Elephant? What Elephant?

Today, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers up an “analysis” piece with the headline, “Bush’s Cartoon of Kerry Failed to Show Up.” The Bush campaign’s “ferocious advertising push in the spring and summer and the Republican convention were successful at defining Kerry as a vacillating opportunist who has no coherent policy on Iraq and is spineless on terrorism,” Milbank analyzes. “But,” he continues, “the strategy may have worked too well, pollsters and operatives say: By turning Kerry into a cartoon, the Bush campaign created such low expectations for the senator that he easily exceeded them in the debates.”

Missing in Milbank’s analysis, however, is any acknowledgement of the press’ role in all of this. Why might a campaign’s “ferocious advertising push” and efforts to “define” a candidate in a “cartoonish” manner gain traction in the first place? Who gamely embraces and amplifies the campaign-generated expectations stakes? The answer, of course, is The Expectorate, that collection of pollsters, pundits and political reporters (like Milbank) who first set expectations for a candidate to surmount, then report back on whether said candidate exceeded or fell short of those arbitrary goals.

The New York Times’ James Bennet and Jim Rutenberg make a similar point in their piece today. “Voters who tuned in to the debates saw a very different matchup than the one they had been hearing about — if they were paying attention — for two months,” Bennet and Rutenberg write. And further along in the piece: “By late September, on the eve of the first debate, Mr. Kerry’s candidacy was beset by stories of campaign-staff shakeups that contrasted with accounts of a self-assured, glitch-free Bush-Cheney juggernaut that had labeled him a flip-flopper,” they report. (“Beset” by “stories” and “accounts” in the press, perhaps? The New York Times, even?) But in the debates, Bennet and Rutenberg continue, Kerry “proved steady and sonorous,” and came across as the “robotically consistent” one, “affecting the same earnest, respectful demeanor” during all three debates. Bush, on the other hand, appeared “changeable, shifting the thrust of his attacks — from saying that Mr. Kerry was inconstant to saying he was constantly liberal — and even, it seemed, adjusting his personality for political purposes, of all things.”

While Milbank, Bennet, and Rutenberg fail to note the role journalists themselves play in molding the “cartoonish” characterizations of candidates and ensuring that certain campaign-spun storylines take hold, they do offer up some new and related bits of conventional wisdom.

From Milbank: Unlike in 2000, when everyone (press included) “misunderestimated” Bush prior to the debates, this year “Bush finds himself on the losing end of the [pre-debate] expectations game.” From Bennet and Rutenberg: Kerry now comes across as the “consistent” one, albeit “robotically” so, while Bush suddenly is “changeable,” if not quite a flip-flopper.

We’re left wondering for how long the campaign press is going to write these stories in which the elephant in the living room — themselves — goes unacknowledged.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.