“People from the Old Media, like me, instinctively prefer a centrist style of civilized debate,” the Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote in a pre-election column (10/18/06). It’s a revealing admission of the media’s reigning ideology, though it might more accurately be described as center-rightism: While centrism implies an evenhanded rejection of the “extremes” on both sides of the political spectrum, in practice establishment pundits, comfortable with a center-to-right spectrum of debate, almost always focus their disapproval on the real or invented excesses of the left.
Prior to the 2006 midterm elections, which long promised to move the country significantly to the left, commentators were particularly vocal about warning the Democrats away from progressive temptations. After complaining that Democratic online activists “fanned anti-incumbent and antiwar flames” and “relentlessly derided Sen. Hillary Clinton as calculating, overly cautious and lacking true liberal bona fides,” Time magazine (9/24/06) declared: “Moderate Democrats say it with remorse, conservatives with glee, but the conventional wisdom is bipartisan: Progressive bloggers are pushing the Democratic Party so far to the left that it will have no chance of capturing the presidency in 2008.
Ignatius’ column, on the other hand, was concerned not about progressivism’s failure but about its success, worrying that the Democrats might be “profiting from the Democratic base’s rage at George W. Bush.” Not only shouldn’t Bush’s unpopularity be an issue, Ignatius suggested, but he seemed to prefer that the election be decided on the basis of images rather than any issues at all—praising candidates who campaigned on the basis of going to church, getting short haircuts or (no kidding) posing with puppies.
News outlets tried hard, in the closing weeks of the campaign, to highlight any signs of hope for the Republicans. One Newsweek online article (10/21/06) called it “a good omen for Bush” that the U.S. public trusted Democrats more than Republicans on immigration, 40 percent to 34 percent, because “two weeks ago the Democrats held a nine-point lead on that issue.”
And journalists reporting on candidates’ bad behavior were careful to lay bipartisan blame, even if the facts didn’t support it. Nightline’s Terry Moran reported (10/25/06) that “both sides are playing a serious game of hardball” with “mudslinging” attack ads hitting “below the belt.” The only Democratic ad mentioned, however, featured actor Michael J. Fox calling for stem-cell research—the one that prompted Rush Limbaugh to mock Fox’s Parkinson’s symptoms. How that showed that “both sides” were “mudslinging,” Moran didn’t explain.
Another ABC News report the same day acknowledged that “some of the nastiest rhetoric right now is coming from the political right.” But it concluded: “Democrats aren’t necessarily running clean campaigns, though. As the races tighten in the next couple of weeks, the left will likely unleash its garbage as well.” “Garbage” is a good word for journalism that offers speculation as evidence to back up a preconceived conclusion.
As the race drew to a close and the hoped-for “tightening” failed to materialize, pundits anticipating a Democratic victory began stressing the need for bipartisanship. TV fixture David Gergen, writing in his U.S. News & World Report column (10/16/06): “If Democrats gain power over one or more chambers next month, they must show they can do more than launch investigations and block GOP initiatives.”
Gergen had demands for the Republicans as well, saying that they “must abandon their highhanded ways, bringing Democrats into their decision-making circles and seeking more bipartisan solutions”—but somehow Gergen didn’t feel the need to make such a demand during the four years Democrats were locked out of power. It took the threat of Democrats actually winning back control of part of the government to make Gergen remember how important bipartisanship was—or even to contemplate “the creation of a third, middle party that can finally unite our country again.”
A third party in the “middle” that would champion their preferred (often deeply unpopular) policies is a favorite fantasy of establishment pundits. The Washington Post’s David Broder, the long-time voice of conventional wisdom, expressed this dream when he wrote (9/21/06) that “you can see the independence party forming—on both sides of the aisle . . . mobilizing to resist not only Bush but also the extremist elements in American society—the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left and the doctrinaire religious extremists on the right.”
The members of Broder’s party, though, seem to come mostly from an already existing party: He names New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Warner, Lincoln Chafee and Mike DeWine—Republicans all. The one Democrat he mentions positively is Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was rejected by his party’s primary voters.
Broder does talk about some other Democrats, like “Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself” (even though both presidential candidates won by double digits in Broder’s native Illinois). And DeWine’s opponent, Rep. Sherrod Brown, “a loud advocate of protectionist policies that offer a false hope of solving our trade and job problems.” Such types are certainly not invited to Broder’s party—or the rest of the establishment media’s.