The media, the right and 1988: Endless deja vu

Will the tactics that the GOP perfected in 1988, and to which the media is addicted, work again in 2008 to render actual issues yet again irrelevant?

Published May 4, 2008 10:42AM (EDT)

(updated below)

A large bulk of the political and pundit class are forever stuck in 1972, reflexively viewing every political conflict through its myopic prism (any war-opponent-candidate = George McGovern = loser). But as a New York Times article by Robin Toner this morning illustrates, the far more relevant precedent for this year's election is 1988. Toner quotes something I wrote after Barack Obama's Philadelphia race speech to define the critical question:

Sometimes, as Senator Barack Obama seemed to argue earlier this year, a flag pin is just a flag pin.

But it can never be that simple for anyone with direct experience of the 1988 presidential campaign. That year, the Republicans used the symbols of nationhood (notably, whether schoolchildren should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance) to bludgeon the Democrats, challenge their patriotism and utterly redefine their nominee, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts.

The memory of that campaign -- reinforced, for many, by the attacks on Senator John Kerry's Vietnam war record in the 2004 election -- haunts Democrats of a certain generation. . . .

Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has promised a different politics, one that rises above the fray and the distractions of wedge issues. As Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for Salon, recently put it, "The entire Obama campaign is predicated on the belief that it is no longer 1988."

But is that true?

That is the central question in 2008. For exactly that reason, I devote a substantial portion of Great American Hypocrites to analyzing the twisted, petty personality-based themes that dominated that election -- and that led to the victory of an extremely unpopular and distrusted political figure: George Bush the First -- because that is when the GOP pioneered the manipulative playbook that they have been using ever since to destroy the "character" and personality of Democratic candidates. And the circumstances that prevailed in the 1988 election make it an almost perfect parallel to this year's election.

Just as is true now, Americans heading into the 1988 election had endured almost two full terms of Republican rule under a President who -- contrary to the Myth of the Canonized Ronald Reagan -- they had come to distrust and disapprove of. That's why 1987 and early 1988 polls continuously showed George Bush the First running far behind prospective Democratic challengers -- because the GOP brand, like now, was profoundly discredited among the citizenry (though to a lesser extent than it is now). From a March 3, 1987 NYT article by then-reporter E.J. Dionne:

President Reagan's approval rating has plunged to its lowest level in more than four years, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The survey, taken Saturday and Sunday after the release of the report of a Presidential commission on the Iran arms deal, found that 42 percent of those surveyed approved of the way Mr. Reagan was handling his job and 46 percent disapproved.

It was his lowest rating since January 1983, when 41 percent approved of his performance. . . . About half the 1,174 adults interviewed by telephone said Mr. Reagan was lying about key aspects of the Iran arms affair. Only a quarter said he was in charge of what went on in his Administration, down significantly from earlier surveys. . . .

Vice President Bush has also suffered a significant drop in his popularity. This time 32 percent of those surveyed said they had a favorable opinion of him and 19 percent a negative view; in January 43 percent were favorable and 23 percent unfavorable. . . .

Still, the erosion has clearly hurt Mr. Bush politically. Asked how they would vote if the 1988 election were held now, 47 percent of registered voters said they would back former Senator Gary Hart, the Democrat with the most support in surveys of his party, and only 34 percent chose Mr. Bush. . . .

But almost every other measure in the survey indicated a deep erosion in Mr. Reagan's popularity.

Approval of Mr. Reagan's handling of foreign policy was at the lowest level of his Presidency: only 29 percent of those surveyed approved; 58 percent disapproved.

And, in a response that was tougher on Mr. Reagan than the commission was, a majority of those surveyed said they did not believe Mr. Reagan's statement that he forgot when he approved the arms sales to Iran. They were asked: "Ronald Reagan has said he does not remember when he approved the arms sales to Iran. Do you think he really does not remember, or is he lying about that?" Thirty-five percent said they believed Mr. Reagan; 51 percent said he was lying. . . .

Half those surveyed thought the affair was at least as serious as Watergate, and about as many said it was of "great importance" to the country, as against a third who thought it had some importance and a sixth who thought it was of little importance.

For those reasons, just as is true now, the GOP operatives running Bush the First's campaign -- Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes -- realized that they could never win the election if Americas voted on the basis of substance, policy positions and issues. They thus resolved to shift the playing field away from issues to manipulative, adolescent questions of patriotism, manliness, and personal likability. Hence: Dukakis is an effete elitist who doesn't believe in the Pledge of Allegiance; he looks dorky bowling wearing a helmet; he proved he wasn't a man when he failed to show primal rage when asked in a debate about his wife being hypothetically raped, etc. etc.

With the help of a media enthralled to such shallow, easy-to-chatter-about attacks, they succeeded in electing a highly unpopular figure from a scandal-plagued, discredited party. And Republicans, with their media partners, have been using that depraved playbook ever since, and will continue to do so this year. For the 1988 election, Reagan's severe economic mismanagement, his disastrous foreign policy filled with savage covert wars, and widespread perceptions that top Reagan officials had blatantly lied about breaking the law were all just disappeared. Actual issues played virtually no role in George Bush the First's 40-state triumph.

* * * *

In exactly the same way, John McCain's only hope for winning is to ensure a similar disappearance of the issues which Americans continuously say are most important to them -- namely, the disastrous Bush/Cheney economic policies and the need to extricate ourselves from the Iraq War. If the actual concerns of American voters are allowed to determine the election outcome -- as they did in 2006 -- the GOP has no chance. Thus, the only prospect for a McCain victory is to have the media flood the country with the types of childish, gossipy trash that has predominated thus far -- lapel pins and Pledge of Allegiance symbolism and endless fixations on pastor sermons. That is what makes all the dark plagues which our political and media class have enabled -- those images of dead Iraqi children and foreclosure signs and crushing collective debt and collapsed American credibility and a truly lawless government -- blissfully disappear.

