Der Spiegel’s Strange American Political Coverage

21 May

One of the more bizarre and frustrating reads of the 2008 presidential race has been Gabor Steingart’s “West Wing” column for Germany’s Der Spiegel.  It’s not because Steingart has been a strong skeptic of an Obama nomination since the beginning of the primaries, it’s that his skepticism is symptomatic of a larger misunderstanding of the American political scene.  Consider this from last week’s column in which Steingart begins sensibly enough by admitting that Obama is the likely nominee:

The right to make mistakes has been exercised extensively during this campaign, at times also by the author of this column. “All of those people who’ve been dreaming of America’s first black president now have to slowly wake up. It’ll happen one day, hopefully, but not in this election,” it was claimed after Barack Obama’s losses in New Hampshire and Nevada. The column was entitled “The End of the Obama Revolution.” (more…)

The chances that the next US president will be black and a Democrat are better than ever before in American history. The revolution continues — even if the skepticism remains.

What we are talking about here, though, is not a series of mistakes. It’s betrayal. During this election campaign, a large part of the American media has neglected to carefully follow the principles of the profession. In fact, some were about as loyal to those principles as Eliot Spitzer to his wife.

Okay, so contra Steingart’s earlier ananlysis, Obama isn’t too black or inexperienced for American voters.  And why was Steingart mistaken?  Had he misread the current political moment? Nope, it’s because the American electorate (and by implication, Steingart) were betrayed by journalists who are less interested in subtantive policy discussions than style and gaffe reporting:

Many questions could be posed that are hard to beat in terms of drama. What would happen if the Democrats really were to withdraw the US Army from Iraq? How does Barack Obama plan to address the threat that the killing fields of Cambodia could be repeated in Basra and Baghdad? Does he have a plan or even an idea for dealing with the day after?

How do the Republicans plan to end the scandal of the uninsured? Some 47 million people in America now have no health insurance. Around 9 million have been added to that total during the seven years George W. Bush has been in power. This is the greatest market failure since the invention of modern capitalism.

Will Steingart be doing more than rhetorically asking about either Obama’s Iraq plans or McCain’s healthcare proposal, as if neither of these things exist?  No, he will not. But these questions are relatively easy to answer. Former Obama adviser Samantha Power made it clear (as Jonathan Chait recently noted) that any withdrawal plan will be shaped by facts on the ground, not on some months-old campaign speculation.  And John McCain does indeed have a plan–just not, as Ezra Klein (another journalist!) has pointed out, not a very good one.  Granted, there are problems with the coverage of campaigns and policy issues (something that Ezra Klein also covered incisively in this LA Times op-ed).  But Steingart’s problem stems from a confused perspective of the American political landscape.  Take this comment from his latest column suggesting that conservative parties worldwide are heading left:

The same makeover is taking place everywhere in the West. Aggressive conservatives like former German politician Franz-Josef Strauss, one-time Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and former Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy have been deleted from their parties’ collective memories. In Sweden, the conservatives have taken to calling themselves the New Moderates.

Perhaps this holds true for the European manifestations, but Barry Goldwater? It would help to understand that the closest, politically viable heir to Goldwater’s politics (and not the conservative movement he spawned that helped elect Regan as the movement’s successor) it’s the man who holds Goldwater’s Senate seat: John McCain.  It would also help to note where Goldwater ended up as a conservative, which was someone who believed gays should serve in the military, the religious-right was a pernicious influence on the Republican party, and that women should have the right (though he was personally against it) to chose and abortion (which makes Ron Paul the closest ideological fellow traveler, but even Paul falls short).  McCain may buck Republican orthodoxy from time to time, but he’s still to the right of Goldwater.  The Republican party dumped Barry not because it wants to move left, but because it’s been moving rightward for 20 plus years.  This is an ahistorical account of American politics.

And it gets better.  Steingart has argued that Democrats need to turn right to win, showing the country that they’re not beholden to a strongly left-wing base (conventional wisdom continually reminds us of the necessity of  “Sister Souljah” moments).  As an example he notes how “Clinton was a seasoned hound in this respect. He appointed a green leftist as his vice president, only to sideline him later on.”  Which wasn’t the case at all.  Al Gore was a DLC Democrat like Clinton, who also happened to be an environmental policy nerd.  Clinton made the politically canny choice of doubling down on his “New Democrat” message, not by sidelining a lefty appointment.

There aren’t many good explanations for this sort of coverage other than to say that Steingart has some unexamined biases that keep contaminating his analysis or that he isn’t as well versed in American politics and political history as he thinks he is.  Regardless, I’d argue that Der Spiegel needs to assign someone else to cover the rest of the 2008 presidential elections or that Germans should look for their American campaign coverage elsewhere.

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