Trail of Tiers
by Matt Taibbi
The strangest thing about the premature reappearance of the presidential debates is the palpable, seething contempt they inspired in commentators everywhere, liberal and conservative. One after another, columnists lined up to shit on the candidates, calling them names like phony and desperate and grasping and clown, and rightly so -- for there was something obviously perverse and obnoxious about these terminal ambition cases hogging the airwaves already, pushing us to get on board with their insane power-fantasies a full fifteen months before most of us should even start thinking about the next election.
An American Enterprise Institute analyst graded the candidates on their "creepiness" factor. The Houston Chronicle compared the debates to a stock car race, where everybody is really watching in hopes of seeing a crash. The Cleveland Plain Dealer said the debate was like a "political beauty pageant in which the mission of the contestants was to hop, skip and swerve without falling on their faces," the result "more dizzying than edifying." And so on and so on... more than one reporter cracked that it was a far cry from Lincoln-Douglas, etc.
They were right, of course, and in that sense there was nothing strange about the names the media honchos threw at the candidates. What was strange was the context. Here you have a mainstream power ritual mocked openly by the mainstream media. The brutal humiliation of the candidates as people has become part of the process in our democratic transfer-of-power ritual; even the candidates who are "taken seriously" by the major press organs and said to "have a real chance" are savagely abused at times like this by the campaign scribes, who go out of their way to depict the presidential hopefuls as shameless, greedy buffoons who will do or say anything for a chance at the throne. Particularly now, where their mere participation in such silly early debates is openly ridiculed.
By the time a candidate wins the nomination, of course, the winning candidate will have been made to jump through ten thousand grossly humiliating hoops, forced to wear closetfuls of stupid hats, posed with footballs and hockey sticks, asked to play the saxophone and the clarinet, grilled about his teeth and his haircut and the fat girl he banged in high school, and basically been made to perform like the lowest, scraggliest, street-hungriest organ grinderís monkey the world has ever seen. Anyone who can still respect the candidate as a human being by the time he's reached this stage has a serious defect of perception -- he's just not paying attention. Because stripping the candidate of the last shreds of his self-respect is clearly an important part of the ritual, especially early on.
There must be something to it -- it must be beneficial to the American power apparatus somehow to demean the individuals who seek to occupy its highest offices. Maybe it's because while dignified human beings are unpredictable, an old turned-out whore can be counted on to do anything for forty bucks -- and these are the kinds of people we need in the White House. Who knows what it is. Whatever the reason, they're starting the seal show earlier and earlier each cycle. And this year, the first round of the freak parade took place in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where the Democratic party unveiled its '08 team of craven auto-flagellants.
I watched the debate. Here are three things one can deduce about the race from this first performance:
1) In the '08 campaign, the media has replaced the word "electable" with a "tier" system.
