Opinion

Jack Shafer

Does anyone actually believe in a ‘second-term curse’?

Jack Shafer
Jan 24, 2013 14:52 UTC

Just as farmers plant and reap with the seasons, political journalists consult the calendar for the best time to scatter seed and harvest, with second-term inaugurations being the preferred juncture to deploy temple-tapping discussions of the “second-term curse,” the notion that special doom awaits any modern president who wins the White House a second time.

Like most predictions, this one is for suckers. To begin with, the definition of a second-term curse has become so elastic that anything from a few policy setbacks to death can be interpreted as fulfillment of the curse. Even the definition of a second term has been debased by those who call vice presidents who complete a dead president’s term and win one on their own — Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman  and Lyndon Johnson — two-termers.

Also, as David Greenberg recently argued in The New Republic, the audit of supposedly failed second terms usually neglects to mention the triumphs, such as President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy successes in Kosovo and Northern Ireland in his second term, President George W. Bush’s winding down of the Iraq war in his second and President Ronald Reagan’s retreat from “Strangelovean apocalypticism” that created a soft-landing place for the collapsing Soviet empire.

Sifting Nexis, we learn that most of the talking heads and writers contemplating the curse in the past couple of weeks have done so to refute it. Writing in The Atlantic, legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out that “the idea of a second-term curse fails to account for basic probability,” that the curse is probably more about the regression to the mean than anything else. At Bloomberg View, Al Hunt rejects the curse in his first paragraph. Historian Douglas Brinkley has debunked the curse as mythology in multiple venues in the past week (CBS This Morning, WSJ Live, the New York Times and CNN), as did Doris Kearns Goodwin on Meet the Press and The Today Show (“I think we’ve made too much of second-term curses”).

Two guys with White House experience, David Plouffe and Joe Lockhart, gave the curse a gentle nahhhh brush-off this week, while a pair of Clinton administration insiders, Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, came closest to giving the curse a full-frontal embrace this week with their USA Today op-ed that blamed botched second terms on the “scandal-industrial complex.” In their view, the complex — equal part press, bad public servants who embarrass the president and hyper-partisans who exploit presidential miscues — can be neutralized by a White House practiced in damage control: First, confess to mistakes made; next, avoid panic; and finally, maintain the president’s power-enhancing credibility.

Why we vote for liars

Jack Shafer
Oct 9, 2012 20:43 UTC

The great fact-checking crusade of 2012 by FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, The Fact Checker, CNN Fact Check, AP Fact Check, etc. has told us something very important about the workings of democracy that we already knew: Candidates bend the truth, distort the facts, fudge the numbers, deceive, delude, hoodwink, equivocate, misrepresent, and, yes, lie, as a matter of course.

Both major-party presidential candidates and their campaigns routinely lie, as a Time magazine cover story recently documented, although the publication gave Mitt Romney’s campaign top honors for lying more frequently and more brazenly. Time is not alone in its assessment: Romney also leads Barack Obama in the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker “Pinocchio” sweepstakes. But the lies will continue until Nov. 6, after which the chief mission left to the checkers will be to determine whether the winner was a bigger liar than the loser.

The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”

The 0.3 percent hysteria

Jack Shafer
Oct 5, 2012 23:17 UTC

When was the last time the inhabitants of wonkville got so hot over a federal statistic dropping three-tenths of a percent?

This morning – after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report stating that the unemployment rate had fallen from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September – everybody started shouting about the numbers. President Barack Obama used them as evidence of economic progress, challenger Mitt Romney swatted them aside and scoffed that this “is not what a real recovery looks like,” and Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (and current Reuters Opinion contributor) tweeted that Obama’s “Chicago guys” had fudged the encouraging numbers to make up for the poor performance of their boss in the Oct. 3 debate. This prompted the proprietors at @PuckBuddys to tweet, “Truthers, Birthers and now Welchers.”

Ezra Klein, the mayor of wonkville, rushed to defend the integrity of the numbers in his Washington Post blog, pointing to a Mar. 9, 2012, Post story about the secret-agent measures taken by the BLS statisticians to prevent tampering with the data or the results. Computers: encrypted and locked. Office windows: papered over. Confidentiality agreements: signed each morning. Emails and phone calls from unknowns: unanswered during the eight days of lockdown preceding the job report release. Visitors: none permitted without security clearance. Trash cans: not emptied by custodians during the period.

Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates

Jack Shafer
Sep 28, 2012 22:30 UTC

The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.

I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.

Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.

Willard Milhous Romney

Jack Shafer
Sep 19, 2012 21:06 UTC

Be careful about writing Mitt Romney’s political obituary before they fill him with formaldehyde and pour him into his mahogany condo. Like that other frequent Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, Romney has a remarkable talent for stepping into it, sinking and soiling himself rotten as he extricates himself. Romney’s latest stumble — complaining to rich donors about the “47 percent,” which was Webcast by Mother Jones yesterday — would bury a less tenacious candidate. But Romney’s talent for powering past his embarrassments ranks up there with that of Nixon, a champion of compartmentalization who believed that as long as he had a pulse he had a chance of winning the White House.

Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography — and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority — none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.

“Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.” The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.

Looking for truth in all the wrong places

Jack Shafer
Aug 31, 2012 21:37 UTC

If you’ve kept your shirt dry while canoeing the rivers of our current presidential campaign, it’s likely that you’ve been skilled enough to avoid the logjams and snags of “dishonesty” and “lies” that the parties and press have flung into the water. While it’s true that politicians and their campaigns and their ads routinely lie — I hear no disagreement on that point, so I’ll continue — never have politicians and the press expressed such indignation at campaign exaggerations, fibs and falsehoods.

