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May 08, 2007

NY TimesWatch: The Culture of Contempt

How does George W. Bush, a towel-snapping Texan who puts his feet on the coffee table, drinks water straight from the bottle and was once caught on tape talking with food in his mouth prepare for a state dinner with the queen?

"I suppose... by not doing any of these things", muses Ed Driscoll, obviously drinking the Red State kool-aid again. Or perhaps, like so many knuckle dragging, snake handling conservathugs who blindly support what we're trying to accomplish in Iraq and Afghanistan, he's merely showing the signs of early-onset Alzheimer's disease if not outright mental illness:

Something is rotten in the state of conservatism, says John Dean in Conservatives Without Conscience. Today’s conservatives are “hostile and mean-spirited,” “vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheaters, prejudiced, mean-spirited [again], militant, nationalistic, and two-faced,” not to mention “enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited [once more], power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral.”

Did he mention mean-spirited?

What would we do without the open minded and tolerant Left, always so willing to engage their political opponents in respectful debate? One cannot help but admire their firm resolve to eschew the kind of narrow minded and divisive ad hominems which cause both sides to retreat to their respective corners and result in intellectual hardening of the arteries.

A better question might be, how would the Times have covered such an event during Bill Clinton's tenure?

Ah, but a rising tide lifts all boats while the Bush presidency is awash in a sea of gloomy imagery. Each new day brings a new miserable failure alert: time is running out, the tide has turned, an increasingly embattled president at odds with an ever more impatient nation stubbornly refuses to admit defeat. Instead of the burning bush of prophecy we are given, inexplicably, a rapidly sinking Bush. But the President, mind you, is confused:

Despite the many gathering storms, visitors to the West Wing are often struck by how serene the place is. It all flows from Bush's own peace of mind. Aides say he jokes and relaxes as much as ever, makes sure to get away from the Oval Office for mountain-biking jaunts several times a week (keeping his blood pressure low and, he says, clearing his head). And he reports that he sleeps well at night and doesn't allow the pressure to get to him.

But even some former Bush advisers are worried that the mood is misplaced. First and foremost, the Iraq conflict hardly appears to be proceeding as planned. Largely as a result, only about 35 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance, one of the lowest ratings on record. Most favor a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, and 54 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters want the GOP presidential candidate to take a different approach to the war, according to the Pew Research Center. About 66 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, up from 57 percent earlier this year, according to a late April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Whatever could be driving those negative poll numbers?

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Comparing time series data on presidential approval ratings, a few interesting observations pop out.

First of all, a prolonged, fairly steady decline in approval ratings is more the rule than the exception. Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Bush I, and Bush II all had longer periods of declining than increasing popular approval.

Second, there appear to be two striking patterns or models of presidential approval: the two-term expanding peacetime model (Reagan/Clinton in rectangles) and the wartime onset model (Truman, Bush I, Bush II). The first, and Ford and Eisenhower may arguably fall into this category, is characterized by roughly equal or greater than equal increasing over declining approval ratings.

The wartime onset model (and I leave Johnson out because he inherited a war, and thus never experienced that giddy 'surge' in popularity experienced by Presidents who arrogantly rush the nation to war without the prior approval of France and Germany) is characterized by a wild upswing in approval at the onset of military operations, followed by a sharp and unrelenting decline in popular approval.

The third interesting observation is that the tenures of the wartime presidents (Truman, Johnson, Bush I, Bush II) were all characterized by "extremes" of opinion: they swung from highs unattained by peacetime presidents (over the high 70s) to lows never experienced by those who never led the nation during time of war.** It would be interesting to see what Kennedy's track record would have looked like, had he not been assassinated.

But another interesting glimpse into the erosion of presidential power was offered, presciently, during the Clinton administration:

During the past decade of post-Cold War drift, American foreign policy has been assailed by two camps of critics. The first makes ad hominem attacks: America's diplomatic failings reflect a lack of leadership from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or congressional Republicans. The second camp is cultural and holds that America is either too isolationist to pursue international goals in a sustained way or too riven by multiculturalism to manage a foreign policy consensus. Both camps miss the point. The central problem of American foreign policy is neither personal nor cultural; it is institutional. Executive power, checked and balanced since the early days of the republic, has been eroded dangerously, to the point where even a skilled president would be hard-pressed to push treaties through the Senate. Indeed, the decline of executive power has proceeded so far that the modern president is more nonexecutive chairperson than CEO -- even though the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world make an agenda-setting chief executive as necessary as ever.

DECLINE AND FALL

The erosion of presidential power started with changes in the nature of the bully pulpit. After Theodore Roosevelt popularized this phrase at the turn of the last century, technological advance steadily increased the president's power to win popular backing: radio allowed F.D.R. to deliver his fireside chats; network TV let J.F.K. charm the nation. And cheap air transport gave presidents a way to appear before hitherto inaccessible audiences. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of presidential speeches increased nearly fivefold. Moreover, the power of these speeches was enhanced by another technological advance: in 1952 Eisenhower's campaign managers broke new ground when they began using polls to determine which issues most concerned Americans.

