The GOP And Its Media Midterm Assist

Two recent snapshots nicely capture the commentary class and their bulwark on behalf of Republicans this campaign season.

Lamenting the “pitiful” state of the 2014 election season, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni this week denounced what he saw as the vacuous condition of political debate. Claiming America's raging problems were akin to a burning house, Bruni claimed “None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep.”

Oh, what the columnist wouldn't have given to hear some “real substance” on the campaign trail. The beseeching seemed odd  because Bruni later announced the “defining moment” of the election season came when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer a question, during a newspaper editorial interview, about whether she had voted previously for Barack Obama, who is very unpopular in the Bluegrass State. The question had nothing to do with the burning issues facing America, as Bruni described them. Instead, it was an exercise in optics: How would a red-state Democrat deal with a sticky question about her White House allegiance?

Nonetheless, joining an army of pundits who expressed horror at Grimes' clumsy response, Bruni announced the Democrat had “tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side.” Left unmentioned by Bruni? Grimes' Republican opponent simply refused to answer any public policy questions posed by the same newspaper editorial board that hosted Grimes; the same board that heard the Democrat answer queries for an hour about the  environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining.

So much for the absence of campaign substance.

Still, Bruni's column illustrated a certain Beltway media symmetry this year: Pundits lament a lack of campaign seriousness, and then treat a trivial gotcha question as being deeply serious. Count that as a win for Republicans.

Meanwhile on CNN, during her interview with Vice President Joe Biden that aired Monday, and while discussing the midterm elections, Gloria Borger insisted Americans are  “frustrated” and “fearful” and “angry” about key events, including the administration's handling of the Ebola virus' scare. Borger's point has been a favorite among Beltway pundits in recent weeks as they parrot Republicans: Ebola's just the latest Big Government failure. 

But it's not true. 

In fact, CNN's own polling clearly refutes Borger's insistence that Americans are “frustrated” and “angry” about the government's response to Ebola: “More than 7 in 10 Americans say the federal government can stop an Ebola epidemic, and 54% believe the federal government is doing a 'good job' in addressing the disease.” [Emphasis added.]

So instead of interviewing Biden on the eve of the midterms and asking if the government's reasoned and successful response to Ebola might actually help Democrats politically on the issue of competence, Borger echoed bogus Republican spin about how it damaged public trust. She simply echoed what CNN's Wolf Blitzer declared on October 20: “Ebola has certainly eroded the confidence in the way the Obama administration and medical professionals have handled it.”

Again, this is completely false. But count it as another Republican win.

As they face midterm elections today while enjoying a stiff tailwind (based largely on geography), Republicans can thank the Beltway press for its invaluable assist this campaign season. When not relentlessly harping on the president's “falling” approval rating (fact: it's steady as a rock this year), ginning up the Ebola panic (fact: there is no panic and the virus remains under control), or piling on Democratic "gaffes" while giving opponents a pass for ducking tough questions, the press and Republicans often seemed to be singing off the same hymn sheet.

Writing in The Atlantic, Norm Ornstein recently observed how the national media showed almost no interest in detailing some of the controversial and borderline bizarre beliefs espoused by Republican candidates running in key senate races. Why? They didn't fit the narrative, according to Ornstein. They didn't fit the media's preferred election season storyline about disciplined Republicans and how they're running such smart, savvy campaigns. "[A]ny evidence that contradicts or clouds the narrative devalues it, which is perhaps why evidence to the contrary tends to be downplayed or ignored," he noted.

What did fit the preferred narrative in recent weeks? Fear and panic and confusion. Indeed, I'm not sure the GOP will ever be able to pay back the D.C. press for the way it utterly embraced the EBOLA PANIC narrative during the height of the midterm season; a GOP-fueled panic for a sweeping, crippling domestic health crisis that hasn't materialized.

It was a media drumbeat that eventually became synonymous with fright and uncertainty, which dovetailed with GOP's preferred talking point this campaign season. (i.e."You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week.")

Yes, CNN actually invited onto the network a fiction writer who wrote an Ebola thriller in the 1980s to hype unsubstantiated fears about the transmission of the virus. And yes, the Boston Globe announced Ebola had “moved closer to becoming the next great American panic -- an anthrax or SARS for the social media age.”

As noted last month, as the height of the media's Ebola mania push, the homepage for the Washington Post during one evening featured at least 15 articles and columns about the topic, many of which focused on the political dynamic, and the problems Ebola was supposedly causing Obama. But for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who went on a national radio program and carelessly wondered about a ship full of U.S. soldiers becoming infecting? Ebola, and his “adroit” comments, helped land him on the cover of Time magazine, where he was crowned “The Most Interesting Man In Politics.” 

Following Borger's CNN interview with Vice President Biden on Monday, anchor Chris Cuomo suggested Democrats had run uninspired campaigns this year and would pay a price on Election Day. “I believe that after tomorrow they're going to have only themselves to blame,” said Cuomo.

I'd suggest there might be a small bit of blame to go around for others.