03 January 2012

Oh say, can you see?

On the first Saturday Tuesday in November this year, the voters of the United States will elect a President and a Congress. Many non-Americans, such as myself, will be following the race avidly. In times of old we would turn to the Australian media for their summaries of the US race: no more, but still the mainstream media insist on running this absurd nostalgia act.

I've been following US campaigns online since 1996. I loved Michael Lewis' coverage of the minor Republican candidates for The New Republic (later published in the book Losers, highly recommended), and found it was best to be fairly omnivorous politically in terms of the US spectrum. It was best to read a well-written article with which you disagreed, challenging your position and increasing your knowledge, than a bland reinforcement of your prejudices.

By the following election I could read Australian coverage of the US elections with a jaundiced eye. The inevitable rise of Bush and Gore to the candidacies of their respective parties as reported by the Australian media was pretty much a distillation of coverage from The New York Times or The Washington Post, with a bit of CNN thrown in. At that time, there was very little that a fully-equipped Washington correspondent from an Australian media outlet could contribute to the understanding of Australians that couldn't have been done at a fraction of the cost by someone not very different to myself.

By 2008 the model of an Aussie reporter digesting a vast and unruly set of understandings of American politics in a Presidential election year, and summarising it for Australians, was pretty much dead. The Washington correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald was Anne Davies. Before that she had disgraced herself as the last NSW press gallery journalist who actually believed a single damn thing that the NSW ALP government actually said, and whose idea of investigative journalism was to ask a minister's office if everything they said in their press releases was in fact true.

As Washington correspondent, Davies did a quick summary of East Coast US newspapers and concluded that Hillary Clinton was on track to inevitably becoming Democrat candidate and President. Any sort of wider reading from this distance showed that Barack Obama was a serious rival early in that year, and it was fascinating to watch US commentators change their minds and at least take Obama seriously, Davies held the line; the fix was in, the Democrat establishment would have Clinton and that was that, no further correspondence would be entered into. When Obama put out a well-considered position on US foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific, Davies ignored it and did not start any sort of conversation about what it might mean (meaning that President Obama's speech in Canberra late last year came as more of a surprise than it should have). In other words, Davies failed at her central role at explaining how US politics affects Australia. She wasn't the only failed Australian Washington correspondent by any means, but she's a prime example.

In a dysfunctional organisation, failures are not expelled or learned from but promoted: Davies is now head of investigations at Fairfax.

Australian media organisations do not need correspondents in Washington (or London for that matter). Foreign correspondents should be limited to places with little coverage from other media: Port Moresby and Kabul come to mind as places where Australia's interest is strong but media content would be scant were it not for Australian media outlets sending correspondents there. Washington correspondents are an impediment to Australians' understanding of what is going on in US politics. Australian mainstream media organisations should resist the urge to offer beef-witted summaries of information freely available online: to not do so would be a waste.

The MSM got off to a bad start with this poor offering from Tom Switzer, which is always more about himself than conveying any understanding of large and complex issues. Yes, Obama is doing it tough: but he only has to defeat the opposition in front of him. How does Switzer summarise a range of personalities and positions in the Republican Party, from Gingrich to Bachman to Paul to Santorum? He was a former intern at the conservative Heritage Foundation, you'd think he'd be the guy to tell us about the anti-Obama field, right?
They're uncharismatic, uninspiring, gaffe-prone, scandal-plagued, serial flip-floppers: all these barbs have been hurled at a plethora of unorthodox candidates that reminds one Washington Post columnist of "that famous bar scene in Star Wars".
See how Switzer defines them: victims of hurled barbs.

It is not strange or even unfortunate that politicians are criticised. Conservatives believe that if only any and all criticism of conservatives evaporated, we would instantly attain some sort of conservative nirvana. I have been critical of this attitude in the past and I remain so: there is no place for conservatives to be stunned and appalled that their candidates might attract criticism, and that any and all such criticism is unfair, and that conservatives deserve sympathy for such cruel and unusual treatment.

To look at each of those candidates, to read and hear their words in context, is to see a real constituency being represented. Switzer could do that, but he's patronising us instead by being blithe. As you'd expect from an ivory-tower academic, he's missed an important practicality of politics: in an election you only have to beat the candidate in front of you.

