The Washington Times

From the people who brought you “Howard Dean will be the nominee,” “George W. Bush is vulnerable,” “Ralph Nader doesn’t matter” and “the news conference bombed,” we now have, more or less, “John Kerry can’t win.” Good grief.

I have written here before about the politico-media echo chamber dominating discourse about presidential politics in 2004. Go back and read the news coverage of the presidential campaign in the first week of January 2004. Bear in mind that Howard Dean was heading for a mighty fall on Jan. 13 at the Iowa caucuses and a week later in New Hampshire. Who was picking up on this trend? No one, that’s who. Mr. Dean was portrayed mainly as surfing the Web to victory in a new kind of campaign.

Now go back and read the analysis of Ralph Nader’s entry into the presidential contest. Oh sure, echoed the chamber, he may have cost Al Gore the election in 2000. But there was no reason to think that with the Democratic Party united in its determination to beat Mr. Bush that Democrats would defect to Mr. Nader in comparable numbers this time. Except that Mr. Nader is now polling higher in 2004 than he did in 2000, and at John Kerry’s expense. Apparently, Mr. Nader’s antiwar message has a constituency out there, especially with Mr. Kerry trying to walk a finer line. That the American political landscape now includes a small but consequential fraction of left-wing voters who are not really Democrats anymore is an obvious but unvoiced conclusion I hereby announce. I wish I’d done so sooner, but the echo chamber deafens me, too.

Now, go back and read the coverage of the presidential campaign the week Richard A. Clarke testified before the September 11 commission. From it, you will take away the impression of an effective assault being leveled against Mr. Bush on what was supposed to have been his strongest point, namely, national security. We should all get used to Mr. Bush’s new vulnerability, the chamber rumbled. But a week later, opinion polls showed Mr. Clarke had had little to no effect on the president’s approval ratings overall. And by a month later, Mr. Bush had turned roughly a five-point gap trailing Mr. Kerry into a five-point lead. Who, pray, climbed out of the echo chamber during Mr. Clarke’s star turn to raise the prospect that the whole huzzah wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans? Once again, no one.

A subsidiary echo from the chamber was that Mr. Bush’s fortunes would rise or fall depending on how well things were going in Iraq. I’ll immodestly raise my hand to say that the point I’ve always made is that it’s not just a question of how things are going, but of how people think their leaders are dealing with how things are going. Sure enough, Mr. Bush’s approval ratings on his handling of Iraq went down with the violence of April, during which he was largely silent, until he came forward and forcefully reaffirmed his policy in the speech he delivered during his prime-time news conference.

At which, the echo chamber informed us, Mr. Bush gave a lousy performance. He wouldn’t answer the questions; he seemed awkward; he refused to acknowledge having made any mistakes or to take responsibility for September 11, which, after all, occurred on his watch. His credibility was thus in grave peril, etc.

Oops. Here the interpretive error was of precisely the same kind the echo chamber made in the course of the Bush-Gore debates in 2000. Mr. Gore showed up to debate Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush, by contrast, went to the debates to deliver a message to the audience watching. At Mr. Bush’s news conference two weeks ago, the echo chamber couldn’t escape its presupposition that the success or failure of a presidential performance at a news conference has something to do with how well the president answers the questions. Wrong again. Mr. Bush wasn’t letting anything get in the way of the headline he wanted – namely, that he was committed to success in Iraq.

And now, it seems, Mr. Kerry can’t win. That’s the echo I’m hearing, anyway, which proves that the echo chamber doesn’t produce music to the ears solely of Democrats. Why, Mr. Kerry took a vacation in April after sewing up the nomination, and now Karl Rove has defined him. What a fool Mr. Kerry was, allowing himself to be defined. And really, isn’t it true that he’s out of touch and evasive? It is one of the more amusing features of the echo chamber that it can regard Mr. Kerry as having been “defined,” while accepting uncritically the very terms of the definition laid on him.

Well, I don’t know, maybe it’s all over. Then again, ask Mr. Dean how he thought things were going the first week of January. Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to climb out of the echo chamber long enough to report back to you as best I can.