“We Shouldn’t Have Allowed” the Cameras In.

I’m not surprised that the House Republican caucus’s takeaway from the floor-wiping they took at the hands of Barack Obama today in Baltimore is that they really need to avoid these kinds of transparent, unmediated interaction with an enemy they’ve painted as everything from a Marxian socialist to a Kenyan interloper. After all, look at the damned tape. They sounded worse than they looked, which is kind of an amazing statement considering John  Boehner’s year round Ohio tan.

The instant consensus is that the Republicans were sandbagged by Obama, who accepted their invitation to speak at their retreat and … negotiated that cameras be allowed to run throughout, from his prepared statements through the Q&A, which, in its back and forth of charge and summary refutation, is where the GOP caucus pretty well — okay, completely — choked on its own talking points and tripped over its lobbyist-tied wing tips.

I’m a big fan of Prime Minister’s Question Time, (the British version). Gordon Brown is a stiff, as we all know. A pale shadow of Tony Blair, who clearly loved the play of batting away every zinger the opposition threw his way. But good entertainment aside, the weekly event allows the public — you know, those pesky voters — a far, FAR more real and relevant assessment of opposing arguments than canned commercials and/or, god help us, 15 second sound bites fine sliced for commercial news. Everyone wins a few and everyone loses a few, and even a natural TV performer like Blair — currently tap-dancing his way through an official British inquiry into how they/we got into Iraq (something else we don’t do here) — couldn’t hide, in the end, his lack of diligence on the pre-war intelligence and skepticism at what the Bush-Cheney team was selling him.

The early reviews of today’s Obama v. GOP Baltimore event have been ecstatic — from the White House and liberals and some of the better media watchers — people critical of the bizarre isolation of dialogue on matters of enormous national relevance to competing cable channels and flying counter-charges in the “serious press”. This event today, whether wholly plotted by Team Obama, or accepted based on his supreme confidence in controlling any crowd at any time, is smacking some as a revelation. And it should.

There’s zero chance the Republicans — whose last President barnstormed around the country speaking to tightly controlled groups of fawning sycophants and even then frequently screened their questions for, you know, anything unpleasant — will consent to something like this Baltimore thing on a regular basis, and certainly not with live cameras. The reason? They know they have no game in a direct debate. They’re legislative “success” to date is based entirely on obstruction and outrageous-to-absurd fear-mongering, (death panels, 13 year-olds getting federally-funded abortions, wholesale socialism, an Obama-created deficit triple everything that’s come before  — points for chutzpah to Texas Cong. Jeb Hensarling for wading into that one).

Despite their incessant talk about “beliefs”, (like merely “believing” something is a virtue of any great value), little to none of that translates into an actual legislative agenda, with coherent, fiscally-responsible bills and such, designed to solve bona fide problems. And no, I don’t consider “the march toward socialism” a major, bona fide issue. Modern Republicans have an act that only really works when the opposition — Obama, mainly — in is isolated in the abstract, as the ghoulish “Joker” face sawing the legs out from under our our “freedoms”. (I.e. the “freedom” to “believe” whatever we damned well please, any evidence to the contrary.)

But one on one, face to face, live, and un-cut by any restless, fidgety editor/news director at FoxNews, MSNBC or WCCO, Obama not only sounds reasonable and in command of his facts — reminding Hensarling et al where all that debt came from and how much was built into the system he inherited —  the Republicans don’t. They sound like parrots in the echo chamber, struggling to re-phrase their standard town hall talking points into something just a wee bit more polite … in deference to the actual physical presence of the President. (Joe “You lie!” Wilson did not ask a question as far as I can tell.)

Frankly I was always disappointed that Bill Clinton didn’t try the live Question Time thing with Newt Gingrich and the, um, great legislative opposition of his era. But from what I’ve read, Clinton had far less patience with witless demagoguery … and loved to hear himself talk more than made for good dialogue. Obama has all of Clinton’s brain power — the control over and retrieval of facts and factoids — compounded with far more patience (too much, for some of our tastes) for such mano a mano repartee.

The associated complaint here, and Obama hit it, again, today in Baltimore, is that the modern media — and not just the circus shows on Fox and MSNBC — prefers conflict and the appearance of combat to assessing the truth of countering arguments, much less, god forbid!, a complete airing of the President responding to his most immediate critics, face to face. (Cable channels obviously carried the event today. But in a world where  “Two and a Half Men” is a hit, it’s very hard imagining a broadcast network blowing out an hour and a half a month for anything so … so … relevant.)

