Presswatch

Taranto’s Revenge

By From the December 2012 - January 2013 issue

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PRIOR TO ELECTION DAY, I had been planning a triumphal column explaining how Mitt Romney’s victory vindicated the Taranto Principle, but events intervened. Here instead is a circumspect column explaining how Barack Obama’s victory vindicated the Taranto Principle.

The Taranto Principle, named after yours truly by Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, posits that the liberal media’s uncritical coverage often disserves liberal politicians by making them complacent, thus encouraging bad or foolish behavior. The classic example is from 2004, when journalists failed to question John Kerry’s self-presentation as a war hero. Along came the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and Kerry was undone by a scandal for which an adversarial press would have left him prepared. (See “Kerry’s Quagmire,” TAS, July/August 2005.)

As I observed in last month’s column, this year Barack Obama had the support of the liberal media like no politician in living memory. Reporters regularly churned out “fact checks” calling Mitt Romney, and especially Paul Ryan, a liar. After the 9/11 attack in Benghazi, they acted as if the story was Romney’s supposedly premature comment about a separate incident in Egypt. They echoed the Obama campaign’s attack lines, on subjects from Bain Capital to the “war on women.” They made every grim economic report sound as rosy as possible, or if that failed, emphasized that the bad news was “unexpected.” The Taranto Principle would lead one to expect that all this would doom his reelection. Instead, if anything, fawning media helped him.

There was one notable exception: the president’s disastrous performance in the first debate, October 3. As Jeffrey Lord wrote on the Spectator’s website:

Barack Obama has been so totally coddled by the liberal media that he looked absolutely shell-shocked in this debate. Stunned, unhappy, angry, sour—and at some points genuinely incoherent.

Romney has had nowhere near that kind of treatment. He had serious opponents in the primaries—all of whom in their own way forced him to confront his ideas in a serious fashion. Conservatives were on his heels. The Obama media never let up. The man went through the political equivalent of boot camp.

Tonight, the Taranto Principle kicked in. Big time.

Outside the liberal bubble—forced to be alone on a stage with a very serious, very prepared candidate—Barack Obama was in trouble. Big Trouble.

But not trouble enough to end his presidency, in part perhaps because of the panic it provoked among his most ardent media followers. “I don’t know what he was doing out there,” wailed Chris Matthews during MSNBC’s post-debate commentary. “He had his head down, he was enduring the debate rather than fighting it.” A few days later, a distraught Andrew Sullivan wrote a Daily Beast blog post titled “Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?” I didn’t care for his performances in the later debates either, but no one can deny he was awake and alert.

Yet this year the Taranto Principle came back to bite the right. This time it was we who turned out to be in a media bubble. It isn’t clear that the Romney campaign suffered by following the advice of the conservative media, but post-election reports suggest they had a sunny view of the race, similar to the predictions and analyses conservative journalists were offering—which turned out to be quite wrong.

Still on the homepage of the Spectator’s website as I write this are the headlines from Election Day, including “Mitt’s Margin of Victory” and “Romney Will Win Pennsylvania.” From the day before: “Welcome, President Mitt Romney.” Tyrrell’s column of November 1 was titled “Au Revoir, Mr. President.” He confidently declared: “Next week President Obama goes into retirement. I hope he will consider Hawaii.” On November 2, Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner went state by state and came up with a 315–223 Electoral College victory for Romney (he did allow that Obama would probably carry Michigan and Nevada). Others made similar predications, including several of my colleagues at the Journal.

I wasn’t among them, only because I am not so foolhardy as to prognosticate directly in public about an event that is about to occur. But I thought Romney would win too, and you’d have known it if you read between the lines of my daily WSJ.com columns. The day before Election Day, I wrote about how the left was preparing to blame an Obama loss on racism (although in my own defense, they were). I had written of my suspicions of state polls showing a 2008-like Democratic turnout advantage. I had made fun of New York Times number cruncher Nate Silver, who called Obama a prohibitive favorite based on such polls, which of course turned out to be on the money.

NONE OF WHICH IS TO SAY the Taranto Principle no longer applies on the left. The day after the election, for instance, Politico’s Ben White wrote that in the president’s dealings with Congress, he “clearly has a something of a whip hand now”:

Obama is likely to take his arguments to the public first and attempt to forge coalitions with Republicans beyond the House and Senate leadership. He may find willing partners. The risks to the GOP of continuing to aggressively oppose the president’s approach are now significantly higher. NBC’s David Gregory put it this way after Obama’s acceptance speech: “This is a president with some muscle.”

But the House remains Republican, with a minimum of 233 GOP seats as of this writing, down only a handful from 240 before the election. All the big swing states have House delegations with Republican majorities, some of them quite large (Ohio 12–4, Pennsylvania 13–5). If Obama couldn’t produce more than modest Democratic gains in 2012, it’s hard to see how he can do so in 2014, especially since the weakest incumbents of both parties were weeded out this year.

It’s imaginable that Obama, freed from the re-election need to pander to his leftist base, will either tame the House Republicans or learn to work with them the way Bill Clinton did. But there is little in his first term to suggest he has the skill to do the former or the inclination to do the latter. And in past negotiations with Congress, media cheerleading—references to him as “the adult in the room”—tended to bring out the worst in him.

Obama will also find it harder to blame George W. Bush for economic and other woes, especially after January 1, when tax increases and Obamacare provisions are scheduled to take effect. The Benghazi debacle, deferred by the media until after the election, could blow up into a serious scandal.

The recent history of presidential second terms is not a terribly promising one in any case. It includes Nixon’s resignation, the Iran-contra scandal, and Clinton’s impeachment. Remember when Bush declared in 2004 that he had earned “political capital,” then proceeded to spend it on a failed effort at Social Security reform? Hubris is as much a danger after an election as before it.

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.