Yes, Pols, It's (Mostly) Safe to Ignore Playbook

by Jonathan Bernstein | September 14, 2010

I’m not sure exactly what Henry Farrell is getting at in his partial dissent to Ezra Klein and John Sides, but I think I’m with them on this one. Farrell:

But to say that Politico, cable news etc are (a) trivial and (b) unimportant to the vast majority of voters is not to say that they may not still be important to politicians. This is because the belief in their importance is a collective one rather than an individual one. Even if individual politicians dissent and do not believe that Mike Allen columns are important in any substantive sense, they may plausibly believe that other political actors (with leverage over politically valuable resources) may find them important, and hence may want to pay attention to them, and to get good coverage from them. 

The big story here is that we all have to be careful about exactly what we’re talking about, and what we mean when we say something is important or “matters.” Important in what way? Matters to what? I think that we all agree that minitempests such as this week’s “anti-colonialism” junk don’t directly affect vote choice; the question is whether they can affect political actors. And there, I think, the evidence is pretty slim.

I do think, for example, that (following Neustadt) a president’s professional reputation matters in his ability to negotiate with the various people with whom he must negotiate. If they all think he’s a pushover, that’s a problem for him; if they fear retribution if they cross him, that helps him. Cable news, Mike Allen, and the rest “matter” to the extent that they’re used to transmit insider opinions, and to the extent that the choices made by a handful of elite reporters might affect the consensus view of Washingtonians. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear that reporting, and not events themselves, are shaping something like presidential reputation. 

Beyond that -- I think for the most part Farrell doesn’t have a strong case. Everyone reading and watching those sources “knew” that health care was dead after Scott Brown...but it wasn’t, and Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama could safely simply ignore the buzz that said it was. I think the same thing was true of the death of the John McCain candidacy in 2007, and the inevitability of the Hillary Clinton campaign that same year. Those are good test cases, because McCain’s revival and Barack Obama’s success both depended in large part on party elites ignoring the media consensus, and in the event it turned out that party elites had little problem doing so. What this suggests to me is that when Politico and the cable nets get something wrong, it may not really affect things -- and when they get things right, all it does is let outsiders know what insiders are saying (although since they often get it wrong, it’s not all that helpful to outsiders, after all).

Now, of course, pols cannot completely ignore the ephemera of political gossip and hype. One year ago, everyone was in a tizzy over the question of whether it was appropriate for the President of the United States of America to brainwash deliver platitudes to schoolchildren during the school day. It would have been negligent for any Member of Congress to be totally oblivious to the controversy, no matter how inconsequential she might realize it was -- there was a clear chance she would be asked about it by the press or constituents, and pols need to know which questions will be asked and have answers prepared, even if they believe the “issue” is trivial and soon-forgotten. So if all that Farrell is saying is that pols must be conversant in whatever nonsense is swirling around Fox News and MSNBC at any particular time, then I’d agree. But beyond that, I think pols are on pretty safe ground effectively ignoring almost all of it.

(See also, by the way, Seth Masket’s rejoinder to my related comments yesterday. And sorry for being all Ezra-obsessed this week!). 

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist. He blogs at A plain blog about politics.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/77668/yes-pols-its-mostly-safe-ignore-playbook