Given the instantaneous and all-but universal reaction to today’s Baltimore event, I fully expect the Republicans to politely decline any offer to expand the shtick to a monthly TV act, and for them to “instruct” their leadership to turn the damned cameras off the next time they’re caught in a room with Obama … or any countering argument.direct marketing nice

Can Independents Keep FECES Out of the Guber Debate?

I enjoy discussing public affairs issues, but I increasingly avoid the subject with many of my friends. Too often, conversations dead-end when conflict averse friends make assertions of false equivalence, or what has been termed “Fake Equivalence Conflict Ending Strategies (FECES).”

For instance, on the subject of Republicans abusing the U.S. Senate fillibuster rules, conservative and centrist friends will shut down the conversation by saying that “both parties have done that through history.” On the subject of Democrats loading the budget with uncontrolled entitlement programs, liberal and centrist friends will stop the exhange by saying “the Medicare prescription drug benefit shows Republicans are just as guilty.”

Complete and utter FECES.

Yes, both Republicans and Democrats have filibustered. But the record shows that Republicans have recently taken the practice to dramatic depths.

Yes, Republicans also have passed entitlements financed by deficit spending, such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit. But that pales in comparison to the body of entitlement work parented by Democrats over the years.

These kinds of differences are very relevant if we are to have an accountable political system. How we debate and how we think through issues matters. Before accepting A=B and B=C therefore A=C, we MUST apply facts and logic to prove or disprove those equal signs! Because when research or logic uncovers a “≠,” the logic of the assertion collapses.

In Minnesota, the Independence Party particularly seems to be built on a foundation of FECES. Their core rationale essentially is that “both major parties are equally dumb/immoral/unethical/corrupt/inept” and therefore the only choice for non- dumb/immoral/unethical/corrupt/inept people is to vote for us.”

That’s a copout. The differences between the parties are real and easily discernible. The major parties are similar in some ways, such as a shared addiction to power retention. But there are big policy and performance differences, and it is our job as voters to dig deep to understand those differences, rather than buying into the myth of sameness.

I confess that I’ve voted for Independent Party candidates for Governor, and may do it again this year. But sooner or later the Indendence Party has to have a foundation that is more substantive than their stale “we’re not them!” cheer.

Maybe this year will be different. A leading candidate for the Independence Party nomination for Governor in 2010 is a fellow named Tom Horner. Despite being a PR guy, Horner is a bright, decent and thoughtful Republican refugee. He is the kind of guy who has the potential to lead the Independents to being something more than a None-of-the-Above Party launching yet another tiresome FECES fight. It will be interesting to see if he does.

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I was summoned to a meeting with Clear Channel Communications “talk radio guru”/consultant, Gabe Hobbs, after only a couple weeks on the job. Having just spent a chunk of the previous 15 years covering radio consultants, or more accurately, the inanity and chaos they left behind, I was prepared to sit across from a complete cartoon.  (OK, not every radio consultant I had met or interviewed was a “complete” cartoon. But that’s a little like saying “some cigarettes are good for you”, to which you reply, “yeah, the ones you don’t smoke.”)

In their wisdom the local Clear Channel group had decided that “a WCCO for the 21st century” was the way to go for the FM talk experiment they were starting up. By this they meant, I think, (I guessed), something just a bit hipper than Roger Strom’s farm reports and 37 minutes of commercials, teases, promos and traffic reports per hour. (And I LIKED Strom’s farm reports … at least then I knew I wasn’t in AnyMetro, USA.) My partner, Sarah Janecek (of Politics in Minnesota), and I were told that the new station, KTLK, wanted to prove that a lefty and a righty could co-exist with civility and humor. (I mean two scorpions in a bottle is pretty funny, right?)

So there we were meeting with Hobbs, just in from Florida on a brutally cold, grey, miserable January day. I struggled to ignore his orange hair and tamp down the siren in my brain shrieking, “CARTOON!”

After saying that he wasn’t sure what to make of the idea of dogs and cats playing together, Hobbs conceded he was intrigued by the righty-gal vs. the lefty-guy dynamic. And then he got to the nut of modern (conservative) talk radio.

(I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but I swear the essentials are accurate.) “Try to keep in mind,” said Hobbs, “that the average listener for a show like yours is a 42 year-old guy who doesn’t follow the news all that close but is listening because he doesn’t want to be left out of the discussion. What he wants from you is something he can bring to conversations at work and at home. Something that makes it appear he’s in touch with what’s going on. You’re not here to educate him so much as you are to give him a few ideas he can throw out to feel like he’s part of the conversation.” Since this image so thoroughly gelled with the image I’d had for years of the Limbaugh Dittoheads and the rest, my Austin Powers-like obsession (“mole-y. mole-y, mole-y, mole-y”) with Hobbs’ tan, sports sweater and terra cotta-tinted hairdo subsided.

