Mark Halperin's legacy of doom: Why Drudge's biggest fan keeps getting promoted

For a million bucks Bloomberg Politics has just hired the king of bad predictions, conventional wisdom -- and worse

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 7, 2014 3:10PM (EDT)

Mark Halperin      (AP/Sue Ogrocki)
Mark Halperin (AP/Sue Ogrocki)

Many years ago I coined a term for the originators and purveyors of out of touch beltway conventional wisdom. I called them the Villagers after a 1998 column by Sally Quinn in which she surveyed all the denizens of DC for their opinions on l'affair Lewinsky. She correctly noted that a majority of the country believed the scandal was absurd while those in the ostensibly sophisticated city of Washington D.C. were morally outraged. She posited that DC was different because it was the reputation of "their town" the president had besmirched. One quote in particular, from Muffie Cabot a former White House social secretary, summed up the unself-conscious arrogance and insularity:

"This is a demoralized little village. People have come from all over the country to serve a higher calling and look what happened. They're so disillusioned. The emperor has no clothes. Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this."

The extremely powerful political and media elites who make up the political establishment in our nation's capital more often than not portray their allegedly "small town values" as being "typically" American -- more typical than the 300 million or so Americans who live outside the beltway. No amount of polling or canvassing or interviewing can convince these wealthy, influential celebrities and lawmakers and their various hangers-on that they are not the perfect reflection of America itself.

Which brings me to Mark Halperin's latest. Halperin is perhaps the quintessential Villager, a man who exhales conventional wisdom the way the rest of us exhale carbon dioxide. Though he lives in New York, he is a legacy Villager, his father having been an influential foreign policy expert respected by members of both parties. The younger Halperin became a political journalist eventually ascending to the highest levels of the celebrity media hierarchy as a "top political analyst." Salon's Alex Pareene granted Halperin the highest honor awarded to a Villager back in 2011 when he named him number one on the annual Political Hack list as the world's laziest dispenser of conventional wisdom. In bestowing Halperin the first prize, after having been narrowly edged out the previous year by Richard Cohen (who will surely be a contender for something in 2014 for the chapter in his new book called "Ethnic Cleansing for a Better World") Pareene noted:

He’s still both fixated solely on the horse race and also uniquely bad at analyzing the horse race.

That election cycle featured a brilliant Halperin analysis and forecast about the upcoming presidential race:

I think [Donald Trump is] much more serious about running than you do. He spent a fair amount of time about talking to people working for his campaign. I don’t know why he would have gone through hours and hours of meetings if it were all just a charade... [H]e, like Sarah Palin, looks at this field and says, this is a field that can be taken down by a strong, late entry. And if you’ve got the ability to manipulate the media as both of them do to an extraordinary extent, you could imagine a scenario of getting in late and riding a populist wave to the Republican nomination. It’s never happened before, but they both have the ability, I think, and they both have the ambition to think about doing it more seriously than you do.

You read that right. The shop steward of the union of Village sages believed that both Sarah Palin and Donald Trump had the ability to ride a "populist wave" to the top of the GOP ticket.

Halperin is most famous, however, for one particular statement which defines the Village media best. It was to Fox's Bill O'Reilly back in 2006 when he calmly"admitted" that there was a liberal bias in the news which he believed had to be "fixed" by "prov[ing] to conservatives that we understand their grievances." This was a statement that perfectly encapsulated a phenomenon that liberal wags called  "wingnuts working the refs" back in the day, which describes the conservative tactic of battering the media for its alleged lefty affinity -- thereby pushing them to assume what they see as the truth is actually liberal bias.  The press eventually became so attuned to this alleged bias they gave us Whitewater, impeachment, the egregious coverage of election 2000 and the invasion of Iraq! And even in 2006, after all that had come before,  it wasn't enough. Halperin went on to admit to Billo that he believed Matt Drudge was the Walter Cronkite of his era and revealed for sure what had only been suspected: "Drudge rules our world" --- meaning the world of the Village.

It's that level of perspicacity that eventually led Bloomberg to hire Halperin and his book writing partner John Heilemann to create a new politics vertical to the reported tune of one million dollars per man, per year. (Granted, that's nothing compared to Hollywood stars like John Hamm who gets a million dollars a day for certain commercial voice-overs, but it's not bad for government reporting work.) Halperin earned that million dollars this past week-end when he delved into the magical possibility of yet another Bush in the White House and came out with a big thumbs up. True, his piece is nearly incomprehensible but the gist of it clear: Jebbie should run.

