Fatuous-Gossip Watch 2012: The Obama Campaign in Disarray!
Or is it? A staple genre of the new media leaves us to wonder.
When I ran into David Axelrod at a White Sox-Yankees game Tuesday night, President Obama's reelection strategist was delayed in getting to a concourse with food and bathrooms by Sox fans craving to have their picture taken with him.
Imagine, I joked, how much more famous he'd be if Stephanie Cutter, another Obama campaign official, hadn't supposedly stolen a Sunday morning TV appearance meant for him!
He rolled his eyes, knowing I was alluding to a rather breathless disclosure in Obama's Last Stand, an e-book just published by Politico and Random House that's a tidy example of the now unavoidable journalism staple of "inside" takes on the discord and untidiness of a presidential campaign.
In this case, readers are told that a campaign organization lauded four years ago for cohesion is now "shadowed by a succession of political disagreements and personal rivalries that haunted the effort at the outset."
Since the genre is bipartisan, rest assured that the Romney campaign will get similar dissections both during and after the campaign, with November's loser the guaranteed target of the most critical accounts. The obsession with internal process and tactics is now the coin of the realm, especially among Washington political reporters who may lose sight of one reality: Voters don't care.
That may be tough for some of them to take, suggesting that much of what they can proudly report is irrelevant. But I suspect that if I had gone up to any of the self-proclaimed Obama supporters encircling Axelrod a few sections down the left-field line at U.S. Cellular Field, they would not have cared a whit about, say, this revelation in the new ebook when it comes to Axelrod and Cutter:
The spark, according to people close to the situation: Axelrod suspected Cutter of taking a network TV appearance he had been asked to do. The conflict -- well-known inside Obamaland but not outside the inner circle -- was really the reflection of a grinding campaign, Cutter's propensity for stepping on toes, and Axelrod's elliptical and disorganized management style.
The e-book is a well-intentioned example of the relatively new species of instant inside history. In days of yore, we'd await the end of a campaign, and an actual Election Day result, to sample a genre made famous by Theodore White, a journalist-historian, in his Making of the President series. Now we have a rolling account perfectly suited for our Twitter universe.
While this account may be irresistible to political junkies, it also may not have a whole lot to do with how voters make their choices.
When I suggested this to John Mark Hansen, dean of social sciences at the University of Chicago and a prominent political scientist, he said, "I give even less credit to reports about the campaigns than you do. Every campaign is completely chaotic, everybody is in a panic, and every campaign is beset by tensions and rivalries. Nothing creates genius better than winning (see: James Carville and Karl Rove); nothing makes one look incompetent more than losing (see: Kerry's advisers, McCain's advisers)."
As Hansen has written, modern political science has devoted its greatest energy to the study of elections and "Voters only intermittently pay attention to campaigns, so most of what happens in a campaign has little effect on voters' choices. Voters make their decision whenever they feel they have enough information to make a choice. For many, the decision is not very difficult."
What happens in so many inside-the-campaign accounts is that they transform reports of internal disagreements into prime facie evidence of crucial, even fatal, strategic errors. Yes, feuding and jealousies can undermine any endeavor, be it a corner drug store, college volleyball team, or a political race. But when very smart and highly competitive people work in close, high-stakes, and high-profile quarters, some conflict is inevitable. It might even happen at The Atlantic.
Ask editors here, or at Politico or the Washington Post, if they have ever confronted anything of the sort in their newsrooms. While you're at it, ask executives at Google, Facebook, General Motors, or Dairy Queen.
"Obama Campaign Roiled by Conflict" was Politico's grabby headline on its own book. But it ultimately doesn't seem quite the right fit for what follows it.
That's partly because, after reading the e-book, one might be left with a sense of Obama very much in control of his campaign, even micromanaging it. He allegedly gets pissed off at one of his own consultants for seemingly self-serving comments to the New York Times. He dispatches two White House aides to Chicago to deal with tensions with the reelection headquarters there. And, most of all, he seems to be playing to win.