Switzer is right that Obama is facing the worst unemployment and other indicators than any President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now look at the turkeys that the Republicans put up against FDR: I mean, "the barefoot boy from Wall Street"? Any one of those guys would be a titan in the 2012 race.
([Mitt Romney] once rebutted accusations of supporting polygamy by pointing out that he's the only GOP candidate to have had just one wife.)
There's more to it than that. American Conservatives bang on about how they support traditional families, and scorn family configurations other than the nuclear family - then they are exposed in their private lives as acting against what they espouse as traditional family values, which makes you wonder whether there is any link between what they say and what they do.
Romney's problem is that the Tea Party conservatives won't stomach him.
It's the Tea Party's problem too. The Republican Right has held out for a generation for candidates who'll do whatever they want. The Tea Party are too far to the right and Romney should tell them to go boil their heads: he'd be a mighty leader if he did that. Tom should stop fretting about what non-Massachusetts people think about their healthcare and start asking Massachusetts people what they think; and considering whether non-Massachusetts people might be better off with that, with whatever Obama has set up, or with the status quo. That would be proper analysis: blithe whimpering about hurled barbs - in politics! - isn't good enough.
... although the twice-divorced Gingrich could redeem himself in primaries later this month in South Carolina and Florida where he remains popular.
Hardly. Virginia is where Gingrich lives, and it has more 50 crucial delegates than South Carolina and Florida put together. If I worked for at the United States Studies Centre, I'd know that.
His low-tax and civil libertarian views, combined with his anti-war activism, may resonate with a solid group of young limited-government advocates in Iowa. But it will spook the GOP faithful with the prospect of turning the party over to fringe elements.

Paul can be safely ruled out of winning the nomination, though there is always a risk he may run as a third-party candidate in the election. Any independent candidacy, of course, will likely help Obama by sucking away votes from Republicans.
Like Ralph Nader did to Gore in 2000: you say this like it's a bad thing, Tom. Are "the GOP faithful" who resile from Paul the same people as "the GOP establishment" who are apparently backing Romney?
That could change, as it so often does, during a long election year. Trial by fire, as Obama himself remembers from his 2008 duel with Hillary Clinton, can make a candidate stronger.
Here Switzer is, as George Orwell said, attempting to give an air of certainty to pure wind. Long campaigns more often weed out weak and unsuitable candidates more than they burnish champions (read Michael Lewis' Losers, go on). The last man standing is often unappealing to the voters, however much they may be embraced by their own parties, as Johns Kerry and McCain found out in recent contests.

C'mon Tom, do some analysis.
We've all heard the 1992 campaign mantra, "It's the economy, stupid." That is especially true in 2012. The economy is very weak and, given Europe's fiscal crisis, it's unlikely to experience a robust recovery by November.
Yes, and it's even less likely that any Republican will credibly establish that they can do a better job that Obama is doing. It puts the lie to what Switzer would have liked to have been his piece's final line:
... it appears that the President's prospects are perilous.
You wish. The final paragraph is so weak it doesn't bear examination. Obama has to be defeated by a better candidate and there isn't one. If there was, you'd have made a better case than you did.

You can expect that the mainstream media in Australia will do more of this, trot out so-called experts who do stale summaries of events that are too big and complex for them to understand or convey. I can understand why Australian media feel the need to cover the twists and turns of the US election, but hopefully they can do a much better job than they have. Early signs are that the MSM will determinedly churn out must-ignore content and therefore cement their own irrelevance. It shouldn't be too late for them, but it probably is.


