The Paranoid Style of American Punditry

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I’ve learned a lot from this first go-round at covering a presidential campaign up close and personal, from the mundane (power outlets are the new pay phones) to the mildly alarming (reporters, on the whole, detest talking to actual voters). One realization that could be either heartening or disappointing, depending on your level of paranoia, is that campaigns, for the most part, are fueled by luck, booze, adrenaline and instinct much more than they are by polling data or by Machiavellian genius. Most campaigns, in any case, have much more of the former than they do the latter. When bloggers or pundits wonder what a campaign “really” means/intends by a particular action, there’s a tendency — especially when looking at a “winning” campaign — to double-dip-expectations-jujitsu the event into a masterful headfake of some sort.

Maybe there are some true consultant masterminds out there for whom every pause is a dogwhistle to pundits, for whom every turn of phrase is frought with Da Vinci Code-like hidden meaning — I haven’t covered them. The most famous example of pundit over-reading this cycle might be Huckabee’s anti-unveiling of his Romney attack ad. Widely perceived by the political press corps as a total disaster whose pundit-detected “actual” agenda — the no-fingerprints release of a Romney attack — was foiled by journalists’ derision and canny awareness of electoral trickery. But, in the end, the voters of Iowa either

a) missed the event entirely


b) interpreted it as the principled stand of a guy who, at the last minute, really didn’t want to run an attack ad.

Now, maybe that’s exactly how the Huckabee campaign planned it. Or maybe it wasn’t that Huckabee duped the voters but that the reporters fooled themselves.

I was reminded of this eagerness to imbue campaigns with unearned sophistication (and to rob it from voters) when reading the coverage this morning of last night’s McCain speech.* Bloggers and pundits have been interpreting its barely disguised attacks on Obama as a sign that what McCain’s “real” intent is to “soften” Obama for Hillary. He’d obviously rather run against her, right? So what’s important about that speech wasn’t what it said about Obama, but what it said about Obama in the service of some other agenda.

Or maybe he just really can’t wait to run against Obama.

* I’ve actually been reminded of this a lot this cycle. From Hillary’s tears to Obama’s open collars, from Huckabee’s “floating cross” to the brilliant timing of McCain’s Crist endorsement — we want to believe there’s a method to this madness, I guess. We want you to think you need us to explain it to you.