James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

  • Archives

  • September 2021
    S M T W T F S
     1234
    567891011
    12131415161718
    19202122232425
    2627282930  
  • Categories

  • Subscribe

Posts Tagged ‘presidential debate’

Undebatable: Presidential race now more interesting

Posted by James McPherson on October 4, 2012

Mitt Romney won the first 2012 presidential debate handily, as everyone from Michael Moore to the foreign press could see. I’m surprised that President Obama failed bring up “the 47 percent,” women’s issues, the auto industry or immigration, or to counter Romney’s many misstatements and exaggerations.

Still, I can’t say I’m shocked at the outcome. I doubt that George W. Bush is, either, considering his first debate as an incumbent–or that he would be, anyway, if he weren’t getting ready to visit Romney’s bankers in the Cayman Islands. First debates are good for challengers.

Remember, Obama hasn’t debated for four years. He speaks better when he has a teleprompter, or when can interact with (and feed off of) an audience, and the debate crowd had been muzzled. Jim Lehrer did an abysmal job as moderator. And despite all the talk by pundits before the debate about how good a debater he supposedly is, I’ve never seen it. Hillary Clinton beat him in their debates, and John McCain did more to lose the 2008 presidential debates than Obama did to win them. Besides, McCain had to debate with Bush and Sarah Palin strapped to his back.

Debate moments may matter to the media and political junkies, but probably no presidential debate has ever made a difference in the outcome. To repeat: Not one presidential debate has changed the outcome of an election. Despite all the recent talk about Ronald Reagan’s supposed “comeback” against Jimmy Carter, as researchers have pointed out, “No candidate who was leading in the polls six weeks before the election has lost the popular vote since Thomas Dewey in 1948.” And stats guru Nate Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning just before the debate.

Obama still leads in the states he needs to win, has a better ground game than Romney, and is better on the stump. He still has the natural advantage of any sitting president, in that he will be seen on the news every night and has the opportunity to do things that only a president can do. He’ll probably throw out the first pitch at a Nationals playoff game–and maybe an Orioles game, too. Obviously he should do more “presidential” stuff–meeting with world leaders, for example, rather than hanging out with the ladies of “The View.”

It’s still the president’s contest to lose–but ask Bush’s former baseball team, the Texas Rangers, if it’s possible to blow a big lead. Obama may have to wake up and study up for the next two debates. He shouldn’t take for granted that Americans are too intelligent to elect a guy with no meaningful foreign policy experience or who makes vague domestic promises that he won’t be able to keep. After all, that’s exactly what voters did in 2008. Just ask our current Secretary of State.

Same-day follow-up: Rachel Maddow had a fascinating piece tonight, demonstrating that of the seven times a sitting president has debated a challenger, presidents now have a sparkling record of 1-6. Even Ronald Reagan won as the challenger and then lost as president. In addition, Nate Silver actually boosted his calculation of Obama’s chance of presidential victory to 87 percent. James Downie of the Washington Post is probably correct when he  writes, “Obama lost the first debate, but he will still win the election.” And Obama himself seemed cheerful and confident on the stump today.

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

‘Joe the Plumber’ steps into spotlight, gets singed

Posted by James McPherson on October 16, 2008

We heard about “Joe the Plumber” more than two dozen times during last night’s debate, when John McCain talked far more about Joe (though not always honestly) than he did about his own running mate, Sarah Palin. (I thought the oddest comment, said twice by McCain, was, “Joe, I’m glad you’re rich.”) McCain plans to spend some quality time with him, and Fox News refers to him as “every man,” and “a metaphor for the state of the American psyche.” For her part, Palin talked about “Joe the Plumber and Jane the Plumber” in her stump speech today, while Joe himself–whose real name is Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher–met the media.

I watched Wurzelbacher for a bit this morning on MSNBC, and he seemed clearly torn between enjoying the attention and being uncomfortable and afraid to say the wrong thing, asking at least twice if the interview was going to be national–pretty much like most of us would be on camera. Of course in a YouTube world, we should all assume that anything we do might turn into an international video. Wurzelbacher refused to endorse McCain, though his views obviously are conservative. More so than McCain’s actually, since he did say he would like to do away with Social Security. Somehow I don’t think that proposal will make it into the McCain/Palin plan.

Now it seems that Joe isn’t actually a plumber, or at least not one with a license (he says he doesn’t need one), he’s behind on his taxes, and he votes under the wrong name. I wonder if the GOP will seek to have his name purged from the electoral rolls?

I do feel a bit bad about what may end up happening to the guy. He came to public attention because he wanted to ask one of the candidates (Barack Obama) a meaningful question. Then, because of Obama’s answer, Wurzelbacher became a tool for the conservatives–and, as the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein wrote, the plumber has been more forthcoming with the media than Palin has. Of course, unlike Palin he doesn’t have the Secret Service to keep reporters away.

