What Beltway media stars mean by "centrism" and "extremism"

Conventional wisdom immediately solidified that Clinton's diplomacy response was more popular and mainstream than Obama's, even though polling data shows the exact opposite.

Published July 28, 2007 1:51PM (EDT)

(updated below)

As always, when wielded by Beltway media stars, the terms "centrist" and "moderate" and "mainstream" mean "whatever views I personally happen to hold on a topic, regardless of how many Americans actually share it." Hence, the unanimous, wise Beltway wisdom was that Barack Obama "blew it" in the last Democratic debate by proclaiming his willingness to meet with leaders of hostile countries, while Hillary Clinton scored a big victory.

As but one example, from Thursday's Chris Matthews Show, discussing the Clinton-Obama debate:

MATTHEWS: I share your sentiments. But as a journalist, I have to look at the politics of this thing. Your last words?

[Weekly Standard's Stephen] HAYES: I think if [Obama] continues down this course I think he's in serious trouble because itb

MATTHEWS: Too far left?

HAYES: Absolutely.

Matthews went on to pronounce, with regard to the exchange with Obama, that it shows why Hillary "will win this thing."

And what of polling data that shows exactly the opposite? Who cares? Beltway wisdom is more representative of what Americans believe than what Americans actually believe. From the latest Rasmussen Reports poll:

Forty-two percent (42%) of Americans say that the next President should meet with the heads of nations such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea without setting any preconditions. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 34% disagree while 24% are not sure.

That question came up during last Monday's Presidential Debate with Illinois Senator Barack Obama saying he would commit to such meetings and New York Senator Hillary Clinton offering a more cautious response. Democrats, by a 55% to 22% margin, agree with Obama.

This is precisely the same process that causes one to hear endlessly from Beltway pundits about how Democrats will be in big, big trouble if they keep up with these investigations because "Americans" sure don't like that, even though polls continuously show that Americans overwhelmingly want Congress to investigate the Bush administration even further. The claim that Congress is "going too far" or "neglecting the people's business" or "engaged in witch-hunts" are actually embraced only by minorities. But that is what the government-defending Beltway media believes; hence, they repeatedly assert as a mantra-like chant, based on nothing, that opposition to more investigations is the "centrist position," that Americans do not like Congressional probes and see them as unjustifiably obstructionist.

It is not difficult to understand why Americans are supportive of Obama's pro-diplomacy instincts. It is because they have seen the alternative for the last six years and know that it is a petulant refusal to speak to the Bad People that is the real fringe, dangerous, extremist position. Indeed, the actual fringe extremism on this issue was vividly illustrated on the same Chris Matthews Show, by the very same Stephen Hayes, the Serious right-wing national security scholar and all-around tough guy:

MATTHEWS: Cheney is the kind of guy who represents to me the hard case. He's not going to go negotiate with anybody. Is it fair to say that Cheney would take the position, you don't deal with Ahmadinejad, for whatever reason, you don't deal with Castro, you don't deal with Kim Jong il or any of these guys. You stiff them. Is that the Cheney view?

HAYES: To play off of what Sally [Quinn] said, it actually is for the opposite point. You don't play with them precisely because it gives them respect. It gives them stature on the world stage that they don't deserve. Ahmadinejad, as Howard said several timesb

That's crazy talk -- ridiculous, insane position.

MATTHEWS: Does that mean never talk to them?

HAYES: Yes, absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Then what do we do? How do we negotiate?

HAYES: We don't negotiate somebody who's denying the holocaust, with somebody who's killing our soldiers.

MATTHEWS: What do you do with them?

HAYES: I think you confront them. I think you confront them in a stronger way.

MATTHEWS: How do you do that? What should we do with Iran?

HAYES: Certainly we should be having units, at the very least, taking out the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are killing our soldiers.

MATTHEWS: So we should cross the border?

HAYES: I think if we need to cross the border, we should cross the border? Yes.

MATTHEWS: You think we should be acting aggressively towards Iran?


That is the only extremist national security mentality that has any degree of influence or significance in our political landscape. There simply is no idea that could ever be uttered by a national, viable Democratic candidate that can even compete with the extremism, radicalism and fringe nature of this view. The Weekly-Standard/Giuliani/Lieberman position is a view that is overwhelmingly rejected by the American mainstream; it is a true fringe position:

A majority of adults in the United States believe their federal administration should not wage war against Iran, according to a poll by Opinion Research Corporation released by CNN. 63 per cent of respondents would oppose the U.S. government if it decides to take military action in Iran.

