Joe Klein recently made his first appearance here at Huffington Post to defend his contention that the Democratic Party's Left Wing has a "hate America tendency." Eric Alterman and many readers have already eviscerated this ridiculous claim, but it is also striking that Klein would reveal his scorn for the Left in the midst of promoting his new book, which is being marketed as a centrist analysis of how consultants have drained life and truth from American politics.
This week's TIME has an excerpt from Politics Lost, a new book attacking the "pollster-consultant industrial complex" for morphing campaigns from Kennedy's courage to Gore's tedium. The piece begins with a bipartisan head fake, but it's soon clear where Klein's sympathies lie.
Al Gore seemed "stiff" and "phony," so he "lost an election he should have won." Of course this analysis ignores history: Gore won the popular vote. (Ultimately he had more trouble persuading judges than voters.) Then Klein takes easy shots at Democratic consultants like Bob Shrum and Tad Devine, who obviously deserve criticism for their losing campaigns. They are critiqued for not letting Al Gore talk "about the environment" and for putting John Kerry in a "straight jacket." These are hardly original points. Activists have been slamming Democratic consultants for years. Eli Pariser issued a similar indictment that was widely covered by the national press -- 17 months ago.
Yet Klein does manage to find a likeable consultant: George W. Bush's advisor Mark McKinnon. He excels at Republicans' "businesslike" campaigns and finds Karl Rove created the "tidiest political operation he'd ever seen." McKinnon realizes Republican campaigns succeed because issues are "less important" to them, and "maybe that was a good thing." Klein notes that an "integral part" of the program was "often stealthily and sometimes disgracefully" defining opponents as "weak, untrustworthy and effete." In the end, Klein credits McKinnon with winning the "clinching argument at a time of war," since Bush provided a simple message to voters: "I'm telling some version of the truth as I sort of see it." It may have worked for the campaign, but most Americans no longer trust Bush or his failed policies.
In Klein's world, Mark McKinnon helps deceive the public and his prowess is celebrated. But when Tad Devine constrains a candidate it is a national crisis: Devine is supposedly draining life from politics.
Klein can argue the country would be better off without both sets of consultants, but it is absurd for him to wring his hands about the decline of truth and respect in "modern American politics" while celebrating the dishonest Bush machine.
Furthermore, Klein's piece, like many of his columns, focuses on the tactical execution of politics instead of substance and policy. Reporters increasingly discuss strategy, positioning, fundraising and insider moves - all the specialties of consultants - instead of the issues that concern voters. This is a broad and well-documented trend. As journalists use this strategy frame, many also position themselves as pundit-experts, taking to the airwaves to advise politicians on everything from broadening their base to nuclear war. This dual role - covering political news and straining to be a part of it - can also compromise a journalist's ability to be disinterested and independent.
For example, this Sunday, Joe Klein announced on national television that the option of using nuclear weapons in Iran should not be "off the table." George Stephanopoulos responded by saying that idea was "insane."
Yet Klein's piece has virtually no reference to how journalists contribute to the very symptoms of distorted and lifeless democracy that he describes. (This only refers to the TIME excerpt, I don't know if the book discusses the media's role because the book is not published until later this week.)
Maybe Klein did not notice the media's role in the decline of politics because he is a part of it. Admitting the problem could be his first step to recovery.
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