With all the chatter these days about polarization, his opening line is intriguing: "There are two factions in American politics today..." Oooh tell us more. Has he found some new as yet undiscovered fault line in our political foundation? Or is he referring to the old reliable divisions between those who favor war vs peace, progressive vs conservative or Democrat vs Republican? It's a fresh one alright. A new and extremely important form of polarization now defines our politics: those who thinks Jeb Bush is running and those who don't. Try to contain your excitement.

The evidence:

Such mirror-image speculation is only mounting—in the last week alone, three premium-grade Republican sources confided to me with utmost certainty that Bush is in fact already running, while one of America’s premier political reporters privately offered up a laundry list of reasons why Bush was definitively not taking the plunge.

Imagine that. Luckily for us, Halperin took off his analysis hat and put his reporters hat and came back with a scoop:

Here’s the reality, distilled from over a dozen discussions with those who know Bush really well: Jeb himself still hasn’t decided.

Gosh, I'm all on pins and needles about which of the two factions in American politics will win this one. Evidently, the entire GOP is in a tizzy because they haven't yet found the perfect candidate to take on the "supremely daunting, uber-iconic Clinton" and more and more they're turning their lonely eyes to Jeb, the younger scion of what Halperin calls "the most politically successful family in American history." (I guess he was too busy to catch that recent Ken Burns series about The Roosevelts ...) He then goes on to dismiss every other potential GOP candidate as a misfit or a stooge, quoting some Party bigfoot saying: “Bush will have the band put together in a day. He is the most prepared from a infrastructure point of view by light-years.”

Halperin adds:

Unlike his competitors, Bush could lure donors off the fence in a hurry, without undergoing a hazing trial to test skill and stability. The train would fire up and chug away from the station at the git-go.

And then it will gain speed, derailing everything in its wake until it becomes a runaway train that can't be stopped until it smashes into the White House and blows the whole thing to smithereens!

How Halperin can be so sure of all this is left up to the imagination. Obviously, there is no way of knowing since Jeb has done nothing other than make a few random speeches. There is no train. There isn't even an empty side-car. Sure, he has the family name which, oddly, Halperin only obliquely acknowledges to have been just the tiniest bit tarnished over the past decade. Jeb's brother left office only six years ago with the lowest rating of any president in history. Americans have short memories, but we haven't been hit with traumatic amnesia.

But Halperin talked to a couple of unnamed Democrats who say they'd vote for Jeb in a heartbeat which he takes to mean that Bush has an excellent chance of winning a large bipartisan majority. And he's probably right --- if by bipartisan majority he means all his Villager friends. They've always loved the Bushes. When a Bush becomes president everyone in town rejoices that the grown-ups are back in charge --- just before they start a war.

In any case, the last time Halperin got excited about a GOP contender it was based upon similar reasoning --- "everybody knows him, and everybody loves him."

As former Republican Senator Fred Thompson ponders a late entry into the 2008 presidential race, the actor's biggest advantage just might be that people feel they already know exactly what he would be like as Commander in Chief.

Even before his Law & Order depiction of district attorney Arthur Branch, Thompson nearly always played variations on the same character — a straight-talking, tough-minded, wise Southerner — basically a version of what his supporters say is his true political self. And he is often cast as a person in power — a military official, the White House chief of staff, the head of the CIA, a Senator or even the President of the U.S...

[C]ritics may be underestimating his strengths. As with Hillary Clinton, this is not his first rodeo (a phrase that rolls smoothly in his accent). Like Barack Obama, he is poised and compelling. Like Rudy Giuliani, he can fall back on bold self-confidence in the face of tricky questions. Like John McCain, he can appeal to independents. And like George W. Bush in 2000, he presents a decided equanimity toward his future.

Does anyone know whatever happened to that guy?

The fact is that Halperin did what he always does --- passed on some stale Village chatter and called it analysis. And he does that one particular thing very well. One can certainly understand why so many Republicans use him to stovepipe their agenda. He guilelessly accepts and passes on everything they tell him. Can you expect anything else from someone who thinks Matt Drudge is the Walter Cronkite of his generation?

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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