A Limited and Self-Serving Defense of Political Punditry

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Last month, after reading Jim Fallows' debate preview from the September issue, I came away thinking that a focused Mitt Romney "is a dangerous man in the debates." Fallows does these previews every four years, and what makes them engrossing is that they are precisely what opinion journalism should be. No one has any illusions about who Jim Fallows would like to see in the White House. No one who has read his work could think of him as "objective." But Fallows' debate pieces (and his political analysis) are always informed and fair. I would have loved for him to tell me how Obama was going to clean Romney's clock. He did not--mostly because that pronouncement would have been in conflict with reality.


The result of this combination of fairness and actual information is best seen by looking at this paragraph written months ago:

He faces the temptation not to prepare. A president has every reason to postpone or avoid mock-debate sessions. The schedule is full; the necessity to play-act is demeaning; emergencies crop up. And thus a president avoids practicing skills that are indeed different from what he does day by day. "This is one of the reasons incumbent presidents tend to lose the first debate," David Axelrod told me. "Generally, they have not had a debate for four years. You do your press conferences, but there are no time limits or rebuttals. We went through the most gifted sparring partner anyone has ever had last time, in Hillary Clinton. We don't have that this time." Even allowing for possible flattery of a former foe who is now an invaluable member of the Obama team, the point remains: an incumbent president is never challenged the way a mere candidate is.
And juxtaposing it with this reporting, out today, from The Times:
Like other presidents, Mr. Obama's debate preparations were hindered by his day job, his practice sessions often canceled or truncated because of events, advisers said. One session took place just after he addressed a service for the four Americans slain in Libya, leaving him distracted. 

 Mr. Obama does not like debates to begin with, aides have long said, viewing them as media-driven gamesmanship. He did not do all that well in 2008 but benefited from Senator John McCain's grumpy performances.  Mr. Obama made clear to advisers that he was not happy about debating Mr. Romney, whom he views with disdain. It was something to endure, rather than an opportunity, aides said. 

 Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was recruited to play Mr. Romney. The preparation team was kept small. The most important players were Mr. Axelrod; David Plouffe, the president's senior adviser; and Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director. Others included Joel Benenson, the president's pollster; Ronald A. Klain, Mr. Biden's former chief of staff; and Robert Barnett, a longtime Democratic debate coach. 

 By the time Mr. Obama retreated to Nevada for a final couple days of practice, the debate prep team was getting by on as little as three hours of sleep a night as they crafted answers and attack lines. Mr. Kerry played a range of Mr. Romneys -- aggressive, laid back, hard-edge conservative -- and got in the president's face, according to people in the room. Mr. Obama's alternating performances left aides walking off Air Force One in Denver looking worried.

Pundits take a lot of (well-deserved) heat for holding forth on television with poorly conceived predictions. Very few of these people are in the business of gathering information, of reporting, of researching, of listening at least much as they talk. I think it's worth pointing out that our house debate pundit (if Jim doesn't bristle at the term) built his piece by watching hours of tape of Romney and Obama, then talking to people who knew them both, and then balancing that with his own personal experience. 

The result was a piece that wasn't just prescient about the danger that Romney posed, but was prescient about that danger at a point when very few people were saying that Romney was dangerous, and was prescient on the specifics of what made the debate perilous for Obama. Frankly even if Jim had been totally wrong, I still think the piece would have worth. The job of the pundit shouldn't be simply to get it right, but to produce an honest and informed opinion.

In my writing class, I tell my students that they should think of themselves as bakers. The elements of the essay--reporting, researching, writing style, memoir--are their milk, eggs, flour and sugar, all to be dispensed in proportion to whatever they're creating. Fallows baked his readers a cake. Much of what passes for punditry means doling out sugar lumps to the base. 

Finally, it probably says too much to claim that Fallows was "right." In fact he avoided saying who he thought was going to win. But that's the point. "Slugfest" isn't a work of prognostication. It is a sketch of the terrain and a thorough analysis of the combatants who will engage each other there. 

Read it, if you haven't. Then subscribe to the magazine, if you haven't. The check out the e-book "The Obama Presidency Explained," if you haven't (which features my interview with Jim about the president). Yes we do want all of your money. Yes your children might go hungry. But great journalism shall endure. Sounds like a fair trade, no? In seriousness, the e-book is only $1.99. Do the right thing.

As an aside, that reporting on Obama's view of debates is scary. I understand the urge to 
object to the carnival aspect of democracy, but the titular head of that democracy (and the free world itself) doesn't get to indulge that urge. Obama is not a philosopher king. He's a politician, and he should be proud of it. If he truly was unhappy about having to debate Romney and viewed him "with disdain," then he deserved every blow he took. 

The shellacking appears to have humbled him some:

The president proved as aggressive in his post-debate rallies as he was passive in the debate, but the campaign was besieged by anxious Democrats. Mr. Messina had to pep up a demoralized staff in Chicago. Mr. Obama took the blame during calls with advisers. "This is on me," he told them. Asked by some if Mr. Kerry was at fault, Mr. Obama said no. "It wasn't Kerry," he sad. "Kerry was fine."


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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