On the other hand, Wurzelbacher is taking advantage of his newfound celebrity. He’s already been on Fox, ABC, CBS and MSNBC, and is scheduled to appear on Fox’s “Huckabee” Saturday. Unfortunately he has no idea how brightly the spotlight might shine, or how soon conservatives will leave him alone in the dark if other potentially embarassing problems surface.

Below you can see the original comment and a Fox follow-up, in which Wurzelbacher refers to Obama having “kind of a socialist viewpoint.” The clip concludes with Neil Cavuto calling him “my kind of plumber.”

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

McCain as Eeyore, and the “Dow of poo”

Posted by James McPherson on October 7, 2008

John McCain’s Desperation Express continues, with McCain and Sarah Palin furiously throwing mud as fast as they can, inciting crowds to scream hateful and scary epithets, hoping something will stick to Barack Obama–even as they hope that such tactics don’t bring too much attention to such things as McCain’s involvement with the Keating Five or his involvement with the radical Council of World Freedom (think neocons plus Iran-Contra scandal–gee, what could go wrong?). Not to mention Palin’s “Troopergate” problems, her “witch doctor” pastor, or her husband’s involvement with a separatist organization that advocates Alaska’s possible succession from the union.

It’s turning so ugly that even the slash-and-burn media that normally thrive on scandal and controversy are becoming disgusted by it. In the meantime, the tactics–once denounced by McCain–don’t seem to be working anyway, and are turning off even some conservatives who weren’t already abandoning ship because of Palin’s clear lack of qualifications, and who recognize that the attacks are an attempt to avoid discussion of the economy.

Obviously many Republicans still think McCain can win (as do skittish Democrats, particularly those concerned about the possibility of stolen elections in Ohio, Florida, fictional Springfield, and elsewhere). With a month to go, they’re right, but McCain’s odds grow longer each day. Barring unforeseen and dramatic events, the final two debates are his last chance to turn the tide, and even there his timing is bad. While time as a POW forty years ago doesn’t qualify anyone to be president or make someone a foreign politcy expert, such experience is even less relevant to economic expertise–McCain’s admitted weakness.

Tonight’s debate will feature the “town hall forum” that McCain generally likes, but such forums work best for candidates who are viewed as affable and compassionate. The strategy adopted by the McCain campaign, however, is neither of those, and he may find himself on the defensive against an audience (which, unlike with his previous forums, will not be made up of Republican supporters) that is more concerned with keeping their own jobs (or someday being able to retire from them) than with helping some rich guy from either party get a new job.

A defensive McCain can come across as an angry McCain, probably the worst tone he could adopt tonight. As Slate’s John Dickerson points out, “One thing we know: You don’t want Joe Six Pack calling you out.” Or a hockey mom, for that matter. One oddity not discussed enough in the media is how McCain keeps blaming his propensity for lying on Obama’s unwillingness to engage in more town hall meetings. Another problem for a candidate trying to make up ground, based on a half-dozen conversations I’ve had today, is that potential debate viewers disdane what has happened to the process. “I’ll probably watch part of it, but if it’s like the campaign has been lately, I’ll turn it off,” one coworker said about the debate.

What most Americans care most about right now is the plunging Dow and other negative economic aspects. Like Winnie the Pooh, their concerns are relatively simple and immediate, not about someone who engaged in bad behavior when Obama was 8 years old or McCain’s experience as a POW. And while the donkey is a Democratic symbol, it is McCain who is coming across as the old, gray, pessimistic, thistle-eating Eeyore who is yet again about to lose his tail.

Assuming the next two debates don’t dramatically change the electoral map–and I predict they won’t–I have another bit of advice for John McCain: “Live up to your motto, ‘Country first.’ Admit that your campaign is essentially defeated, and that it’s time to get to work on problems. Start talking about how conservatives and liberals can work together to solve tough problems. Note the great things about being an American, and how you’ll continue to work with anyone to make the country even stronger. Send Palin home to Alaska, tell your surrogates to shut up, and offer to turn over any money left over from your campaign to people who are losing their homes or jobs. Now that would be a ‘maverick’ thing to do. It might even restore your once positive image, and conceivably turn the election from a potential rout to a close contest.”

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Palin, Pakistan & the press: ‘Cheez Whiz, people, don’t you know she doesn’t mean what she says?’

Posted by James McPherson on September 28, 2008

Republicans are trying to keep Sarah Palin from speaking to the press, even as she makes the rounds of traditional campaign stops. As I noted in the comments section yesterday, with last night’s Tina Fey “Saturday Night Live” appearance, considering how tightly scripted and hidden away Palin as been, lately most of us will have seen more of Fey as Palin than we’ve seen of Palin as Palin.

