The Dangers of Sticking to a Story Line

Former President Bill Clinton addresses the audience on the second day of the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library April 9, 2014 in Austin, Texas. The summit is marking the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act legislation, with U.S. President Barack Obama making the keynote speech on April 10. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
May 5, 2014, 5:28 p.m.

At a re­cent lec­ture at his alma ma­ter, Geor­getown Uni­versity, former Pres­id­ent Clin­ton aired a com­plaint pre­vi­ously heard from vari­ous press sec­ret­ar­ies and com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­ors. “If a poli­cy­maker is a polit­ic­al lead­er and is covered primar­ily by the polit­ic­al press, there is a crav­ing that bor­ders on ad­dict­ive to have a story line,” Clin­ton said. “And then once people settle on the story line, there is a crav­ing that bor­ders on blind­ness to shoe­horn every fact, every de­vel­op­ment, every thing that hap­pens in­to the story line, even if it’s not the story.”

Hav­ing prac­ticed journ­al­ism — as with golf and so many oth­er things, you nev­er get to per­fec­tion — for 30 years, I think Clin­ton is right, and in­creas­ingly so. Journ­al­ists con­tin­ue to face mount­ing pres­sure to max­im­ize Web clicks, cre­at­ing a new pe­jor­at­ive me­dia lex­icon, such as the danger of be­com­ing “click whores” by us­ing cer­tain story lines as “click bait” — ac­tions that un­doubtedly have a lot of “old-time” journ­al­ists rolling in their graves. Too of­ten, short­cuts are made to make a story sex­i­er than the real­ity ac­tu­ally is.

At the same time, there is value when, if the facts al­low it, a journ­al­ist cre­ates a nar­rat­ive that al­lows read­ers who have lives and day jobs and are not totally im­mersed in polit­ics to bet­ter un­der­stand, with­in a lar­ger con­text, what is go­ing on. The trick is to do it without com­mit­ting the sin Clin­ton com­plained about: “to shoe­horn every fact, every de­vel­op­ment, every thing that hap­pens in­to the story line, even if it’s not the story.”

Journ­al­ists have to be in­tel­lec­tu­ally hon­est enough to not cherry-pick facts and ar­gu­ments that sup­port their story line, es­pe­cially if there are plenty of oth­er facts and cir­cum­stances that con­tra­dict it. In­deed, the omis­sion of facts is one of the graver sins that takes place far too of­ten on vari­ous cable polit­ic­al shows, as well on as the more ideo­lo­gic­al blogs and pub­lic­a­tions. These out­lets in­clude what fits in­to a story line or ideo­lo­gic­al point of view, ig­nor­ing oth­er things that sup­port an al­tern­at­ive con­clu­sion.

A le­git­im­ate nar­rat­ive for the 2014 midterms is that while little is likely to hap­pen in the House be­cause there simply aren’t enough com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts and highly vul­ner­able seats on either side for very many seats to change hands, in the Sen­ate there is a ver­it­able per­fect storm of factors that all work to the det­ri­ment of Demo­crat­ic hopes to re­tain a ma­jor­ity.

First and least im­port­ant is simple nu­mer­ic­al ex­pos­ure. Demo­crats have 21 seats up for reelec­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans only 15, so Demo­crats have more places to lose seats and few­er op­por­tun­it­ies to gain.

Far more im­port­ant is the second factor: The map is about as ugly as it can get for Demo­crats. When one party (Demo­crats, in this case) has sev­en seats up in states won by the op­pos­ite party (Re­pub­lic­ans) in the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, and the oth­er party has just one such seat (which isn’t in any danger), the first party has a prob­lem. And be­cause six of those sev­en Demo­crat­ic seats are in states that Mitt Rom­ney won by 14 points or more — co­in­cid­ent­ally the same num­ber of seats that Re­pub­lic­ans need to score a net gain — the pic­ture is really ugly. While there are some pivotal Sen­ate con­tests that are not in states in­her­ently chal­len­ging for Demo­crats (Iowa, Michigan, and, to a cer­tain ex­tent, Col­or­ado be­ing the most ob­vi­ous ex­amples), there are far more states such as Alaska, Arkan­sas, Geor­gia, Ken­tucky, Louisi­ana, Montana, North Car­o­lina, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia that are par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­at­ic for the party. It isn’t un­til you get to the third tier of seats (Min­nesota, Ore­gon, and Vir­gin­ia) that you find states that aren’t worse than the na­tion­al av­er­age for Demo­crats.

After num­bers and the map, the third factor to con­sider is tim­ing. In pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the elect­or­ate looks more or less like the coun­try and is quite di­verse. Voters in midterm elec­tions, however, are in­creas­ingly older, whiter, more con­ser­vat­ive, and more Re­pub­lic­an, ex­acer­bat­ing an already dif­fi­cult situ­ation in 2014. While the pres­id­en­tial-versus-midterm elec­tion turnout con­trast is not en­tirely de­term­in­at­ive, it is ex­tremely im­port­ant. In the 2006 midterms, when Demo­crats scored big, Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and the GOP were weighed down heav­ily by the in­creas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial Ir­aq War, chan­ging everything com­pletely.

The fourth and fi­nal factor is the mood of the pub­lic. With Pres­id­ent Obama and his sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ment, the Af­ford­able Care Act, both “un­der­wa­ter,” or “up­side down” in poll­ster par­lance, the cur­rent polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is not good for Demo­crats. While most oth­er ma­jor na­tion­al polls, in con­trast to the new ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll, aren’t show­ing Obama at re­cord-low ap­prov­al rat­ings, the oth­ers peg him not far above that mark. Most show him run­ning a couple of points bet­ter than a few months ago, which is no sure sign that Obama has turned a corner; his num­bers are still bad, just not quite as bad as last fall or in the dead of the winter. When the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment gets this bad, some­times it makes a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of in­de­pend­ent and swing voters tilt to­ward the op­pos­ite party, some­times it simply dis­il­lu­sions voters in the pres­id­ent’s party and makes them more likely to stay home on Elec­tion Day, and some­times both of these things hap­pen. Polls in­dic­ate this is a real danger in 2014; in­deed, polls show Re­pub­lic­an voters, par­tic­u­larly con­ser­vat­ive ones, who just can’t wait to vote.

Between now and Elec­tion Day, there will be lots of “click-worthy” bait to tempt us. A poll num­ber here. A health care en­roll­ment num­ber there. But, as with a sug­ar high, the buzz will wear off al­most as quickly as it comes. In­stead, pay more at­ten­tion to the less sexy but more im­port­ant fun­da­ment­als of 2014: the map and the mood. That is a story line that will re­main rel­ev­ant for the rest of the cycle.

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