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Another Month, Another Surface Analysis from Adam Nagourney

Ah, the power of the political reporter.

What job is better? You act as sage, psychiatrist, and weatherman all at once.

But the one thing you don't usually have to do is what you are actually paid to do: be a reporter.

Adam Nagourney is my favorite example of this phenomenon.

In his latest non-article, headlined "For Democrats, Many Verses, but No Chorus," Nagourney argues that "From Arizona to Pennsylvania, from Colorado to Connecticut, Democratic candidates for Congress are reading from a stack of different scripts these days."

His evidence: one candidate is talking about the prescription drug bill. Another on the reliance on oil imports. Another on GOP cronyism. Another about getting out of Iraq.

All together, these different campaign messages (though one might imagine that these candidates talk about a variety of issues, just not all of them on the day that Nagourney was watching) "reflect splits within the party about what it means to be a Democrat -- and what a winning Democratic formula will be -- after years in which conservative ideas have dominated the national policy debate and help win elections."

Wow.

Let us deconstruct Nagourney's assumptions:

1. Candidates only talk about one thing.

2. When candidates choose a specific area of focus, they are split on what it means to be a Democrat. (Nagourney actually points to no meaningful disagreements among the party's candidates until the very end of his 1,500 A1 piece: "some Democrats want to call for raising automobile mileage standards to conserve energy, but Democrats in Michigan have resisted that idea." Not exactly the basis for calling a party split. He then cites the differing opinions over the timetable for Iraq withdrawal, which is certainly a more meaningful area of debate, but within the context of all Democrats critiquing the war as it is being led, it's again not much of a split.)

3. A theme and the illustration of that theme are the same thing. When he says "Democrats have experimented with several themes: corruption in Washington, Medicare, a Republican Congress acting as a rubber stamp for the president, governmental incompetence and ... a choice between 'change and more of the same'" he confuses apples and oranges. Medicare isn't a theme, and neither is the rubber stamping of the president's agenda. Both are symptoms of the fact (theme) that the current direction of the country is the wrong one for working Americans.

4. Again, that the prescription drug plan, the reliance on oil, the war, and cronyism are "scattershot messages," as opposed to symptoms of the same problem: an administration out of touch with the kitchen tables of its citizens and in bed with corporate America. See point 3.

5. There are no regional differences that require different approaches.

6. A party that disagrees on all of the solutions to a set of agreed-upon problems cannot be strong.

The idea that Democrats are missing a chorus is certainly worthy of discussion, but Nagourney doesn't make the point here. He seems to be writing three articles, one about the differences between Democrats and Republicans in their mid-term election strategies, one about the impact of redistricting on Democrats' chances, and one about the messages being used by Congressional candidates.

Unfortunately, he doesn't do a real reporting job on any of those 3 articles, and certainly nothing that leads to the grand conclusion that the party is divided, that there is no coherent message, or that Republicans did this any better. He himself writes that the Contract with America only appeared a few weeks before the 1994 elections.

(It seems that Adam Nagourney has an obsession with calling things divided, something I noticed back when he was on the NYC beat. Of course division is always more interesting than unity, whether it's People magazine or the Times).

So what's the point of this post? To give Nagourney a hard time? Maybe. But my larger point is that political reporters of Nagourney's ilk are far too comfortable making public pronouncements on the state of politics that are unfounded but that have actual repercussions for the way in which the rest of the country view the dynamics at hand. Reporting that is really armchair analysis is dangerous, especially when it appears on the front page. All of a sudden we are engaged in a debate about the difference between the themes of Medicare and cronyism instead of focused on a conversation about what people are really concerned with and how their representatives are or are not addressing those concerns. Instead of Democrats actually advancing their message, a message that continues to resonate on just about every marker of public opinion, they have to respond defensively to Nagourney's less than rigorous conclusion that the party is divided.

Of course Nagourney isn't alone (though not as many have the power of his perch). How many days go by without the punditry reciting GOP talking points, reasserting their dominance in the market of ideas and wondering when the Dems will get a plan? How much of reporting about politics is really a melodrama between powerful actors, focused on strategy and tactics instead of impact and consequences? (At least with Elisabeth Bumiller there's a separate box and a picture so you don't confuse the president's exercise regimen with national news.) No wonder people are confused about the actual connection between what happens in DC and what happens in their daily lives. No wonder they are alienated. We might as well cover politics in the sports section.

We will have no chance at actually engaging regular Americans in the debates at-hand if we cannot count on our political reporters to report.

(cross-posted with DMIBlog).