Ever watch “SportsCenter” on ESPN? Pound for pound, it’s pretty much the most consistently entertaining program on television, but if you watch enough of it, you really get a sense of the similarities shared between sports reporters and political reporters. ESPN, like CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News, has to fill 24 hours with programming each day. More often than not, there are enough games, events and high-profile arrests in the sports realm to fill the time for ESPN, just as there are usually enough murders, car chases, wars, balloon boys and stories about puppies who found their way home to fill the time for the news channels.
Sometimes, however, both “SportsCenter” and the news networks find themselves seemingly without sufficient content to make the nut. If there’s an off-day for most teams during baseball season, for example, ESPN is forced to show the same handful of highlights over and over again, and then has to fill the rest of the time with hardcore analysis of stuff nobody really cares about. Conversely, if one big event happens – Terrell Owens demands a trade to Neptune, for example, or Roger Clemens admits to freebasing pine tar – the entire network focuses like a laser beam on it and leaves everything else on the cutting room floor. The way these events get reported is of a type, as well: One guy says something about it, and she reports on what he said, he reports on what she said, someone else writes an article about what they said, and presto, a consensus is reached because everyone was too lazy to do anything other than report on other people’s “reporting.”
That is sports journalism in a nutshell, and that is political reporting to a “T.” We’re all seeing an example of this now that the news networks, as well as quite a number of newspapers, have come together to declare Tuesday’s off-season elections in New York, New Jersey and Virginia to be some kind of earth-rattling triumph for the GOP and a devastating defeat for the Obama administration. CNN and Fox have been crowing about a “GOP sweep” thanks to Republican victories in the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and because Maine passed another virulent piece of anti-gay legislation.
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It wasn’t just the TV talking heads spouting this line. “The Republican victories in the races for New Jersey and Virginia governors put the party in a stronger position to turn back the political wave President Obama unleashed last year,” reported The New York Times on Wednesday morning, “setting the stage for Republicans to raise money, recruit candidates and ride the excitement of an energized base as the party heads into next year’s midterm elections…. The results in the New Jersey and Virginia races underscored the difficulties Mr. Obama is having transforming his historic victory a year ago into either a sustained electoral advantage for Democrats or a commanding ideological position over conservatives in legislative battles.”
Not to break away from the pack here, but the situation deserves a little more in-depth analysis than what we’ve gotten so far, which has basically amounted to these news people playing umpire during a close play at the plate. Obama is out because they say so, even though it wasn’t the last out, there is plenty of game left to play and the blue team is still way ahead on runs. You can’t argue with the ump, though, so that out is officially A Big Deal.
Not so much.
First of all, the Democratic candidate in New Jersey, Jon Corzine, was an unbelievably unpopular incumbent who ran a tragically poor campaign. Corzine’s unpopularity vastly predates Obama’s impact on the electorate, and was the entire reason he lost. As for Virginia, well, that state has been a tough get for any Democrat for a couple of generations now; Obama’s success there in the 2008 presidential election was the exception and not the rule for Democrats historically, and speaking of history, the party that wins the White House has gone on to lose the Virginia governor’s office one year later every time since the Carter administration, so we’re not into any kind of mold-breaking situation there.
Second of all, these were two statewide elections where Obama was not on the ballot, and there is no national significance whatsoever behind two states out of fifty voting for Republicans. Furthermore, Democrats cleaned up in local elections all across the country, especially in mayoral races, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of breathless reporting on this facet of yesterday’s vote coming from the news folks. The umpire made the call, and that’s how it goes. Or something.
Speaking of the national picture for the GOP, it is difficult to make a cogent argument that two statewide gubernatorial wins are enough to alter the country’s opinion of the party, especially since the country’s opinion of Republicans remains monumentally bleak. Just two weeks ago, a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported:
Less than one in five voters (19 percent) expressed confidence in Republicans’ ability to make the right decisions for America’s future while a whopping 79 percent lacked that confidence.
Among independent voters, who went heavily for Obama in 2008 and congressional Democrats in 2006, the numbers for Republicans on the confidence questions were even more worse. Just 17 percent of independents expressed confidence in Republicans’ ability to make the right decision while 83 percent said they did not have that confidence.
On the generic ballot question, 51 percent of the sample said they would cast a vote for a Democratic candidate in their congressional district next fall while just 39 percent said they would opt for a GOP candidate.
And, perhaps most troubling for GOP hopes is the fact that just 20 percent of the Post sample identified themselves as Republicans, the lowest that number has been in Post polling since 1983. (No, that is not a typo.)
Finally, the idea that yesterday’s elections bode well for the Republican Party might make for good television, but that doesn’t make it right. The race in New York’s 23rd District has far more national import than the other two, and the writing on the wall doesn’t make for good reading for the GOP going forward. The election went sideways several weeks ago when moderate Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava came under fire from the high priests of the far right because they deemed her not conservative enough. Ersatz luminaries like Limbaugh, Beck and Palin jumped on board the third-party candidacy of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, and the resulting bedlam eventually drove Scozzafava out of the race. Scozzafava stepped aside after endorsing the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, who went on to win Tuesday’s election by a margin of 49-45.
This was a nifty win for the Democrats, because the seat was formerly held by Republican John McHugh, who vacated the seat after he was tapped by President Obama to serve as secretary of the Army. Beyond the pick-up, however, is the fact that the whole national Republican infrastructure has been shaken up thanks to this race. The hard-right GOP base revved itself up and successfully tore down an electable moderate member of their own party. If they get it into their heads to do this in other races come 2010, we could very easily watch the GOP eat itself next year, as its ground troops attack and soften up fellow Republicans, making them ripe pickings for Democratic opponents. The Democrats have been expecting to lose seats in 2010, something that nearly always happens during the first midterms of a new presidency, but open warfare within the GOP could very much mitigate the damage.
Speaking of the NY-23 race, memo to news reporters: the Democrat won. It isn’t a “sweep” when the other team wins a game. The news people should ask the sports reporters for a refresher course on athletic terminology. It’s probably a good idea to have your facts straight before your broadcasters open their mouths or your printing press puts ink to paper.
A wild idea, I know, but it might be for the best.