Sunday Watch 11-02-08

In which the guesswork pageant flutters to an end

Halloween was over but revelers were still in costume Sunday morning. Pundits-in-chief appeared confident that they had served the American people well during their extended, peculiar process of choosing a global leader. Cheerleaders were wearing their game faces.

But strikingly, the professionals were confident in inverse proportion to their odds of success. On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, while McCain campaign manager Rick Davis affected not the slightest care in the world, Obama chief strategist David Axelrod refused to play the prophecy game. On Fox News Sunday, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe walked on stage for the first time during this campaign. The soft-spoken Plouffe has not mastered the art of braying, which probably means he cannot look forward to a long career on TV.

By contrast, William Kristol, who a few months ago called Sarah Palin “fantastic” and his “heartthrob,” contrived a Rube Goldberg scenario that would give McCain a margin of 272 electoral votes to 268. “I’ve got it worked out,” he said without shaking his grin. “I’m not sure the voters agree but it’s not implausible.” He skipped a beat. “It’s not very likely.”

Kristol, a strenuous moralist, missed a grand opportunity to cement his reputation on the most recent eruption of what might be called the morality issue. Fox News viewers were treated to a clip of Obama saying that Republicans who call a tax boost for the wealthy “socialistic” actually “want to make a virtue out of selfishness.” There followed a clip of McCain chiding Obama for “view[ing] higher taxes not in economic terms but in moral terms.” Imagine the audacity required to apply moral language to the question of taxes! But none of Fox’s round tablers, normally quick to rise to moralistic heights, took the bait, or even seemed to notice. It’s too bad George Will was busy at a different round table, for a month ago he wrote in his Washington Post column that McCain displays a “Rooseveltian interest in our moral reclamation.” It would have been interesting to see him comment on McCain’s remark.

Of round tablers, ABC contributor and sometime Republican Matthew Dowd contributed the best gaffe (“John Cain,” he called the candidate from Arizona) and the most apt characterization of a failed campaign (“if you’re in the position of one, attacking the polls, and two, attacking the media, you know it’s a sure signal that the campaign isn’t going well”).

Tom Brokaw did have a good, alert gotcha moment when Meet the Press showed former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger saying of Sarah Palin:

I don’t think at the moment she is prepared to take over the brains of the presidency….Give her some time in the office, and I think the answer would be, she will be adequate. I can’t say that she would be a genius in the job, but I think she would be enough to get us through a four-year—well, I hope not.

(A side note on Eagleburger’s off-message mouthiness, from which he is always forced to retreat: At a conference in November 2002, when the subject of the war build-up came up, I heard Eagleburger say that the Bush crowd were “out of their minds.” I asked him later what he meant. He insisted that he didn’t mean the headlong rush to war in Iraq, but, rather, their approach to selling the war. Maybe so.)

Brokaw then put it to Fred Thompson, McCain’s surrogate:

MR. BROKAW: You have, among others, have said that she’s a victim of the liberal media, that they’ve been unfair to her in some fashion.

SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah.

MR. BROKAW: What question was she asked by Charles Gibson or Katie Couric or Brian Williams, for that matter, that you thought was unfair?

SEN. THOMPSON: I don’t know, I didn’t see any of the interviews. I, I saw excerpts…

But Brokaw also had the silliest moderator moment:

I’ve been talking to a lot of voters coast to coast and in the heartland and in large cities—there’s a lot of concern about one party rule.

Presumably out there in the land there’s also “a lot of concern” about economic collapse and the fallout from eight years of divided rule when the party in charge of the presidency is Republican. It would be interesting to know whether Brokaw was equally concerned about “one party rule” when the one party was Republican, during the months in 2001 before Senator Jim Jeffords decided he wasn’t a Republican after all.

Brokaw also displayed the most fatuous relay of pundit evasion, when he quoted David Broder, without demur, as follows, emphasis mine:

In what history may record as [Obama’s] singular achievement—dealing with the classic American dilemma of race—he had the largely unappreciated help of his opponent, John McCain, who simply ruled out covert racial appeals used by politicians of both parties in the past.

“Sen. Obama claims that he want to give a tax break to the middle class, but not only did he vote for higher taxes for the middle class in the Senate, his plan gives away your tax dollars to those who don’t pay taxes. That’s not a tax cut; that’s welfare,” McCain said a couple of weeks ago.

Welfare. Uh-huh. If that’s not a dog-whistle, I’m the welfare queen of… Never mind.

And with that, farewell to Sunday Watch. This commentator will be thrilled to have his Sundays back. Thanks to all the Washington insiders, insighters, blowhards and myopics—including the underachievers who in some corner of their minds know better than their performances—for making this column possible as well as necessary. Thanks to indulgent editors Mike Hoyt and Justin Peters. And now, back to America.

Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.