Political journalists agree about one thing this year: The 2012 race is no fun. In a piece published Monday at Politico, Dylan Byers collates the media angst about the state of the race and the profession of journalism itself in the New Media environment. 2012 is said to be a presidential race without joy. What goes unsaid is the implicit comparison being made in that statement. 2012 is no fun for the media compared to 2008. It's a comparison worth unpacking a bit further.
Byers quotes a number of high profile political writers moaning about the race. Mark Leibovich of the NY Times wonders how he's going to get through the joyless slog that 2012 has become. Walter Shapiro of Yahoo News tells him, "This is worse than normal, a lot less fun, and it feels impossible for us to change the conversation." Shapiro's line is pregnant with possibility for a conservative media critic. Who is "us" in this formulation? Does Shapiro really mean to equate fun with controlling the narrative?
If you read on through the Byers piece, you find that Shapiro seems to have something fairly tame in mind. He wishes we were spending more time on big issues, the debt, health care, etc. Instead, we're jumping from stale campaign press events to gaffe-of-the-day hysteria in a nearly endless cycle. It's hard to argue with Shapiro's the desire to see more substantive discussion. But is that really what the media is missing?
A look back at the last time the media were really enjoying themselves suggests their enjoyment of the job doesn't often work well for conservatives. No one will deny that the media had a grand old time in 2008. They had an unknown candidate who inspired crowds with promises of hope and change. Rather than vet him, they mostly got swept up in the myth-making, the "historic" nature of his candidacy. The blush of first love permeated the coverage, sweeping aside questions about his background that would have plagued an average candidate.
There was a dark side to the media's obsession too. If Obama was the progressive champion (photographed in a halo of light numerous times) with whom most of them culturally and constitutionally agreed, Sarah Palin was the villain who briefly seemed able to stop his ascent. It wasn't hard to see that the media took as much joy in tearing her down as they did in building Obama up. Droves of reporters headed to Alaska to get the real story on Palin. In her first major interview, Charlie Gibson castigated her expression of religious faith using a bogus quote. Then came the Saturday night live skits which crystallized her into a source of fun for the left. Even as they were inspired by Obama, they were snickering about Palin. This is the mytho-poetic narrative they had to work with in 2008. What could be more fun than acting out a passion play on the national stage, one in which your side is given every advantage toward the ultimate goal of winning the presidency.
Now that you've recalled what the media considers a good time, you have a pretty good idea why 2012 is turning out to be a bummer. Every one of the people mentioned in Byers' piece likely voted for Obama, but the spell he cast four years ago has worn off. Hope and change have given way to fear-mongering and smears, and the media sees it. They have no one to root for this time out. In fact, some of them will be casting votes this time with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach. Clint Eastwood had a point about letting people go who don't do the job.
On the flip side, the Democrats sincerely hoped Mitt Romney (rich!) and Paul Ryan (Medicare!) would make excellent villains, but neither one has turned out to be as much fun as Sarah Palin. Romney's wealth isn't turning off as many people as they'd hoped. And, widowspeak aside, Paul Ryan isn't scaring many seniors. In fact, older voters seem to like Ryan. And thanks to Obamacare, Mediscare just isn't playing like it used to.
Of course some elements of the media are still trying to help reignite the 2008 playbook. You can see various individuals on the left--Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toure, Greg Sargent, Ron Fournier, Joe Klein, the entire lineup on MSNBC--daring, goading and cajoling their fellow scribes into unleashing the one truly toxic attack left to them: the race card. The race card would make this fun for the media in a way that no amount of stale Romney tax returns ever could.
To his credit, President Obama seems disinclined to follow the left's lead. Klein, Coates and others have openly expressed their frustration with this. There's a 2008 precedent here too, and it's one all of these reporters are familiar with. I've heard at least half a dozen media liberals praise John McCain for not allowing his campaign to pursue the "Reverend Wright stuff" four years ago. But these same folks don't seem as interested in seeing Obama take the high road now. They'd love to see Obama do a little race-baiting. Nothing too damaging to the brand, just enough to shore up his reelection.
The media won't put it this way, but their complaints come down to this: 2012 offers no heroes and no villains. There's no passion play this time out – just a grim game of inches in which they're stuck playing referee, even as their not-so-secret favorites seem to be coming up short. If 2008 was the year of hope, 2012 is the year of accountability. What fun is that?