Yet while Obama-like calls for diplomacy are almost immediately labelled "too left" or "extreme" despite polling data that shows the opposite, people who advocate insane military attacks on Iran are virtually never labelled as such even though polling data shows how fringe they are. That is because "centrism" and "extremism" and "fringes" designate nothing other than what Beltway media stars personally believe, and anyone who favors war -- old ones or news ones -- is inherently mainstream, responsible and . . . serious. That, more than anything else, is why we are still in Iraq, and why withdrawal is universally depicted as the "extreme" leftist position even though most Americans favor it.

While on the subject of Chris Matthews' Thursday show, one would be remiss by failing to note this bit of wisdom from him:

MATTHEWS: Who's right? Doesn't it look like Hillary will win this thing simply because she's better at playing to the concerns and sensitivities of people who vote Democrat? This holocaust denial thing is brilliant. They're putting this guy, whose middle name is Hussein, out there, saying he wants to go play in the sandbox with a holocaust denier. That's brilliant politics if you're a Democrat. And now he's got to deny it.

To the extent that this can be understood, Matthews seems to be saying that there are many Jews in the Democratic Party ("playing to the concerns and sensitivities of people who vote Democrat") and so it is "brilliant" of the Clinton campaign to associate her rival who is saddled with the middle name of "Hussein" with the Israel-hating "Holocaust denier." Hence, in Matthews' mind, this episode shows why Hillary "will win this thing" even though "Democrats, by a 55% to 22% margin, agree with Obama." Media pundits are so suffuse with narcissism and self-importance that they automatically think that their own views on any topic are, by definition, held by "most Americans," on whose behalf they speak, even when they don't.

* * * * *

On an unrelated note, I had expressed the view several times this week that I believed the perjury case against Alberto Gonzales was weak to the extent it was grounded in his answers about whether the Comey/Ashcroft dispute applied to the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," as opposed to "other intelligence activities." My view arose, in part, from e-mail discussions I had on this topic throughout the week with Anonymous Liberal, a very smart and insightful lawyer who has developed a real expertise in the NSA scandal. Throughout the week, he and I shared the same view on Gonazles' defense to this particular perjury charge.

But over the last couple of days, A.L. went back and reviewed all of the testimony given by Gonzales to the Senate Judiciary Committee back in February, 2006. He now conclusively believes the perjury charge against Gonzales would be very strong, and he has put together a compelling evidentiary case proving Gonzales' perjurious intent. His post has certainly changed my view, and I hope someone on the Senate Judiciary Committee takes notice of the virtually irrefutable proof he has compiled.

UPDATE: As Andrew Sullivan has been recently realizing and pointing out, spending your life and career rooted in Beltway media and political circles inevitably warps one's perspective, no matter one's ideological leanings -- especially (though by no means only) with regard to "how Americans think." From long-time Beltway political correspondent David Corn of The Nation and now also Pajamas Media:

I can see the ad now: Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Bashar al-Assad, and Hugo Chavez all strolling into the White House, and a grinning Barack Obama greeting them with a friendly "Welcome, boys; what do you want to talk about?"

If Obama gets close to the Democratic presidential nomination, pro-Hillary Clinton forces could air such an ad. If he wins the nomination, the Republicans could hammer him with such a spot.

And the junior senator from Illinois will not have much of a defense. . . .

[T]his moment illustrated perhaps the top peril for the Obama campaign: with this post-9/11 presidential contest, to a large degree, a question of who should be the next commander in chief, any misstep related to foreign policy is a big deal for a candidate who has little experience in national security matters.

He goes on to compare Obama to Dean in 2004, whom he said made a series of "dumb gaffes" which supposedly exposed that Dean "had not spent years talking and doing foreign policy" and that he was "not ready for prime time regarding national security matters" -- even though he "had the foreign policy positions that resonated most with Democratic voters." But the "flubs" and "gaffes" were important only to Beltway media types, who then used it to depict Dean as "weak" and "inexperienced" on national security, which then became conventional wisdom.

That is how this works perpetually -- media elites repeatedly masquerade their own conventional wisdom and biases as "American centrism" and any deviation as "extremism" or "unseriousness" or even "craziness." That is how their Beltway orthodoxies are enforced. As Prairie Weather says: "this kind of media falsehood becomes a self-confirming prophecy. Establishment wins; you lose."

To be clear, none of this is about whether I personally believe it is a good idea to commit to face-to-face meetings in the first 12 months of a presidency with every hostile world leader regardless of the circumstances. I doubt that Obama actually intends to embrace such a specific commitment even though (as Bob Somerby fairly notes) he did say "I would" when asked (though sysprog makes what I think is the more convincing argument about what Obama actually said). The point here, though, is that it is being almost universally depicted as some sort of politically damaging reply -- a terrible "gaffe" -- all because media stars disagree with it, not because American voters do.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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