One of the assignments in my parties and elections class was to read either Hugh Hewitts Painting the Map Red or Armstrong and Zunigas Crashing the Gate. Were finally getting there after the election, which has proven to be an interesting exercise, as both books were written about a year out.
I asked my students how Hewitt, for whom I have a good bit of respect, could have been so far off the mark. Our answers: the "culture of corruption" line, which was getting next to no traction in late 2005, took off late in the campaign cycle, the cumulative result of Cunningham, earmarks, Abramoff, DeLay, Ney, and Foley, Foley, Foley; by late 2006, people had forgotten all about the purple fingers in Iraq and were just losing patience; and, perhaps most importantly, Hewitt to some degree assumed that his picture of the world either was or could be shared by large numbers of voters. The blogosphere is an "information-rich" environment, but that information isnt really as widely disseminated as we bloggers would like to believe. Even with all that information out there, most voters operate on the basis of blaring headlines or news repeatedly scrolling across the bottom of the screen or what people happen to be talking about. Foley Foley Foley might not have all that important as an isolated incident, but it was a vivid (albeit to some degree misleading, but that doesnt matter) story that could be used to exemplify and drive home the culture of corruption line. The weeks worth of simplistic coverage that that story got (and the apparently fumbling response of the House Republican leadership) surely contributed to depriving Republicans of any conceivable electoral advantage they could manifest in what HH called, following Republican strategist Matthew Dowd, "the values race."
I also wonder, as I noted earlier, if HH didnt overestimate the power of the blogosphere to challenge the mainstream media. I think that the most influential blogs have succeeded in getting the attention of opinion leaders and some journalists (who now have to write knowing that theyll be subject to scrutiny by tireless and well-informed bloggers (the descriptors work collectively, if not necessarily individually). Theyre compelled at least to think about how such critics will respond to their work and to understand that theres a risk that a criticism can really catch fire. But the information and analysis that those of us who regularly read blogs take for granted rarely penetrates into the public consciousness. The most readily available headlines and easily digested thirty-second stories still matter all too much.
In this connection, I will note what I take to be a minor success in my parties and elections class: one of the assignments was to follow three different sources of election news and commentary (all available on-line: newspaper, periodical, and blog). All of my students reported that this exercise, in which they engaged during the campaign season, has had at least a modest impact on their newsreading habits. Theyre digging a little deeper and are likelier to consult multiple sources.
Now on to Armstrong and Zuniga, which well discuss next week. What strikes me about this book is the combination of partisan zeal and pragmatism exemplified in their willingness to support Jim Langevins ultimately abandoned challenge of the unlamented Lincoln Chafee. Langevin would have been a shoo-in, they argued, but, because hes pro-life, raised the hackles of abortion activists. Instead of an easy pick-up, Democrats (as Armstrong and Zuniga wrote in late 2005) faced an unnecessarily expensive fight. Most interesting of all, given what has happened, is this line of argument about the impact the pro-life Langevin would have had in a Senate led by Harry Reid:
We want an America where a woman, not the government, has control over her own body. We want a world where a womans doctor, not the theocons, can care for her reporductive health. We support the party that has enshrined abortion rights into its platform, not the party that has vowed to criminalize it. And who is in a better positoon to protect those rights--a lone pro-choice Republican or two within a governing party hell-bent on destroying those rights, or a lone antiabortion Democrat or two in a aprty determined to protect those rights?
Was Langevin perfect? No, but who is? What candidate passes every single litmus test? No one, not even giants of the progressive movement like Russ Feingold, or Paul Wellstone, or Barbara Boxer. [Ed.: Boxer a giant???? Progressives would seem to have a pretty thin bench.] The fact remains that Langevin would likely never have gotten a chance to vote against abortion in a Democratic-led Senate, and otherwise wouldve been a huge boon to the larger progessive cause.
I dont know that I need to comment on this, but, what the heck: Armstrong and Zuniga are perfectly willing to support pro-life candidates so long as their pro-life positions are utterly uninfluential once theyre in office. Lets remember that the next time around, in case we didnt know that already. And every Republican who challenges a pro-life Democrat can honor the position held by his or her opponent, all the while reminding voters that the Democratic Party is happy to support their candidacy, but not the position they hold: they wont be permitted to vote on an issue that is allegedly central to their self-understanding and self-presentation.
Ill let you know how our discussion comes out on Tuesday.