As a liberal who writes about politics for a living, I've spent the last few days talking to increasingly panicked Democrats, who have begun to overreact to the fact that President Obama had a poor debate performance, which then produced a movement in some polls toward Mitt Romney. I think David Weigel put it well yesterday: "The first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying 'huh, well, I wanted it to be better.' After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history." Andrew Sullivan kind of went nuclear after seeing the Pew poll I discussed yesterday, writing a post titled, "Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?" I can answer that: No.
For many years, psychologists and sociologists have known that in small groups, a uniformity of opinion can push opinion to the extremes. For instance, if you get a group of liberals together and tell them to talk about military spending, by the time the discussion is over, each individual will end up favoring spending cuts even deeper than they favored before the discussion began. There's an analogous movement in the opinions liberals have undergone since last Wednesday, but here conservatives and the mainstream media play a role as well. There's no question that reporters, eager for a new storyline and an invigorated race, have seized on the idea that the debate changed everything. And as Kevin Drum explains, conservatives benefit from their large stable of hacks:
Here's how things would have gone if liberals had their fair share of hacks. Obviously Obama wasn't at his best on Wednesday. But when the debate was over that wouldn't have mattered. Conservatives would have started crowing about how well Romney did. Liberals would have acknowledged that Obama should have confronted Romney's deceptions more forcefully, but otherwise would have insisted that Obama was more collected and presidential sounding than the hyperactive Romney and clearly mopped the floor with him on a substantive basis. News reporters would then have simply reported the debate normally: Romney said X, Obama said Y, and both sides thought their guy did great. By the next day it would barely be a continuing topic of conversation, and by Friday the new jobs numbers would have buried it completely.
Instead, liberals went batshit crazy. I didn't watch any commentary immediately after the debate because I wanted to write down my own reactions first, and my initial sense was that Obama did a little bit worse than Romney. But after I hit the Publish button and turned on the TV, I learned differently. As near as I could tell, the entire MSNBC crew was ready to commit ritual suicide right there on live TV, Howard Beale style. Ditto for all their guests, including grizzled pols like Ed Rendell who should have known better. It wasn't just that Obama did poorly, he had delivered the worst debate performance since Clarence Darrow left William Jennings Bryan a smoking husk at the end of Inherit the Wind. And it wasn't even just that. It was a personal affront, a betrayal of everything they thought was great about Obama. And, needless to say, it put Obama's entire second term in jeopardy and made Romney the instant front runner.
Kevin is absolutely right about this, and it shows not only that there's a difference between the conservative and liberal media worlds, but between MSNBC and Fox specifically. While MSNBC made a decision a while back that it would go ahead and become the liberal cable network, particularly in prime time, the individuals who appear on those shows have limits to how hackish they're willing to be. On Fox, there really are no limits. It's not as if Steve Doocy and the rest of the crew at "Fox and Friends" are going to say, "Wait, we're supposed to say the jobs numbers are manipulated by a White House conspiracy? I really don't think that's supported by the facts." I guarantee you that even if Obama performs spectacularly in the second debate and Romney stumbles terribly, Sean Hannity will still get on the air immediately afterward and tell everyone watching that Romney was fantastic and Obama was terrible. This will not only help buck up conservatives, it will encourage reporters to discuss the debate in the way Kevin describes.
Some people have said that Obama's performance was the worst in history, but that's just ridiculous. George W. Bush was much worse in all his debates in 2004, Bob Dole was terrible in 1996, George H.W. Bush was awful in 1992, and the worst debate performance was without question Ronald Reagan's in his first debate in 1984, where he was barely coherent and, in retrospect, probably showing some initial signs of Alzheimer's. You'll note that two of the people I just mentioned ended up winning. Obama didn't do particularly well last Wednesday, it's true. But he's a very competitive guy, and I'm sure he's going to show up next week with plenty more focus and vigor. There are a lot of other factors—a recovering economy, the fact that it now looks like he'll have more money, a superior ground operation—that continue to make him the favorite. So liberals can feel free to stop rending their garments.