  1. The election is held on the first Tuesday in November, not Saturday.

  2. The only two candidates to make it onto the Virginia primary ballot this year are Ron Paul and Mitt.

  3. I'm just waiting in a crouch to see whether America will embrace a Mormon for President, should it come to a contest between Mitt Romney and President Obama. Which I believe it will, simply because the other contenders for the Republican nomination have barely got either two sheckels to rub together for a professional campaign and all their staff keeps running out on them, or they have barely two brain cells to rub together.
    Yes, it will indeed be fascinating to watch the majority Conservative media in America try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear of a Republican nominee. They have to, that's their job. And so it will come to pass that this election will enter the realms of utter ridiculousness.
    Thus it will also be interesting to watch the extent to which the brainwashing comes off, via the media. As not even Willard Mitt Romney(he of the bigoted braindead son, Matt Romney, who thought it so outre to bring up the Birther issue about President Obama again this last week, when in effect it just made him look like just another preppy American no-mark in comparison to Barack Obama, like his dad),such that to my eyes and ears, Mr Romney does not have what it takes to be the President of the United States of America. Being a Downsizing Business King does not=POTUS material in my book.
    Thus, this contest becomes one in which we look on and see whether the position of President of the USA can be bought or not.

    So, Andrew, if you're looking for interesting insight from the blogosphere, you could do worse than look in at The Political Sword. We have taken up the kind offer of one of our commenters, an American emigre, Nasking, to write a running commentary for us this year, leading up to the first Tuesday in November. It has to be a better option than the prospects of more turgid WaPo/NYT facsimiles from the Oz MSM. :)

  4. Actually, it is becoming more the case that the election is being held for weeks BEFORE the first Tuesday in November. That has just become the last day of the election. Americans have embraced Pre-Poll voting wholeheartedly, just as Australians have recently.

  5. One minor quibble, Andrew: Florida and South Carolina have 50 and 25 delegates to the Republican Convention, Virginia has 50.

    Loving the flurry of posts this week, though!

  6. I would be interested to hear, Andrew, your thoughts on the Global Mail, which has five foreign correspondents amongst its head count of 17: Djakarta, Beirut, New York, Argentina and Europe (roving).

  7. Thanks Anon.

    HS, I reckon Romney will be the nominee and that he'll be taken apart by Obama, giving him a Democrat Congress. Will be checking out the Sword more than I have.

    Thanks Sean, fixed. I feel like Tom Switzer with my sloppy research!

    m0nty, will check Global Mail and report back.

  8. Manna from heaven. I've felt this way about Australian coverage of American politics since i got balls deep into in 2004 and beyond.

    Completely agree that even a daily read or two of a couple of quality poli blogs or even the twittersphere gives me more immediate insight than the strayan washington bureau chief. More interestingly i've also discovered once you have that above average knowledge it's incredibly easy to see not only what the media here is going to say on a given issue but you can start to see the Liberal Party telegraphing their next moves by virtue of adopting irrelevant Republican talking points.

    Not only is Abbott recycling Howard he's recycling Republican nonsense too. What a leader!

    So if i can see it...why can't Switzer or Davies?!

  9. I read the piece and was left wondering, are these guys trying to convince themselves that it's a winning strategy for the Liberal to follow American conservative silliness.

    I'm waiting for Abbott to tell us he is going to close three departments, and forget the third.


  10. Very interesting piece, Andrew - and I *loved* reading Switzer described as an Ivory-Tower-Academic. HA!

  11. As an American, I have to say that most the Republican nominating processes I remember from 1968 on have been very predictable; either there was a Republican incumbent running, or there was a candidate who clearly would win. The exceptions were 1988 when Bush v. Dole looked wide open and 1976 when Reagan nearly took the nomination from Ford, an unelected incumbent. This year seems no less predictable to me.

    In 2008 Romney had it against him that nobody can govern Massachusetts on terms that will be popular with the caucus goers of Iowa or primary voters of Virginia, etc. In 2012, the politicians with more conservative records are either sitting it out, or obviously unelectable. (Obviously to all but themselves and their adherents--though Ron Paul must know and not care.)

    If I owned stock in a media company, or were a journalist with column inches to fill, of course I'd want the process to drag on as long as follows. But I do think it's over except for the shouting.

  12. Neglected to turn up here earlier, look what I missed.
    Hilbilly Skeleton is another afficiando of these things, and the comment concerning sows ears and silk purses happens to be my reaction also.
    When I think of commentary like this languishing here, while modern day Goebbels'types like Switzer have the public's attention, I want to weep.
    Paul Walter

  13. I know it's a bit late but lack of media coverage on Ron Paul in USA and Australia is somewhat disturbing and hilarious to me.

    Love this blog mate, real glad to have someone like you independently blogging about politics.