You can fret, as even Democratic loyalists do, that the campaign is overtly cynical and tactical and removed from dealing with Real Questions -- for example, what are the many specific cuts Democrats would make to deal with our budget mess? But even after reading this instantaneous history, you'd be hard-pressed to deny that this campaign has an attentive boss with a distinct game plan.
And if I'm Romney, I'd remember that this is the guy who had Osama bin Laden killed against the counsel of some aides. There's a pragmatic and tough streak that doesn't quite fit the namby-pamby, community-organizing, bleeding-heart-socialist caricature drawn by Fox News Channel and the conservative zealots whose screeds dot our non-fiction bestseller lists.
The Obama who actually comes out here, and who is also portrayed in books like Dan Klaidman's Kill or Capture, an account of the Obama administration's war on terror, seems a political mix of basketball's Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan -- namely a pretty ruthless competitor.
And that may be especially relevant because Obama likely will win or lose not because of Axelrod, Cutter, David Plouffe, or -- conversely -- Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan. He'll win or lose because of himself. He is the product the campaign is hawking, and its chief executive.
Obama will stay in the White House or return home to Chicago because of Obama, not Axelrod, who has always conceded that his profession gets far too much credit when a candidate wins and far too much abuse when the candidate loses. He's a beneficiary of our Cult of the Consultant, which is largely propped up by political reporters desperate for access to and wisdom from those consultants, but he's level-headed enough to perceive its ingrained myths even as they surround and benefit smart practitioners like him.
If you've read Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography, you'll know about Jobs and the iPhone that now rules so many of our lives. Yes, there were a thousand others who were in on the phone's creation and marketing. But the role of most is overblown. It was Steve Jobs' baby.
The obsession with internal process and tactics is now the coin of the realm, especially among reporters who may lose sight of one reality: Voters don't care.
A Washington consultant chum not involved in either campaign shows uncharacteristic modesty when asked about the inside-the-campaign genre. He says, "Our role is overblown. I've always said it's like being in the chorus of a Greek tragedy. You can suggest, warn, and cajole, but ultimately the candidate carries the play and action."
And what does that mean right now?
For starters, it may well mean that most everybody has probably made up his or her mind about Obama and Romney. We can fill every drooling local television general manager's ad inventory with super PAC ads in any open time slot from now until Election Day, be they sandwiched between Seinfeld reruns or NASCAR races. It probably won't change the views of the 94 percent or 95 percent of folks who'd just as well vote tomorrow.
A recent Wall Street Journal story quoted Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, contending that a crush of TV ads won't change many minds at all. Knocking on doors in neighboring North Carolina last weekend, he came across few people not already committed to Obama or Romney.
Rather than melodramatically disclose family feuds, political reporters in this election might be better off hitting the ground and doing the drudge work of assessing field operations.
That's especially relevant amid harrumphing that the Obama campaign has perhaps spent too much money too early and is now about to be drowned out by pro-Romney super PAC spending.
If you look closely, especially at pro-Obama polling movement in battleground states, you could argue that Axelrod and companions have spent a lot of money quite well. If the Obama field operation can deliver, in a way vaguely akin to how its Internet-driven field operation delivered in 2008, that spending might prove decisive.
So after they've opined from the two party conventions, perhaps some pundits could do old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. What is the deal with the two rival field operations?
In a race with apparently few swing voters, field operations are critical in getting out your party's seeming loyalists, especially if you have a strong message. And, at the moment, Obama seems to have the stronger message -- and an almost Reaganesque air, meaning that people like him personally even if they disagree with some policies and his performance.
And then there's Romney, whose personality can come off as a bit hollow, sort of like Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Maybe his coming post-convention ad avalanche will alter his image. It seems unlikely.
Not much his campaign can agree on, or disagree on, will probably change popular opinion of him. If he loses, chronicling internal tactical discord may garner six-figure book deals, and bring a brief but lucrative slot on the lecture circuit, but it will still miss Hansen's primary point: The discord doesn't matter for voters.
For all his personal diffidence and tendency to insularity, Obama is not hollow. And it's clear, even amid the talk of campaign disarray, he is not passive.
He is the boss and will win or lose on his own merit and our pre-existing gut view of him. It may have precious little to do with any personal rivalries shadowing his efforts back at headquarters.