I must have missed the memo on this one, and if anyone out there knows the source of the phenomenon, please don't hesitate to let me know. But virtually every single post-event write-up of the debate included a self-conscious breakdown of the candidates into "tiers," with a number of papers using lines like "Among the so-called 'top tier' candidates, Hillary Clinton performed best..." The tier thing was so universal and ubiquitous that I found it frightening -- it was very difficult to find a post-mortem that lacked it. Some examples:
"Indeed, [Dodd] could be bitter that the so-called top tier of candidates, his Senate colleagues Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and his former colleague John Edwards have a combined tenure in the chamber barely half Mr. Dodd's 26 years." -- Mark Leibovich, New York Times
"And among the top-tier candidates, it was done in ways that only gently challenged one another." -- Scot Shepard, Cox News
"Watch for a breakout performance by one of the 'lower-tier' candidates. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, probably the best-credentialed guy in the race, wants a chance to sport his resume." -- Candy Crowley, in between doughnuts, CNN
"The lower-tier candidates can't be hitting singles. They have to hit the long ball." -- Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, senior strategist for Edwards, as quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times
"Biden was by far the best of the so-called 'second tier' candidates." -- Zach Epstein, the Daily Colonial
"Other Democrats considered to be in the top tier of their party's nomination race -- Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina -- initially did not even allude to a military response." -- Craig Crawford, Congressional Quarterly
"Richardson came into the debate as the candidate most likely to eventually join Edwards, Clinton and Obama in the top tier. Maybe. But his performance didn't get him any closer to that goal." -- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post
Note how many of these passages had the phrase "top-tier" in quotes or alongside the words "so-called" -- as though the writers were self-consciously referring to a current buzzword, something that was in the air. The breakdown was pretty obvious and more or less universally agreed-upon: Hillary, Obama and Edwards in the "top" tier, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden with a "chance to move up" to the "top," and Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel firmly in the "bottom tier." It goes without saying that this is just another take on the age-old press habit of deciding for the voters who is a real candidate and who isn't, a phenomenon already much analyzed and discussed to death by whining press critics like myself. What's weird about this is how quickly everybody got the memo to switch word choices. Mysteriously disappeared are old catch-phrases like "serious," "viable" and "electable," and all of the sudden, out of thin fucking air, we get this tier thing. Where does it come from? It's bizarre.
2) The "campaign as screenplay" form of political journalism is here to stay.
We've all seen these movies -- you know, the ones written by those hacks who go to five-step screenplay-writing schools. Every character has to have an "arc," and the arc moves from idyllic if uneasy stasis in the beginning of the film to chaos and an upset equilibrium in the middle to triumph and a satisfying resolution in the end. Cop made gunshy after losing his partner in a shootout flies a desk in the beginning of the film; he is plunged into a scary hostage crisis in the middle, his daughter's life hanging in the balance; in the end, he overcomes his fears and shoots the bad guy, saving the day. You know -- the Die Hard model. Similarly, the networks, always anxious to find a way to sell the campaign to casual viewers, have become expert at turning the race into a movie in which each of the candidates is forced to heroically overcome a flaw. The Orangeburg moderator Brian Williams put it this way, at the beginning of the debate:
Williams: We enter now the second phase of tonight's conversation. The in-house title for these questions was, Elephants in the Room, according to our political staff -- what may be uncomfortable questions about issues or beliefs attached, for whatever reason, to all of you -- perception issues, for lack of a better word.
And then Williams went down the list. He asked Edwards about his penchant for fancy haircuts; he asked Kucinich why no one takes him seriously even though his views on the war are popular; he asked Biden about his habit of putting his foot in his mouth; he asked Dodd about the perception that he is too close to special interests; he asked Hillary about her high negatives, and so on.
Now, if you're making a reality show about ten people stranded on Campaign Island who are each trying to win a series of contests to determine who becomes president, then obviously this shit has to be in there. Can Barack learn to get along with Hillary? Can chilly Hillary make the others like her? Will Johnny learn to stop worrying about this hair and get with the program (our judges will secretly give him ten points if he can pass a mirror without looking in it!)? Can Joe learn to shut the fuck up? Tune in next week as our ten Survivors tackle the ten deadly Elephants in the Room!
But obviously none of this stuff has anything to do with anything meaningful. It's just theater, and cheap formulaic theater at that. But things are set up now so that the campaign basically becomes about how the candidates respond to these artificial challenges -- not what the candidate stands for. Canny observers of the first debate will have noted that Bill Richardson got the best reviews, mainly because he did the best job of throwing off his personal media albatross -- namely, his reputation for being a little too much of a jokester. Here's how the Washington Post put it:
"We've noted previously... that Richardson's occasional tendency to appear more like a stand-up comic than a candidate for president complicates his chances of being taken seriously in the primary process. And, to his credit last night, Richardson was serious..."