For example, after Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave his acceptance speech this week at the Republican National Convention, the press corps fact-checkers instantly took hammers and tweezers to his address. “The Most Dishonest Convention Speech … Ever?” asked Jonathan Cohn in the liberal New Republic, but the non-partisan press accused Ryan of having misled listeners and taken “factual shortcuts,” too. The Week counted up the 15 euphemisms for “lying” the press (partisan and non-partisan) used to describe the speech.

I suspect the growing sensitivity to political lies has less to do with more lying by more politicians than it does with the growth of the fact-checking industry over the last decade or so. Every campaign speech, big or small, every campaign ad, local or national, every fund-raising letter is fodder for the modern fact-checkers, who have multiplied in the pages of our newspapers like termites in breeding season: FactCheck.org (the granddaddy of these sites, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which got started in the mid-2000s) and the later arrivals PolitiFact (Tampa Bay Times), The Fact Checker (Washington Post), AP Fact Check (Associated Press) and CNN Fact Check, all of which run regular fact checks. Other news organizations muster ad hoc journalistic militias to grade the truth-value of political speech. Today’s New York Times piece, “Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches,” does that for the Republican National Convention.

Political conventions are useful. Really!

Jack Shafer
Aug 27, 2012 15:37 UTC

Nobody will think less of you if you grunt and punt on this week’s Republican National Convention. Go ahead and scan the newspaper and Web accounts of the event if you must, but feel free to watch something else on TV. The same advice goes for the companion production by the Democratic Party in Charlotte next week. But whatever you do, don’t bemoan the attendance of 15,000 reporters trampling one another in their frenzied attempts to get a slice of the thin story, or complain about the wasted money sending them there.

The conventions are much better at generating newsworthy moments than you might think, as reporter Richard Wolf points out in this morning’s edition of USA Today. A defeated Ronald Reagan wowed the 1976 convention with a six-minute stemwinder that commenced his victorious 1980 campaign. State Senator Barack Obama “became the star of the 2004 Democratic convention” with his speech. Bill Clinton flopped in 1988 with his 33-minute Michael Dukakis nomination. To that list of notable convention addresses one must add Sarah Palin’s televangelist tour de force at the Republicans 2008 show, which in retrospect marked her political high point.

One way to reject the pseudo-eventness of the conventions is to pout, as ABC News veteran Ted Koppel did in 1996 after setting up at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. (That convention also attracted 15,000 from the press corps.) Koppel, who had broadcast his Nightline program from every convention since 1980, cried uncle on the second night. “There was a time when the national political conventions were news events of such complexity that they required the presence of thousands of journalists,” Koppel said on the air. “But not this year.” So he loaded up his Nightline TelePrompTer and went home, complaining that the convention had turned into an infomercial. “Nothing surprising has happened; nothing surprising is anticipated,” he added.

President Obama loses his sense of balance

Jack Shafer
Aug 9, 2012 23:03 UTC

President Barack Obama, like many of us, dislikes much of what he drinks from the news spigot. As the New York Times reported this week:

Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

Before I continue, I’ll give you just a moment to guess which of the two opposing sides the president thinks is being given “equal weight” but does not deserve it. Need a little more time? Just another second? O.K.…time’s up! The president thinks the press is allowing his unworthy, mendacious Republican opponents to nullify the truths he speaks from the Oval Office. Obama has expressed these views in meetings with columnists on both the left and the right, according to the Times. It peeves him when reporters give equal weight to both sides when one side is factually incorrect and when they blame both parties when one party is to blame. Obama’s specific beef, it seems, is coverage of health insurance legislation and the stimulus package.

Candidate-press relations are, well, about as ‘sour’ as usual

Jack Shafer
May 16, 2012 23:53 UTC

Having secured the nominations of their parties, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have set their campaign throttles to late-spring idle with a speech here, a speech there, a commencement address over there, and fundraisers and soft TV appearances everywhere. Eventually, the two candidates will stop coasting, but until they do, reporters will continue to lard their work with exercises in meta-journalism, such as today’s 1,800-word Politico piece, “Obama and Romney’s common foe.”

The common foe, don’t you know, is the press! According to Politico’s Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, Barack and Mitt both “disdain” the “political news media” because they believe reporters are “eager to vaporize them for the sheer sport of it.”

Is there anything new about presidents and presidential candidates having bad feelings for the press? Does nobody recall John McCain’s low regard for the New York Times coverage of his 2008 campaign? Or of George W. Bush’s attitude toward the press? Bill Clinton’s scorn? George H.W. Bush’s hatred? Carter’s? Nixon’s? Johnson’s? Sometimes candidates do charm the press, as McCain did in 2000, and the anti-war candidates of 1968 and 1972, but it’s the exception, never the rule.

What’s so great about moderates?

Jack Shafer
Mar 6, 2012 17:45 UTC

Could David Brooks, Frank Bruni and Joe Nocera be any more disappointed with the Republican Party? Over the last week, the three New York Times columnists have written op-eds about how miserable the ultra-Republicanness of the Republican Party establishment has made life for moderate Republican officeholders.

In his piece, which riffs off of a Times news story by Jonathan Weisman, Brooks sets the tone for his page, uncorking a sluice of tears not just for moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar but for conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, both of whom have had to swing “sharply to the right to fend off primary challengers” from the “wingers.” The “wingers,” as Brooks calls them, “have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed.” The winger campaign is guided by “grievance politics, identity politics,” he writes, and they “have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum.”

The wingers are “ferocious,” “extreme,” “metastasizing,” conductors of “heresy trials” (the presidential debates!), “meshugana,” and creators of “insular information loops,” Brooks continues.

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