‘Turning point’ claims ‘in tatters’

After historic health care decision, some commentators set out on fruitless search for campaign narrative

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision upholding most of the Affordable Care Act has vast implications for health policy in this country and will affect millions of people’s lives. Much of the early coverage, fortunately, reflected those substantive concerns. Predictably, however, some political reporters and commentators felt compelled to weigh in with crass speculation on the effect of the decision on the presidential campaign.

To be sure, many journalists were appropriately cautious about claims that the decision would have a significant impact on the race. As Richard Dunham pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle, “most political analysts expect the economy to remain the dominant issue in November.” Indeed, the economy remains the most important issue for voters (see point #6). Moreover, since most voters already have made up their minds about health care reform, it’s unclear who will be swayed by the ruling.

Other commentators, however, were eager to frame the event as a “turning point” in the campaign—a phrase that was being invoked by Chris Matthews on Hardball even before the decision had been announced. CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour likewise stated that Obama’s victory “could mark a turning point in his drive for reelection”—nearly identical phrasing to a Democratic strategist’s claim in another Chronicle report.

Most notably, though, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan wrote that “[f]or the first time in months, the president looks like he’s on the Uppalator, not the Downalator” and that the outcome “may mark a turning point for the president’s listless, directionless campaign.” Why? Because the president’s staff will feel better! “Certainly it will buoy the spirits of the White House… Members of the president’s campaign and White House will stop feeling like what they usually feel like, Team of Losers.” (Noonan is clearly a subscriber to the confidence fallacy.) Her characteristic mysticism comes out still further toward the end of her column when she acknowledges that “[t]he race is not remade” but states that “there’s a new dynamic now: Mr. Obama got a break.”

The problem here is that the desire to construct a coherent and dramatic narrative out of events is overwhelming the critical faculties of some in the media. It’s the same pattern we observed, for instance, after the Gabby Giffords shooting in Arizona (New York Times reporter Matt Bai: “[a] turning point in the discourse”) and in the wake of Obama’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech in November 2007 (Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen: “will be remembered as one of the turning points of the campaign”). Both were framed as “turning points” despite a lack of evidence that they changed the trajectory of events in any substantial way.

In the wake of this week’s ruling, meanwhile, Politico’s Mike Allen went even further in his widely-read insider newsletter, “Playbook”:

PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE: Obama looks like a winner, and you can’t underestimate the subtle impact that has on casual voters. The attack on Obama that has tested best with focus groups—incompetent, in over his head—is now in tatters.

Like claims of “turning points” and “new dynamics,” Allen’s language suggests substantial effects without making a direct claim. The impact is “subtle” and only applies to “casual voters,” yet “you can’t underestimate” it. The most specific argument he makes is that Romney’s attempts to characterize Obama as “incompetent” or “in over his head” are “now in tatters.” But most such arguments target Obama’s handling of the economy. Will the public really disregard a critique of Obama’s economic management because of a Supreme Court decision in June concerning legislation that was passed more than two years ago? It’s unlikely.

Unfortunately, these media practices won’t change unless there’s a “turning point” in the reputation of pundits who engage in this sort of baseless speculation.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.