“Those whom the gods would destroy they first make famous,” goes a paraphrase of an ancient Greek saying. The media’s sudden enthusiasm for the presidential candidacy of Michele Bachmann contains a large element of that strategy. Journalists are building her up now so that they can gleefully tear her down later.
But this week, desperate to pump some excitement into a bland race and perhaps bait Sarah Palin into entering it, the media gods gushed over Bachmann’s “strong” and “savvy” performance at Monday’s debate. She has become overnight a “serious” candidate.
It won’t take long for this glow to dissipate. These commentators, when not under constraints to gin up a race, normally regard her views as dangerous and consider her to be as batty as Palin. Today’s “star is born” stories will give way to hysterical ones about Bachmann’s rejection of global warming as a hoax, her “uncompromising” pro-life views, etc.
Candidate Herman Cain enjoyed the media’s favor a short time ago. He was a breath of “fresh air” to journalists; now he is an unpleasant odor to them after saying that he wouldn’t feel comfortable with Muslims in his cabinet. Enthusiasm for Bachmann will probably follow a similar trajectory, though she is much more likely to remain relevant than Cain.
Journalists covering the race scorn candidates whom they consider shallow and ideologically extreme, yet at the same time itch for these candidates to run and cheer them on opportunistically if they do. The media’s dependence on Palin in particular is parasitic, as exposed once again by the all-hands-on-deck coverage of the release of her underwhelming e-mails. This was such a matter of grave import that the New York Times and others had to recruit the citizenry to join in the task. Largely coming up empty in their search for dirt, some journalists have turned to flattery (the e-mails show a governor who was “working hard,” etc.), perhaps in the hopes that that might encourage Palin to run.
But if journalists don’t end up having Palin as the candidate they can love to hate, Bachmann will do. She has certainly come along at the right time, as the other Minnesotan in the race, Tim Pawlenty, leaves journalists bored and short on material. Many think he blew it by not going for Romney’s jugular on “Obamneycare,” which would have given the media a story and fulfilled the expectations he raised by opening up that line of attack on a Sunday talk show.
But that still probably wouldn’t have given any energy to his campaign. Commentators talk endlessly about the need for a sober and serious candidate until one shows up and then they yawn. Pawlenty just doesn’t have the looks and personality of a president, so he is ruled out by the media from the start. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, if nothing else, has the perfect imagined outward appearance of a president, which makes him automatically formidable in America’s media-determined politics.
Monday’s debate wasn’t “substantive” enough for some in the media. It didn’t showcase any “big ideas,” in the estimate of MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan, who sees himself as a pillar of independent thought and his show as ground zero for the redemption of American politics. The idea of a limited federal government (that most candidates expressed in the debate), the idea on which the Constitution rests, isn’t sufficiently big for such original thinkers.
Republicans usually get in trouble with the media for “big ideas,” as Congressman Paul Ryan has found out. The best press is reserved for those Republicans who reinforce the status quo. But actually the debate showed that Republicans are discussing ideas, at least far more sincerely than their counterparts in the Democratic Party, unless mulling over the fate of Congressman Weiner counts as one.