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Delusions All Around

Sean Wilentz has a new piece in TNR decrying pundits' tendency to fawn over political candidates whose personalities they find compelling, and thereby excuse deficiencies in the qualifications and experience of these same candidates. Wilentz call this "the delusional style … Read More

By / December 21, 2007

Sean Wilentz has a new piece in TNR decrying pundits' tendency to fawn over political candidates whose personalities they find compelling, and thereby excuse deficiencies in the qualifications and experience of these same candidates. Wilentz call this "the delusional style in American punditry." Though the term isn't adequately specific — I can think of several delusions that are more pervasive among pundits than this one — fair point to Wilentz. In the current presidential context, he is of course referring to the sycophantic press Barack Obama has been receiving, and he's got examples that ought to embarrass their authors.

E.g.:

The Boston Globe, in an ideal specimen of the delusional style, ran an editorial that endorsed Obama because he is biracial and grew up in "multi-ethnic cultures"–adequate substitutes, by the editorial's lights, for serious background and expertise in foreign affairs. Obama, according to the Globe, has engaged in "a search for identity" and taken "a roots pilgrimage to Kenya," all of which supposedly displays a "level of introspection, honesty, and maturity" that the newspaper longs for in a president. "Obama's story is America's story," the Globe intoned–a sentence that comes as close as any distinguished newspaper ever has to perfect emptiness.

Wilentz has some unflattering goods on Fareed Zakaria and David Brooks, among others, as well; the whole thing is worth a read.

There are a couple of issues I want to take with Wilentz's larger argument, which is (1) the press and elite pundits should have learned from the Bush years that it's dangerous to elevate nebulous qualities like authenticity over intelligence, competence, and experience, and (2) the press should be particularly wary of falling for Obama as it fell for Bush, and by implication should not subject Hillary Clinton to the Al Gore treatment.

Point (1) is inarguable, but point (2) doesn't follow, as both comparisons, between Bush and Obama, and between Hillary Clinton and Gore, do not hold up. It's true that the elite press is swooning over Obama for fairly insubstantial reasons, and it's also true that Obama is playing right into this phenomenon as a campaign tactic. But that's just the point; Obama is emphasizing nebulous qualities from his background that seem to win him good press, but all the concrete features of his background — his education, his academic career, his career in local and state politics — readily distinguish him from Bush, who pretty clearly would never have amounted to anything if his name were Smith.

At the same time, the uncriticized assumption of the Clinton backers, that their candidate crushes Obama in terms of lifetime experience and success in law, public policy, and government, is just false. Remember that, whatever you think of Gore's merits and demerits as a candidate, by the time he ran for president in 2000, he had had a decades-long and fairly distinguished political career, and that his command of policy was not merely impressive in absolute terms, but was vastly superior to that of his opponent. No such discrepancy exists in the Democratic primary race. On the contrary, Hillary Clinton, like Bush, has built a political career on the basis of her last name and familial connections. Her major foray into the policy world before 2000, namely her health care proposal, turned out to be a fiasco. She does not exceed Obama in experience in government or in intelligence, her legal career was decidedly less impressive than his, and on the most important issue that either of them had to face during their political careers, he got it right and she got it wrong. (You know what I'm referring to.)

So while Wilentz's general point about media mishandling of political contests is well-taken, it just doesn't apply to the specific case he wants to apply it to.

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