Good news for Jon Tester, Democrats' Harris problem and some media notes
My weekly look at politics and the media
To peel back the curtain some on what it’s like to cover or analyze politics and the media: I actually started this column at the beginning of last week intending for it to be last week’s notes column. But then we got the bombshell revelations about Fox News and the news that Jimmy Carter had entered hospice, and I wrote a separate column on Fox, and drafted a column on Carter that I’ll share in the weeks to come. Keeping readers informed means adjusting with the news cycle…
Some bits of good news for Sen. Jon Tester, who announced that he would run for reelection on Tuesday — a major win for Democrats in a race that could determine who controls the Senate.
A Republican poll leaked last week showing Tester in relatively decent shape against either of the state’s GOP representatives. Usually, I’d be concerned about an incumbent mired in the mid-40s against fairly weak competition. But there is a difference in Montana — it’s possible to win without getting to 50% of the vote. In fact, in his first two Senate campaigns, Tester won with 49.2% and 48.6% of the vote. Similarly, Rep. Ryan Zinke won his House race with 49.6% in 2022. So Tester probably doesn’t need to get to 50 to win. He just needs to do decently with undecideds, which seems doable given that he’s likely to face one of several pretty high profile, well-known opponents (like Zinke) with baggage. Their backgrounds make it less likely that we’ll see the classic case of undecideds breaking against an incumbent.
Another fascinating bit of news that relates to Tester’s chances from Kaiser Health News and CBS’s Katheryn Houghton — Montana Republicans are divided on a proposal to break the linkage between the right to privacy afforded by the state’s constitution and abortion rights. If they unify, they could put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024. But given the success that abortion rights proponents had on ballot initiatives in 2022, even in red states, putting such a measure on the ballot might actually help Tester get reelected. It could well draw out Democratic and independent voters whose support Tester needs. It could also alienate less socially conservative Republicans who could be potential Tester supporters as well…
Democrats have a Kamala Harris problem — one which as Politico’s Jonathan Martin recently detailed — is probably suppressing any calls for President Biden to step aside because of his age.
The problem dates back to Harris’s selection on the ticket, a byproduct of unique circumstances. After emerging at the top of a crowded primary field full of younger, diverse candidates, Biden pledged to select a female vice presidential nominee. Then after the uprisings over the murder of George Floyd, he got pushed toward selecting a woman of color.
Now to be clear, Harris is eminently qualified and capable, as were the other Black women who Biden considered. The people who claim(ed) otherwise — then or now — are probably bigoted. But it’s also true that because of longtime discrimination and the unique barriers facing women of color who run for office, the pool of women of color who have what are usually considered to be the requisite experience and credentials for the vice presidency and presidency — something crucial given that Biden was aiming to become the oldest president in history — was relatively small.
That meant that Biden couldn’t really consider many of the factors that presidential nominees typically weigh when considering whether a vice presidential possibility might boost the ticket politically — does the person have a demonstrated history of winning elections in swing states? Is he or she going to help attract crossover votes? Has the person demonstrated a unique capacity to inspire or captivate Americans (i.e. have they run a really notable presidential race or caught people’s attention with their speaking ability or retail politics skills)? Harris didn’t really check any of these boxes, though as a historic first, she did offer the potential of exciting women, especially women of color, which was important in the wake of the drop off in Black turnout in 2016 that probably cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.
But given that Harris didn’t break through during the 2020 primaries and lacks some of these traits as a liberal hailing from a blue state, she isn’t someone who has clearly demonstrated the political skills and popularity to win a national race. Nor does she have the profile that would assuage people concerned about electability.
The vice presidency theoretically offers a platform to overcome such perceptions. But Harris hasn’t really been able to generate much buzz or momentum for herself because Biden, unlike so many of our recent presidents, has deep Washington experience. Outsider or inexperienced presidents like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all leaned heavily on their experienced vice presidents to help them navigate Washington and get things done. Biden, by contrast, fit the profile more of earlier presidents like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whose vice presidents were miserable because they didn’t have a particularly meaningful role in government.
All of this leads to fears that Harris would be the front runner for the presidential nomination if Biden stepped aside — due to name recognition and the sense that she was the next one up — without Democrats feeling comfortable that she can beat the Republican nominee. Yet, insiders also understand that trying to push Harris aside in a party whose base is Black voters and women would fracture and dispirit the Democratic coalition. It’s the same reason Biden can’t consider replacing her on the ticket with someone with more appeal in key swing states.
None of this is necessarily fair to Harris. Nor is it a sign that she couldn’t take over the presidency if need be and do an excellent job.
It’s just to say that Democratic elites will largely rally around Biden, and that might not be the case if they thought one of the party’s more promising governors would be the frontrunner for the nomination if Biden stepped aside or if they had more confidence in Harris’s political skills and appeal to the electorate…
Overlooked: Democrats had a very good election night on Tuesday, winning some scattered state level special elections, along with one congressional special election, in each case scoring a higher percentage of the vote than they did in November. And in the crucial Wisconsin Supreme Court primary, the Democratic candidates combined to secure 54 percent of the vote with strong turnout, a very good sign for the party in a swing state race with major ramifications…
Three media stories — not even considering the Fox News revelations — caught my eye over the past two weeks. That might be the byproduct of Congress being in recess and the domestic political world being quieter this week than most. First Paul Farhi took a look at News Nation’s attempt to chart a course as a non-partisan, non-ideological cable news network — whatever that means. Here’s the problem I see for them, and even for CNN as it tries to hew more toward this kind of model: the audience wants neutral, rigorous, fact heavy, spin-lite coverage during major news events. Election night. Mass shootings. Early in covid. Major hurricanes. You name the massive story, people want dispassionate, impartial coverage in those moments.
But these stories aren’t happening 24/7/365 and networks need programming and an audience full time to thrive. Meanwhile, when the news dies down, people retreat to their partisan corners and want takes that valorize their views and a soap opera in which their side wins. This is all compounded by the fact that conservatives are on constant alert for any “bias” or double standards on such programming, even while they tend to mostly consume conservative media. That means that these channels need to appeal to liberal and moderate audiences who don’t want the news framed by what conservatives think is news and what warrants coverage (more on this topic later in the column). So trying to put out a neutral product is probably alienating the viewers a network needs to succeed.
All of this makes me skeptical any sort of “down the middle” platform can really thrive in 2023. That’s a bad thing for democracy, but a reality. I wonder if local news could be a way around this — more local all news channels in major markets or at least longer newscasts that involve more expertise, analysis, and a focus on in depth reporting and less crime news. People don’t have the same preconceived notions about local news they do about national news.
Another possibility might be a cable channel that puts on a bunch of hosts with eclectic views, where one night they might rip conservatives, and the next night they might tee off on liberals. That would be a lot more interesting, and less predictable, than the usual sermonizing from left or right, or the tiresome debate segments with a liberal and a conservative who both know they’re there to spar with each other. Focus on interesting interviews and commentaries, and try to draw viewers in with a bunch of unvarnished truth tellers…
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