For avid students of media behavior—and aren't we all?—the best show in town right now may be the midterm congressional elections. It's still early, but the fever is building as campaign scriveners come alive in their cubicles and take various plotlines out for a test drive.
From a news point of view, midterm elections exist for one reason: to kill the boredom. They arrive at the halfway point of a presidential term, when the last White House race is a dim memory and pols in the running for next time are still all cagey and noncommittal. In this Sahara of political news, the midterm is a beautiful oasis.
For a midterm to be truly satisfying, it must be experienced as some kind of surprise. Luckily, it's easy to frame any possible midterm result as an absolute stunner.
For instance, it's considered traditional for the party of a sitting president to show poorly in the midterms. So if the expected happens and the president's party loses, that would be a yawn, right? No, you silly naif. Every midterm is also a handy-dandy referendum on the president's popularity—as you'll be reminded each day for the next seven months. And even when a president is really unpopular, as Bush is now, let's face it, he's still the most powerful guy on the planet. Thus, a midterm loss is, ipso facto, an epic reversal of fortune.
And a surprise.
Time magazine stepped up to the mark this week with a widely read story headlined "Republicans on the Run" that included the requisite Time-Travel Shocker: "If the elections were held today, top strategists of both parties say privately, the Republicans would probably lose the 15 seats they need to keep control of the House of Representatives and could come within a seat or two of losing the Senate as well."
Even more dire for the GOP, the story noted, some Republican candidates are "distancing themselves" from the president on the issues, though "party leaders are warning privately against taking that strategy too far." Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman made the point colorfully: "If Diet Coke criticizes Coke, people buy Pepsi, not Coke."
This tilt on the midterms—one party distinctly in disarray—is now in favor all across the general-interest media. Read enough such stories and you might come away convinced that a Democratic victory is precisely the boffo surprise that media folk are tacitly rooting for. After all, on first inspection it looks like a fabulous story, perhaps comparable to the historic GOP take-back of 12 years ago. "Increasingly," said a recent Knight Ridder story, "the national mood seems to mirror 1994, when voters turned sour on President Clinton, rejected Democratic lawmakers, and installed a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in 40 years."
There's just one problem with this arc. Bush is so weak, and the press is pounding the GOP-loss drum so insistently, that a Democratic victory in November is already hardening into the widely anticipated result, raising the dangerous specter of a nonsurprise surprise.
Never fear. The media are endlessly resourceful, and if you watch the coverage very, very closely, you'll note that contingency preparations are already under way for an entirely different twist: a totally unexpected, mind-blowing Republican victory in November, because the Democrats can't get their act together.
These stories are quieter, but they're crucial to understanding the script-in-progress. The Washington Post ran one on its front page a few weeks ago, under the headline, "Democrats Struggle to Seize Opportunity." The story reported that the Democrats are so divided and aimless that even settling on a five-word slogan caused painful intraparty angst and division. The alert reader can't help but notice that the slogan they wound up with, "Together, America Can Do Better," is not half as good as the one Newt Gingrich suggested for the Democrats in this week's Time magazine story: "Had Enough?"
Hmmm. Newt, the architect of the last great midterm stunner, throws the opposition a better jingle than they can fashion for themselves. A Democratic victory might not be in the bag.
For purely theatrical purposes, it doesn't matter. The media have not one but two surprise results in the can. What a wonderful life.
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