The explosion of the establishment commentariat on cable news channels has resulted in a dreary drone of outsider conventional wisdom declarations disguised as sly insider insight. Since the 2008 election season started in (it seems) January 2005, the usual suspects have gathered around the kidney-shaped tables of Matthews, Russert and Blitzer, smirking and winking in their clubby, fraternal way. As a group, they are remarkable not only for their sheer predictability, but also for their message stamina. They can and they have repeated the same trite analysis for weeks, no, months.
After treading water for a year, the pace accelerated dramatically in the past week. The Obama victory in Iowa gave the huge anti-Clinton constituency in the punditry a soapbox to pound on the former first lady in a way that they felt they couldn’t while they politely held their nose during the run-up to the first contest. The most dangerous place to be in the last four days was between a Washington pundit and a camera, where they could spew their words of contempt for all things Clinton – past, present and (not if they can help it) future. The elites on the cable panels took turns dancing and pissing on what they were sure was Hillary’s political grave.
Most of the regulars on these panels are tiresome MSM hacks that skew right and almost never get to the left of Howard Fineman. The right-wing is always represented by various of their heavily-subsidized echo-chamber publications like the Weekly Standard and the National Review – right-wing thugs like Bill Kristol, Pat Buchanan and Bill Bennett are stuck to their studio chairs with crazy-glue, the imprimatur of respectability bestowed upon them by otherwise moderate media corporations. Meanwhile, anyone from the poverty-stricken leftist press, such as it is, couldn’t buy their way into a studio audience, and, even then, would be carefully scrutinized for pink shirts and surly attitudes. It is this kind of twisted and limited-by-design center-right view of the world that brought us the war in Iraq, much less two terms for Junior Bush.
There is one cable channel, though, that is letting some of the unwashed left into the national conversation. MSNBC – the channel that once fired Phil Donahue for being too skeptical of the disastrous Iraq adventure – not only has the fiery and entertaining Keith Olberman with a growing prime-time audience. Chris Matthews on Hardball has let a few progressives poke their nose under the tent. Katrina Vanden Heuvel of the Nation has found an occasional seat in one of the Sacred Chairs, sunnily challenging the preconceptions of the pundit class, to the annoyed chagrin of the regulars.
But MSNBC’s election coverage the night of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary has introduced a new star in the left hemisphere – Rachel Maddow of Air America. Early in the coverage tonight, Maddow was actually complaining that she found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend Hillary Clinton against the incredible anti-Clinton attitudes of the MSM consensus – not the least of which was her host, Chris Matthews. This was uncomfortable for her, because she is probably more inclined, policy-wise, toward Obama or Edwards. But she didn’t back down from the challenge, even pointing out, after the Hillary win was becoming clear, that Clinton may have benefitted from a backlash against the MSM’s anti-Hillary endzone-dancing after Iowa – especially the snide comments of Matthews himself. Matthews did not have a chance to respond, but the point was made.
The pundits on all channels scrambled throughout the night to re-write their script to fit the surprising results. It was clear in the read-between-the-lines comments all day on the news channels that the exit polls were indicating another Obama win. As Hillary took the early lead and held it, you could see them glancing across the studio at each other, looking for a verbal life-raft to hang onto while the ground shifted under their feet. And, as pundits will, the first order of business was trying to explain why they were so wrong. To no one’s surprise, they did not bother to look in the mirror, where they might have found the problem.
Much was made of exit-polling showing that a large percentage of the voters made up their minds in the last three days. This led to speculation about what moved the late-deciders which, of course, led them to contemplate the near-tears episode Clinton had only yesterday when discussing her commitment to public service. I knew when I first heard the clip on the radio that it would lead to an enormous orgy of clucking, not only by the usual wing-nut tools, but also in the MSM.. I accurately predicted the consensus observations – she’s losing it because it’s over, it’s just like Muskie in ‘72, it shows how weak she would be in crisis and (my favorite) the whole thing was staged to get her sympathy of some sort. It was a ridiculous display of know-nothing, self-righteous psycho-babble that carried over to the election coverage, where some of the supposed smart-guys couldn’t think of any other excuse to "blame" Hillary’s victory on.
[However, my favorite Hillary-hate comments of the week came from local blogger James Wigderson and GOP-operative Brian Fraley, who speculated that Clinton hired the guys yelling "Iron Our Shirts" at one of her rallies. At least Fraley admitted that he was wrong (it was a stunt by Boston shock-jocks).]
I'm not sure the near-tears moment changed the dynamic all that much. I think a more defining moment may have been at a Hillary press conference earlier in the week. Chris Matthews used the opportunity as an excuse to ask her to appear on his show. "Yeah, right," she said and then said "I am always amazed by men who are obsessed with me." Matthews was still pleading that he wasn’t obsessed with her when she came up to him and gave him the ultimate Washington-insider hug and pat on the cheek. Matthews hasn’t been the same since – he has toned down his anti-Clinton rhetoric remarkably since that moment, and really had to eat it late tonight, when Clinton won and looked good doing it.
Now that Hillary has wriggled free from the grave the MSM thought they had her in, it will be hard for them to go back to the universally-condescending and dismissive tones they have employed until tonight. They don’t like her or her success any more than they did yesterday, but she now has the veneer, however temporary, of a winner. "Really," asks Mike Mathias in an excellent and timely post Tuesday morning, "what exactly is the problem people have with Hillary Clinton?" Don't hold your breath for the MSM to get all introspective about their atrocious behavior since Iowa. In any event, the coronation of Obama – interestingly and not-so-secretly desired by the Republicans – will have to wait.