Responding to Matt Taibbi and Noam Scheiber about Warrenmania

“Weirdly insulting and premature,” says Matt Taibbi. “I don’t think this is an especially interesting discussion,” says Noam Scheiber. The critics are unanimous: I had a terrible riposte to Scheiber’s long and good (and popular) rumination on how the Democratic Party might desert Hillary and embrace Elizabeth Warren.

But I think everyone’s talking past everyone else. (This happens on the Internet.) It wasn’t supposed to be “insulting”; I said upfront that Scheiber wrote the definitive piece on Warren, a politician who is very hard to profile, and holds even Massachusetts press at arm’s length. And since the piece ran, I’ve had more conversations with progressive activists who agree with this much of the Scheiber thesis: A majority of Democratic voters

are more attuned to income inequality than before the Obama presidency and more supportive of Social Security and Medicare.1 They’ve grown fonder of regulation and more skeptical of big business.2 A recent Pew poll showed that voters under 30—who skew overwhelmingly Democratic—view socialism more favorably than capitalism. 

All true, and true that progressives want to keep the conversation within the Democratic Party shifting this way, not lurching back to the neoliberalism of the Clinton-Rubin-Summers era. My point was largely that they could do so without beating Clinton; too many people already underestimated Clinton’s strength simply because she lost a squeaker in 2008; the media’s weird obsession with taking pols (and their movements) seriously only if they MIGHT BE PRESIDENT leads us to silly distraction. If I was snarky, it was at the Scheiber-inspired buzz, not at Scheiber.

So Taibbi and I agree. He writes:

Historically, media audiences reacted more favorably to the candidate described as a round unthreatening blob of status quo, someone who was “nuanced” rather than “pointed,” “warm” instead of “angry,” someone who is a “pragmatist” or a “technocrat” or a “centrist” rather than an “insurgent” or, now, a “populist.”

Historically, readers were quite susceptible to the myriad labels that reporters stuck on politicians, telling audiences whether or not that candidate was a legitimate contender or not. And once you got tagged with the wrong label, it was usually fatal to a campaign – just ask Ron Paul or Howard Dean.

Yes. Go read Taibbi’s old (10 years old!) piece about Dennis Kucinich, which argued that the press didn’t take Kucinich seriously because he refused to be a glib politician. This is sort of my point: The press’s focus on who might win the next presidential election makes sense insofar as this sells books and makes careers, but it doesn’t always tell you much about politics. Who’s gotten closer to the White House, Mitt Romney or Jesse Helms? OK—now, which of those men had a bigger impact on American and conservative politics? That’s what I mean.

Scheiber and I mostly agree, but in his follow-up he keeps pointing out that there may be a tunnel to burrow under the Clinton monolith. Her strong polls are more comparable to those of a popular first lady; she’s not an incumbent, so usual rules don’t apply.

This was what I disagreed with. It’s one thing to say that a candidate can do more damage to a front-runner than any of us think. Those reporters tailing around Eugene McCarthy in 1968 got a hell of a story, even though McCarthy did lose New Hampshire. Sure. But as Nate Silver’s pointed out for years, leaving a lot of embarrassed pundits groaning in the corner, there are demographics and data points and factors that complicate Narratives but tell you who will actually win an election. It’s just ridiculous to point out that Warren might have an advantage in the New Hampshire primary without acknowledging that, when John Kerry was tested against Clinton in 2005, he got 40-plus points closer to the front-runner than Warren does now.

I spent plenty of time in 2007 and 2008 covering Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. No one thought Paul could win the nomination. And he didn’t. He didn’t come close. But here in 2013, let’s ask which 2008 GOP candidate had the greater impact on the Republican Party: Paul, or Rudy Giuliani? Not much of a question, is it? The candidates who aren’t “serious,” who can’t win, sometimes matter a great deal. I’m just trying to combat the buzzy, cable-newsy concept that the only insurgents who matter are the ones who can slay Goliath.