The Daily Show parodied this phenomenon by pegging Obama's problem as being the littleness of his ears -- and suggesting that he can improve his electability by the later stages in the race by having them enlarged. They then showed a computer-enhanced photo of what the "improved" Obama might potentially look like -- a grinning goon with huge ears. Of course, the problem with the Daily Show lately is that it's not quite far enough from reality to really be comedy. Not when John Edwards responds to charges of being too much of a rich pretty boy by dragging his Dad out in the middle of the debate -- literally pointing him out in the audience -- and telling a story about how said poor loser Dad used to be too broke to buy his kids breakfast after church.
3) The Democrats keep failing the Dukakis test.
The key moment of the debate, as far as I was concerned, came toward the end, when Williams hit Hillary with this question:
Senator Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani, a friend of yours from back home, said this past week, quote: "The Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us." Another quote: "America will be safer with a Republican president." How do you think, Senator, it happened that that notion of Republicans as protectors in a post-9/11 world has taken on so?
Translated into human speech, that question read something like this:
Senator Clinton, a Republican presidential candidate recently said Americans feel more safe under Republicans. How do you think the notion that Americans are more safe under Republicans came about?
I mean, seriously, folks, this is not a tough question to answer. All Hillary had to say was, "Rudy Giuliani says Americans are safer with Republicans, and suddenly you think it's true? How did you ever get a job in journalism?" and that would have been that. But the Democrats never balk at the inane questions that get thrown their way. For instance, no one ever accuses a Republican candidate of being "too conservative." But every Democrat politely and nervously answers charges of being "too liberal" every election. It is the Democrats' cowering, craven responses to these questions that validate their otherwise fallacious premises.
When media figures hound them with the same list of witch-hunting talking points each season -- Dems are incapable of protecting the country, middle America won't tolerate a "liberal," voters won't elect an "intellectual," etc. -- the Democrats unfailingly become accomplices in the conspiracy by dignifying the questions with serious responses. We first saw this back in the famous Bush I-Dukakis debate, when CNN's Bernard Shaw asked Mike Dukakis if he would advocate the death penalty if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered. Instead of angrily telling Shaw to fuck off, Dukakis calmly answered the question in a professorial tone, solidifying his reputation as a spineless wuss in the eyes of the whole country.
In this case, a string of Democrats again swallowed the Giuliani premise whole. Hillary began her answer by saying, "Well, Brian, I think that, as a senator from New York, it is something that I've worked on very hard ever since 9/11 to try to convince the administration to do those things that would actually work to make us safer..." Blah blah blah blah. Dodd was even worse. His answer began with the line, "Well, that's a great question, Brian..."
That's a great question, Brian? Is Dodd fucking kidding? He might as well have said, "Thank you sir, may I have another?" And the thing is... While I have to believe Dukakis really was blindsided by the Shaw ploy, and also genuinely a turd when it came these matters of spine and toughness, these modern Democrats have had plenty of time to prepare for and study these questions. And yet they refuse to take their media inquisitors on, making sure at all times to play by the rules and keep in sniveling, wusslike character. As a result the debates smell suspiciously like a rigged game. I don't want to say the Democrats are throwing the races, but what stands out to me is that rather than simply show some balls before the Brian Williamses of the world, the Democratic Party's response to its "toughness problem" is always to try frantically to match Republican defense spending, and to vote for wars it plays at not really believing in -- as if that's the only way to look "tough."
That is a suspiciously convenient solution to a "toughness problem" that suspiciously never goes away, no matter how many wars the Democrats vote for or how many hundreds of billions they spend on defense. Seriously, think about it -- the Democrats in this congress, who include debaters Obama and Clinton and Biden and Dodd, just decided, on their own, to spend nearly seven hundred billion dollars on defense this year, smashing the old record. And yet they were still very fast to concede in this debate that the "notion" that they are not tough persists. So... gosh, we'll just have to spend more on the F-18 next year! Quel dommage! Is no one struck by how absurd this all is?
Of course, this is just the beginning. They have 18 months to make this process even more disgusting...
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