running scared, whereas the Republicans in Congress are as unified as ever.

At some point, it is difficult for those in the apathetic center not to succumb to the narrative and perceive the Democrats simply as losers – and I don’t just mean that in the sense of losing elections. If there is to be an upset this fall, if the Democrats are to keep control of the Congress, something dramatic is going to have to happen. Or perhaps it is better to say the Democrats are going to have to be presented with a surprising and wonderful opportunity and then they are going to have do something out of character and seize it. It could happen. But as “the narrative” would tell you, don’t hold your breath.

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