Since the 1980s, however, this process has flipped into reverse: technological advances now undermine the bully pulpit rather than amplify it. The rise of cable TV has changed television from a presidential megaphone into a presidential scourge. The three big networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- which once carried all presidential press conferences live, and which reported respectfully on initiatives emanating from the White House, have been displaced by new cable channels that compete for viewers by eschewing such deference. Rather than televise the president, these cable channels churn out irreverent talk shows. The bully pulpit has been drowned out by bullying pundits.

This shift emerged during Reagan's second term, when the "great communicator" himself became the first president to be refused a request to have a speech televised. But the trend has advanced by leaps and bounds since then, as cable has spread to around two out of three households...

If Clinton's timid forays into foreign policy were doomed under a friendly press, what chance did the world-changing vision of a Red State blunderer who was sElected, not elected? Even the perenially robust economy, which bolstered Clinton's sagging popularity, has not managed to redound to George Bush's credit, mostly because it has not been allowed to:

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The summer of 1996 was proclaimed a time of “strong economic growth and low unemployment” by reporter Jerry King of ABC’s World News Tonight Sunday. That story aired on August 4, 1996, but the comment could easily apply to 2004. BusinessWeek Chief Economist Michael J. Mandel, PhD, wrote a piece for the September 6, 2004 issue comparing summer 1996 with summer 2004. According to Mandel, “The good news for Bush: On many of the key variables that voters care about, the economy looks uncannily like it did in the summer of 1996, a year when the incumbent was reelected.”

Mandel, author of “Rational Exuberance: Silencing the Enemies of Growth,” listed several variables – unemployment rate, inflation, consumer confidence, housing affordability and unemployment claims – as similar for both incumbents. Financial columnist and author James K. Glassman followed with a September 2 piece for Tech Central Station that agreed with Mandel’s assessment and added that Bush “was dealt an extremely miserable hand by his predecessor.” Glassman pointed out that the tech stock bubble was “deflating,” gross domestic product (GDP) and employment growth were slowing and the corporate scandals of Enron, WorldCom and others all occurred under Clinton. “And, then, of course, there was 9/11,” he added.

While the business press reflected this reality, mainstream media coverage of employment didn’t. The reporting under Clinton was overwhelmingly positive. For Bush, it was overwhelmingly negative. Eighty-five percent of the stories (35 out of 41) portrayed the economy under Clinton in a good light. Only 13 percent of the stories (six out of 46) gave the employment situation under Bush the same treatment.

The media comments about employment and job growth during the Bush reelection campaign tell the whole story. They used terms like: “poor,” “stalled,” “struggling” or “lackluster.” Comments during the similar time period during the Clinton presidency were the exact opposite. The media instead used terms like: “showing its muscle,” “encouraging,” “surprisingly strong” and “impressive but not excessive.”

Even during the Clinton administration with an overwhelmingly liberal press corps that largely supported his presidency, Clinton's supporters believed it was difficult for the president to win popular support due to the eroded power of the bully pulpit. How much more difficult must this be when the president is of the opposite party and leading the nation during a war opposed by the majority of the very press corps that controls the megaphone?

We have become a culture of contempt, led on by sneering elitists who accuse their opponents of fear mongering and hate speech while cultivating paranoia, intolerance, and rabid loathing of anyone with the temerity to disagree with their enlightened view of the universe. Charles Krauthammer (via Ed Driscoll) nailed it during the long hot summer of 2004:

But that is still not enough to account for the level of venom today. It is not often that a losing presidential candidate (Al Gore) compares the man who defeated him to both Hitler and Stalin. It is not often that a senior party leader (Edward Kennedy) accuses a sitting president of starting a war ("cooked up in Texas") to gain political advantage for his reelection.

The loathing goes far beyond the politicians. Liberals as a body have gone quite around the twist. I count one all-star rock tour, three movies, four current theatrical productions and five bestsellers (a full one-third of the New York Times list) variously devoted to ridiculing, denigrating, attacking and devaluing this president, this presidency and all who might, God knows why, support it.

Thus, we have a Speaker whose principled stand on the most important issue of our time amounts to, "Don't let the President win."

You have a Senate Majority leader who openly gloats "We are going to pick up more Senate seats as a result of this war."

You have a party that thinks Brit Hume is too partisan to moderate a political debate but views Keith Olberman as a model of unbiased objectivity:

In an angry commentary on April 25, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann accused Rudolph Giuliani of using the language of Osama bin Laden with "the same chilling nonchalance of the madman" to argue that Republicans would keep Americans safer than Democrats from terror.

Eight days later, Olbermann hosted MSNBC's coverage of the first debate among Republican candidates for president.

But this should not surprise anyone. It is just more incisive commentary from the self-styled Petulant who have, once again, inexplicably failed to inherit the earth.

Good morning, America. Have a good long look in the mirror.

And try not to flinch.

Posted by Cassandra at May 8, 2007 06:18 AM

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