The GOP's hope that the media will do its part to continue to degrade our political discourse this way is understandable. It is, after all, Matt Drudge who rules their world. A lowly, Rush-Limbaugh-created, right-wing gossip-monger is the Walter Cronkite of their era.

The Right knows it can rely on the establishment press to repeat endlessly whatever smears it spits out, knowing that journalists (a) find such chatter irresistible because of how cheap and easy and fun it is to disseminate and (b) have a built-in excuse for doing so: "tiny sideshows are what The Little People care about, and thus we oh-so-reluctantly must cover them." Thus, the last two months of news cycles have been dominated by precisely such chatter, to the exclusion of one huge political story after the next -- torture memos, suspension of the Fourth Amendment, domestic propaganda programs, endless bloodshed in Iraq, more threats towards Iran. And there is no end in sight to this conduct. Indeed, it is only getting worse.

Today's Washington Post front page thus features yet another long, trite article -- headlined: "Obama Faces Test in Asserting His Own Brand of Patriotism" -- that yet again recycles Obama's lapel choices, his questionable belief in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Weather Underground, etc. etc. etc. As always, the GOP's central strategy of transforming our national elections into small-minded, juvenile gossip fests has no better friend than our establishment press.

And it's all "justified" by the media the same way, time and again. Just as when the Post ran a repellent front-page article detailing "assertions that [Obama] is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia" and "alleg[ations] that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a 'Muslim plant' in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran" -- and then "justified" it by claiming that it was newsworthy since they were "rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet" -- the Post today justifies its lengthy coverage of Obama's "questionable patriotism" on the ground that "cable and radio talk shows," "foes" and random voters were talking about it.

That's the same excuse ABC News' Charlie Gibson gave last week for his disgraceful fixation on non-issues during the Democratic debate, in a recent interview where he was criticized for his behavior by Arianna Huffington:

Well, if you're gonna get into the debate, -- I know we're taking it to task a lot about that. But all that went to the issue of whether Barack Obama is electable. That's an issue that's being much debated now.

That's the only job of the modern "journalist" as they see it: to repeat whatever trash is whispered in their ears by political operatives. If right-wing strategists or opposition campaigns are chattering about some lowly attack, they have no choice but to repeat it -- and not just repeat it, but repeat it endlessly, have it dominate their political "reporting." After all, as Gibson says: "That's an issue that's being much debated now." Of course, the only reason those sideshows are "being much debated now" is because Gibson and his friends never stop talking about them, but that's the endless self-referential loop that fuels their destruction of our political culture.

* * * * *

Periodically, journalists will admit that they serve as vital instruments used by the Right to disseminate personality smears, and even claim to regret it, only to continue doing exactly that. During the 2004 election, the NYT's Adam Nagourney (along with Richard Stevenson) actually granted anonymity to a GOP operative in a front-page article to say that John Kerry "looks French" and that John Edwards is the "Breck Girl." With our country in the middle of a brutal, already unpopular war in the Middle East and burdened by an already distrusted President, those stupid slurs became the dominant themes of the 2004 election. Three years later -- following the media's tawdry "flood the zone" coverage of John Edwards' haircut (in which Nagoruney, like most of his colleagues, gleefully participated) -- Nagourney published a mea culpa of sorts for his 2004 article, stating the bleeding obvious:

In both instances [Kerry looks French and Edwards is the Breck Girl], we were attempting to flesh out for readers the White House's plans for discrediting prospective Democratic opponents. Both people quoted were at the senior levels of the Bush political operation. And in both cases -- as Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards could certainly attest by the end of 2004 election -- the Bush machine had followed through on the plan it laid out 18 months earlier to define the Democrats on Republican terms.

Our story may have had the result of not only previewing what the Bush campaign intended to do, but, by introducing such memorably biting characterizations into the political dialogue, helping it.

What an epiphany. When the NYT prominently repeats anonymous, adolescent right-wing smears on its front pages, it not only "introduces" those smears but also "helps" them! But that's the modus operandi of our establishment press. That's what drove the media's fixation on deriding the nerdy, unmanly, unpatriotic Michael Dukakis in 1988, and that media/right-wing bond was solidified when they were fed one titillating tidbit after the next by the lowest sewers of the right-wing noise machine during the Clinton sex scandals -- which only the media and the Right, but not the country, cared about.

It is this degraded media dynamic which the GOP is counting on to elect John McCain. The establishment media is more than geared up to play its role in amplifying those petty smears; by and large, it's all they do. And the central, and still unknowable, variable is whether the citizenry -- driven by the belief that our country is fundamentally off-track and that the GOP is responsible -- will be able to rise above the two-headed Right-wing/media monster and thereby refuse to elect as President a candidate who will continue policies that the vast majority of them hate.

UPDATE: It is true that, by the time Reagan left office, the nostalgia over his riding off into the sunset caused an end-of-the-presidency spike in his approval ratings (though still not as high as Bill Clinton's was when he left office). But unlike Clinton, who enjoyed sustained high approval ratings for the bulk of his second term (between 50-65%), Reagan's approval ratings were low by any measure (below 50% or just at that level) beginning in 1986, for virtually all of 1987, and well into 1988 -- until post-presidential nostalgia caused a substantial spike with just a few months to go in his second term. Under no metric can Ronald Reagan be considered a "popular President" during his the last two years in office, and there is much to support the opposite conclusion.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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