Now GOP operatives apparently will need to simplify the instructions even further: “Sarah, don’t speak unless you’re on a stage, with a teleprompter, repeating things we’ve let you practice. Smile and nod and wave, but don’t speak. And for God’s sake, don’t ever answer a question. From anybody. Anywhere.” That might make Thursday’s debate a bit tricky.

Just one day after John McCain criticized Barack Obama for saying he would strike inside Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden–a view, incidentally, that McCain himself and most other Americans likely would support, and which goes along with what has become Bush administration policy–Palin (on a Philly cheesesteak run) had a Temple University grad student ask her if American troops should go from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Her response: “If that’s what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should.”

Though she said she had watched the previous night’s presidential debate, and praised the performance of McCain (whom she may believe once walked the earth with dinosaurs), she apparently missed one of her running mate’s strongest statements: “You don’t say that out loud.”

As a result, today the campaign was forced to retract one of the few things Palin actually has said out loud in public. With no apparent irony intended, McCain (talking this morning to George Stephanopoulos) said Palin was a campaign asset in large part because “She knows how to communicate directly with people.” That comment came almost directly on the heels of McCain weakly blaming her latest misstep on the existence of microphones at what was clearly supposed to be another beauty queen-style photo op:

“In all due respect, people going around and… sticking a microphone while conversations are being held, and then all of a sudden that’s—that’s a person’s position… This is a free country, but I don’t think most Americans think that that’s a definitve policy statement made by Governor Palin.”

Of course he’s right about that. Most Americans likely no longer believe that the McCain can offer a “definitive policy statement” about virtually anything. No wonder even many conservatives and their media supporters are jumping ship. One newspaper, endorsing its first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 (during the last Great Depression), noted accurately:

McCain, who has voted consistently for deregulation, started off two weeks ago declaring the U.S. economy fundamentally sound but ended the week sounding like a populist. Who is he really? …

While praiseworthy for putting the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket since Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, his selection of Palin as a running mate was appalling. The first-term governor is clearly not experienced enough to serve as vice president or president if required. Her lack of knowledge is being covered up by keeping her away from questioning reporters and doing interviews only with those considered friendly to her views.

At the risk of repeating myself, Thursday night’s debate could be tricky, and I’ll again offer my recommended debate strategy of yesterday for both candidates: Try to let your opponent talk. Don’t complain if s/he goes over the time limit; you’ll probably benefit more from it.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some “family crisis” forces Palin to postpone or cancel the debate, if not withdraw from the race altogether. Whether anyone would buy that, after McCain’s recent erratic behavior, remains to be seen. And by the way, isn’t it long past time to stop calling McCain a maverick, and to start calling him simply a compulsive gambler?

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

McCain ‘wins’ debate–before announcing he’ll participate

Posted by James McPherson on September 26, 2008

In the latest apparent misstep of the ongoing on-again off-again farce that the John McCain campaign has become, his campaign supposedly today released an ad announcing that he had “won” tonight’s debate–even before the candidate himself announced he would participate. (Note the qualifying words “apparent” and “supposedly”–I don’t discount the possibility of fakery, and have seen no confirmation yet from the McCain camp).

The best part of the story, if true: McCain campaign manager Rick Davis’ quote stating, “McCain won the debate–hands down.” You can see a screenshot of the ad (as linked from the Washington Post article) below.

Same day update: During the “suspended” part of his campaign, McCain apparently managed to work in at least a couple of hours of debate prep.

Posted in Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Presidential & VP debates: protecting Palin

Posted by James McPherson on September 20, 2008

Now if they could just figure out a way to let her use a teleprompter for the vice presidential “debate,” Sarah Palin could keep repeating the verbatim and often false statements she keeps regurgitating on the campaign trail. Note this quote about why the questions will be much more limited for the VP debate than for the three presidential debates:

McCain advisers said they were only somewhat concerned about Ms. Palin’s debating skills compared with those of Mr. Biden, who has served six terms in the Senate, or about his chances of tripping her up. Instead, they say, they wanted Ms. Palin to have opportunities to present Mr. McCain’s positions, rather than spending time talking about her experience or playing defense.

“To have opportunities to present Mr. McCain’s positions”? Isn’t that what his three debates and millions of dollars worth of campaign ads are for? Oh, yeah–the ads are for smearing Barack Obama and misrepresenting his positions, not for presenting McCain’s. Of course the real reason for the limitation is so the GOP can continue to protect their “pretty little lady” nominee.

One other drawback for Palin. She’ll actually have to learn McCain’s positions, many of which are in opposition to her own (arctic drilling, global warming and perhaps sex education). Of course, many of them also in opposition to what McCain’s positions were a few months, weeks or–lately, as the economic crisis shows–even days earlier.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »