Wailing echoes down the corridors
By Jonathan Bernstein
I was going to leave Conor Friedersdorf's column about coverage of Rand Paul alone, until I got to this bit:
[T]he media seem to reflexively treat some ideas and candidates less seriously than others for no legitimate, objective reason. Third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot was called a disparaging name so often that he tried to defuse the situation with humor by dancing in public to Patsy Cline's rendition of the song "Crazy."
Friedersdorf's main point is that libertarians and others with, er, unusual political views -- perhaps including Rand Paul -- are treated unfairly by the national press.
I like Friedersdorf a lot, but his example is such a bad one that it undermines his argument. Let's see ... Ross Perot, during the 1992 campaign, suddenly dropped out and later claimed that he did so "after hearing that President Bush's campaign was scheming to smear his daughter with a computer-altered photograph and to disrupt her wedding." He "accused [a] C.I.A. employee of being hired to tap into his computerized stock trading program to prevent him from having the money to revive his campaign." In both cases, he offered no evidence at all. I don't have any other easily available evidence, other than that same NYT story's claim that he believed left-wing and right-wing conspiracy theories, and for what it's worth my own memory that he often said things that were bizarrely untrue. And so he was called crazy -- not for his policy positions (in fact, Washington reporters loved his policy positions, to the extent he had any), but for his behavior and for factual claims at odds with reality.
Which it seems to me was a good thing. In my opinion, Ross Perot was taken if anything far too seriously by the national media in 1992 and 1996. As far as I can see, it's not at all a bad idea if the media uses a conspiracy theory test to label candidates as a little bit on the loony side. I'm not sure whether Van Jones got a raw deal or not, but I'm not unhappy that a clear signal was sent that if you dabble in trutherism, you aren't going to work in any presidential administration. It doesn't bother me at all that Republicans who either out of conviction or, more likely, pandering flirt with the birthers are going to be called out for it. If words like "crazy" get applied, well, I think that's fine. I'm suppose that Rand Paul's superhighway (which Friedersdorfer mentions in his piece isn't quite at the birther/truther level), but it's good enough for me.
I'd also like to disentangle the slurs that bother Friedersdorf. Extreme is different than crazy. I would agree with him that candidates should not be called crazy because they support unusual public policy proposals; that should be reserved for bizarre behavior, conspiracy theories and the like. For candidates who embrace highly unusual preferences in public policy, however, reporters and other observers do need a vocabulary. The problem is all in the connotations and consistency. If those on one side of the political spectrum are "extreme" while those on the other are "innovative," well, that's a problem. But it's part of the press's job to point out that a candidate holds positions shared by few others -- and I think "mainstream" is a fine word for those policies that are widely held. Friedersdorf is quite correct that many mainstream policies may well be poor ones, even (in some sense) irrational ones. I do not think it is irrational, however, for a candidate to support even incredibly foolish policies that are widely supported at the elite and mass levels. That's just politics. And those candidates who support unusual positions fairly bear the burden of having it pointed out just how unusual those positions are. By the way, there is some compensation; such candidates also often get tagged "principled," a word that most people believe has positive connotations and that is rarely if ever applied to mainstream pols. I suspect that Sen. Tom Coburn has been called both extreme and principled, while I doubt that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's honest and consistent support for his party has been called principled by very many people.
So: I don't see anything wrong with calling Rand Paul's positions on the issues -- at least, some of the positions he's held on some issues -- extreme, and pending more evidence (just how many mythical superhighways does he believe in?) I'm not sure I have a problem if he's called crazy. I don't have a problem with calling Cynthia McKinney both crazy and extreme, with Ross Perot being called crazy, or with any birther being called crazy. Sure, it's a bit of hyperbole, but candidates for public office should keep to a high standard when it comes to the truth -- and should be able to handle a little hyperbole.
Posted by: jduptonma | May 27, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 27, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: rmgregory | May 27, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 27, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 27, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: JPRS | May 27, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jaycal | May 27, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: inkfinger1 | May 27, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: zosima | May 27, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Patrick_M | May 28, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: staticvars | June 2, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.