by Paul Waldman
When Newark mayor Cory Booker criticized the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital during an appearance on Meet the Press Sunday, the political world was immediately set abuzz. As CNN’s Don Lemon said, with a mischievous glint in his eye: “Someone didn’t stick to the talking points.”
Now compare that to what happened when Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two of Washington’s most respected analysts of Congress, published an op-ed in The Washington Post a few weeks ago—the product of extensive research for a just-published book—arguing that Washington’s inability to govern is almost entirely the fault of the Republican party. Given the authors’ prominence as political analysts and their reputations as dispassionate observers who are hardly liberal Democrats—in fact, Ornstein is affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute—the piece might have been expected to at least generate some vigorous discussion in the establishment media. Instead, it was mostly ignored.
What was the difference? By unapologetically calling out one side, Mann and Ornstein stepped out of their long-established roles as non-partisan scholars of the institution of Congress, and so casting them became difficult. We all know how this is supposed to work: Democrats say Republicans are the problem, Republicans say Democrats are the problem, and the job of people like Mann and Ornstein is to condemn both sides equally. They function in large part as a stand-in for journalists, saying the things those journalists believe but don’t want to say themselves for fear of editorializing. So when they looked like they had taken a side, their gold-plated non-partisan credentials no longer mattered. Even though that was precisely what made their argument more interesting and persuasive.
In contrast, when someone steps over a partisan line by mistake, as Booker did, that’s news. And when it happens on a Sunday show, it’s even more notable for being novel. It’s unfortunate given their prestige and elite audience, but there is no arena more defined by the mind-numbing repetition of talking points than the Sunday shows. Nineteen times out of twenty, you can tune in and know exactly what will be said just by seeing who is invited to speak. Even the roundtable discussions are likely to be populated by a reliable stable of partisan spokespeople, the Braziles and Matalins and Murphys and Carvilles, who can be counted on to repeat the most current message points and themes. The most emblematic face-off has to be the one between two competing campaign representatives, who could with a moment’s notice switch places and deliver each other’s talking points and no one would notice.
The Booker episode reminds us that while everyone in the media claims to hate talking points (and there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity), nearly every response to the ubiquity of talking points simply encourages them. The Sunday shows invite on only the most skilled spinners, not people who actually have something interesting to say about what’s going on in politics (for that, you’ll have to tune in to Up With Chris Hayes). Whenever someone does step even slightly out of line, as Booker did, reporters immediately deliver a brutal punishment in the form of huge coverage of the “gaffe”. It’s not that members of the media want to discourage unpredictability, they’re just so bored by the usual back-and-forth that anything out of the ordinary at least gives them something new to talk about – and usually ends up backfiring for the person who said it.
Let’s leave aside the merits of Booker’s claim—since disowned—that attacking Mitt Romney over Bain is somehow below the belt. The point is that in his next interview Booker is hardly likely to be candid and forthright about his views on anything. Indeed, within 36 hours, the mayor had dutifully appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show to atone for his sin and pledge his fealty to President Obama, accusing Republicans of taking him “out of context” in their effort to make political hay out of his remarks.
As a result, the episode will undoubtedly offer a clear lesson to anyone else thinking of stepping out of line: Better to just repeat what your allies are saying, and that way nobody gets hurt. Nobody gets informed or entertained either, but that’s the price that must be paid.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.