Wednesday, March 9, 2011

One's a Born Liar and the Other's Contorted?

Brendan Nyhan had a good post yesterday about Mitt Romney and the press, but I especially recommend Paul Waldman's follow-up, for two reasons. First, Waldman is very good on the whole question of authenticity, and whether it matters or not. Second, Waldman is right -- the problematic press story about Gore in 2000 wasn't so much the "authenticity" question, but the idea that Gore was a habitual liar (the parallel story about George W. Bush was that he was stupid). What was especially annoying to me about the Gore thing is that it was really entirely based on nothing, unlike, say, the stories told about Bill Clinton in 1992 (undisciplined, ambitious) and John Kerry in 2004 (inconsistent -- that one was exaggerated, but not totally phony). Why annoying to me? Because I've never like Al Gore very much, so I didn't like having to defend him again the charge (I never minded defending Bush against the charge of stupidity, because I had a good counter-story ready. Didn't have one of those for Gore).

My finding things annoying aside, the big takeaway from this isn't whether or not the press gets these things "wrong" -- that is, it's not about whether or not Mitt Romney is authentic. The point is that once they adopt that frame, anything that happens is interpreted through it -- so if Al Gore in 2000 said something factually incorrect it was always about Gore as a liar, whereas when Bush in 2000 said something factually incorrect, it was about Bush being too stupid to know the difference. Part of interpreting the press -- that is, part of following campaigns and politicians intelligently, since we all do it through the press -- involves identifying these sorts of things, realizing when they drive coverage, and discounting appropriately in response.


  1. C'mon, dish, what's the Bush-stupidity counter-story?

  2. What's the electoral value of "Authenticity"? The way I view things, the candidate who was faking it less has always won (yes yes, Bush was no cowboy, but he actually THOUGHT he was, it was closer to his self-image than...I dunno, whatever that was that Kerry presented himself as). But this is a fairly small sample size, and my read is admittedly subjective.

  3. Nyhan makes some decent points, but he falls into the trap of working too hard to find equivalence between candidates from opposite parties. The idea that Gore was more transparently phony than the average politician was, to a large degree, manufactured by the media based on superficial evidence. The evidence against Romney in this arena is far from superficial.

    Note that I said transparently phony. I do not, in fact, believe that Romney is necessarily phonier than average for a politician. I do believe he's worse than average at getting away with it. That is, I believe it is more his own political ineptitude than the press that has created this impression. With Gore, I believe the opposite was the case.

    Still, I agree that the press helps reinforce impressions they already have of candidates, and the way they go about it is not always fair.

    One final, slightly tangential point: I've always been confused about the claim that it was the media in 2000 that fostered the idea that Bush is stupid. I know it's long been a staple of late-night comics, SNL, and the like, but I can't remember any media stories in particular that tried to argue or imply this idea. Jacob Weisberg made a big thing out of Bush's verbal missteps, but he never actually suggested that they were evidence of stupidity. I think some people are a bit too quick to trace a common perception to a media narrative.

  4. "C'mon, dish, what's the Bush-stupidity counter-story?"

  5. Oh, sorry, didn't get to it today.

    It's nothing much -- I've heard W. talk baseball, and he sounded perfectly sharp. Now his self-deprecating one-liners (he had a couple, at least), but extended conversation.

    My conclusion from this is that George Bush was a perfectly smart guy who just had no interest in government or public affairs.

  6. I think Kylopod gets a lot right. A lot of the time, I think charges of "phoniness" or "flip-flopping" are like steroids in baseball- they're just a cudgel for one group of partisans to wield against another, but they have little meaning to anyone not already against the person in question.

    (And yes, I used that metaphor on a Giants' fan's blog advisedly. ;) )

    Clinton shifted positions, and people damn near admired him for it. Bush shifted most of his geopolitical stances, and people recognized it as adapting to new circumstances. But Romney gets hammered. I figure it's gotta be in how he does it. My guess is he never displayed the understanding for the other side that Clinton did and hasn't argued changed circumstances like Bush did, he just says "No no, I haven't really changed at all!", but who knows, it's just rhetoric.

    I will say that Gore was also less adept at smoothly shifting positions than Clinton or Bush. Was he as bad as Romney? No, but I think he was more transparent then some of his contemporaries, and that gave the press the opening.

  7. >Clinton shifted positions, and people damn near admired him for it.

    Yet he was perceived as phony to a certain degree, if "phony" implies not being truthful about one's beliefs. It's just that the word "phony" was probably not applied to him as often as it has been to Romney. Instead, he was called "slick."

    What's the difference between phony and slick? Well, there's a difference of perceived toughness. A phony politician can seem vulnerable, a slick pol is one you don't want to mess with. Also, the word "phony" has connotations of misrepresenting one's core identity, and not just one's political views. Clinton managed the not inconsiderable feat of seeming down-home Southern and wonky-intellectual at the same time. In contrast, everyone knows Romney is a Northeastern moderate in right-wing drag, and he's about as convincing as an actual drag queen.


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