Who doesn’t like Brit Hume? Outside of the anti-Fox foamers and the occasional cranks? He’s smart, experienced, and completely unafraid to speak his mind with considerable forthrightness and clarity. More than frequently he’s also right, something that can’t be said for a lot of people.
Which is just why his two Sunday appearances—the first on Chris Wallace show, the second on Howard Kurtz’s—confused. It was almost as if there were two Brit Humes debating one another.
Let’s begin with Brit Hume number one.The subject is President Obama’s impending executive order giving amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Wallace read a question from a viewer named Jim, who suggested that Republicans use the power of the purse to defund the implementation of the president’s executive order on immigration, as well as Obamacare. Send the bill to the president, who, of course, will refuse to sign it—resulting, presumably, in stalemate and a government shutdown. Hume responds:
It’s a total blunder to try that, because if the president were to veto the bill, a bill that would have—keep the government going and there was a shutdown, it wouldn’t matter. It never has, what the proximate cause of the shutdown was. It is an iron rule in Washington, exemplified many times, that if the government shuts down, the Republicans get the blame, not some of the blame, not most of the blame, all of the blame. And one would surmise that they may have learned that by now. Their leaders seem to have, but there are some within House and Senate who still think that that kind of brinksmanship might work. I doubt it.”
While he doesn’t say it, the first Brit Hume appears to believe Republicans would be blamed because the polls tell him so. As, indeed, they did in November 2013, the last time a government shutdown occurred. In other words, Brit Hume number one says Republicans would be crazy to pass a bill funding every single part of the government except Obama’s executive order and Obamacare.
Which brings us to the Brit Hume number two. The subject: polling and the “lost art of reporting.” Kurtz begins by noting that “political analysis is an art, not a science,” and that—ahem—many of the polls this election cycle were “flat out wrong.” Kurtz also recalls the days when the late political reporter David Broder would go to a state and knock on doors himself to get a feel for a political race.
“There is a tendency not to see past the polls” says the second Brit. Along the way he recounts a story from his own career. When he was a young reporter for ABC News covering the 1982 New Jersey Senate race between then-Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick and businessman Frank Lautenberg. Fenwick, as he notes, was something of a celebrity. A pipe-smoking grande dame of wealth, a tad eccentric, she had been made into a literal cartoon character in Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” as celebrated “Congresswoman Lacy Davenport.” Against the colorless Lautenberg, Brit Hume notices the early polling had the popular Fenwick “way ahead.” On the scene in New Jersey, the young Brit goes to rallies for both candidates and finds Fenwick’s rallies “flat” in contrast to Lautenberg’s, where the candidate “seemed to be pretty good on the stump.” Brit’s sense is that the race is moving in Lautenberg’s direction. He reports in to his news producers who were “dubious” about his findings, thus directing him to an even-handed reporting of the race but not saying what he had in fact observed. Lautenberg wins, and Hume says he “felt like a fool” for not listening to his reporter’s instinct.
“We live in the age of spin,” says Kurtz. Responds the second Brit Hume: “The way bias works…it’s insidious.”
Now. What do we have here? What we have is a very confusing but definitely interesting debate—between Brit Hume and Brit Hume.
On the one hand, Brit number one says there is an “iron rule in Washington” that the Republicans always lose on the issue of government shutdowns. While he doesn’t say it, the only way to “know” this is because the polls say so.
On the other hand, Brit number two says to be careful trusting those polls. On the ground reporting, listening to one’s instinct, is the key to accurate reporting.
Yet only that morning, a modern version of “on the ground reporting”—a single anecdote to be sure—had been personally presented to Brit Hume. That would be the question from Jim, the one Hume dismissed because he is a believer in all those polls. Jim, one suspects, is part of the massive wave of angry voters who just elected a thoroughly Republican Congress whose winners campaigned relentlessly against illegal immigration and for repealing Obamacare.
So which is it? Is it just possible that Brit Hume numero uno is biased, not in a left or right sense, but in a Washington, D.C., sense? Is it possible he is showing the very same trait exhibited in that classic story about the New Yorker’s film critic Pauline Kael, who, astonished at Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide win over George McGovern, memorably said something to the effect that she didn’t know anybody who voted for him.
Here outside of Washington—where people do not consume polls along with their morning coffee—it would seem that the first Brit Hume could learn a lot if he would listen to the second Brit Hume. That latter fellow is a very wise man indeed. There’s nothing confusing about that.
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