A radio audience of middle-aged guys who, for whatever the reason — distraction, indifference, laziness and/or stupidity — haven’t done their own homework on the big events of the day but want to pretend they have among their workmates, pals and spouses, by staying up to date with the bumper sticker slogan du jour. Hmmm, and I guessed “Make Love Not War” wasn’t exactly what these guys wanted to repeat down at the office, across forklifts in the warehouse, or over dinner, to impress the wife and kids with how tough it is out in there in a real man’s world. Beyond Hobbs’ carefully parsed point, is this: The “pretense” of thoughtful consideration, at least in terms of a commercially successful narrative delivered via mass media, requires much … much … heavier doses of simplicity and indignant finger-pointing than scholarly nuance.

The show that followed was, by any objective assessment, a disaster. Rabid scorpions were more civil … and a lot funnier. (A classic moment: The Tom Tancredo “illegal immigrant” hysteria was raging on every other radio show. But our producer had put together a funny montage of sound bites and told me, “After the open, get to this as fast as possible.” For some reason Sarah hadn’t got the heads-up on that one. She wanted to brawl out of the gate. So as I’m yabbering about a weird piece of nonsense I heard, trying to set up the bit, she’s coming at me with both barrels. “The Democrats … ” were playing politics with immigration!!!  Yadda yadda. Loud and furious. A minute into the show. There’s no hope of getting to the taped bit. But the first scheduled break is still six or seven minutes off. Which means our producer is not expecting me to say, “OK, we’ll be right back … ” when I do. Which also means he’s slow to cut my mike as I, thinking we’ve gone to commercial, turn to Sarah and shout, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Apparently the commercial largely obscured the bad word, although not enough to prevent a head from popping open the studio door and asking,  “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?” )

Sarah and I have remained friends, but within a month of launching the show, Clear Channel ordered a “hard right turn” — playing to where the audience already was (screw that experimenting with a “21st century ‘CCO” crap) — and the negotiating to bring Jason Lewis back to town ramped up in earnest.

This is all a lot of set-up for a couple thoughts on the little-lamented demise of Air America, the “liberal alternative” to the monolithic presence of conservative-radio. There are roughly 12,500 radio stations in the U.S., 22% fall under “news/talk” and “religious”. The former describes a few, like WCCO, and WBBM in Chicago, but mostly its conservative talk,  and the vast majority of the “religious” are conservative-driven. Moreover, a significant of those conservative stations are full-power licenses, broadcasting across the entirety of  all of the biggest metro areas in the country. By … stark … contrast, from its inception in 2004 Air America was confined to much lower-power AM stations that only barely blanketed the entirety of the few  metro markets they could buy in to.

But the bigger problem — by far — is the mindset of your average liberal, who, in my unscientific survey is a somewhat different animal than Gabe Hobbs’ mythical under-informed 42 year-old male.  For one thing, if the gender breakout of national delegates is any indication, the average liberal is more likely to be a woman than a man. But, in my experience, there’s also the very familiar liberal quality of believing you already are the smartest guy/gal in the room, which means you hardly need some cartoonish radio bloviator spoon-feeding you your “fact of the day”. More likely — if you’re a liberal in the media — the liberal audience with whom you think you are simpatico will rear up and quarrel with every interpretation of statistics, trends and historical reference you dare make. They know better and if just given the chance could do better.

Where conservative media audiences display a startling affinity for what I’ve called “The Big Daddy Guru Complex”, pompous-to-preposterous all-knowing father figures, liberals, more often than not, maintain the attitude that “big daddy” is a bit of a ponce, and needs to be brought down a peg.

The relevancy here is the current context of Obama/liberals trying to restart … oh hell, invent … a narrative as compelling and digestible and easily transferable as the one the conservative opposition has going.

To illuminate the problem, three dead-on quotes from the past week:

From Joe Klein at TIME:

“Absolutely amazing poll results from CNN today about the $787 stimulus package: nearly three out of four Americans think the money has been wasted. On second thought, they may be right: it’s been wasted on them. Indeed, the largest single item in the package–$288 billion–is tax relief for 95% of the American public. This money is that magical $60 to $80 per month you’ve been finding in your paycheck since last spring. Not a life changing amount, but helpful in paying the bills.

“The next highest amount was $275 billion in grants and loans to states. This is why your child’s teacher wasn’t laid off…and why the fire station has remained open, and why you’re not paying even higher state and local taxes to close the local budget hole.

“It turns out that what people are really upset about is all that wasteful money that has gone to political public works projects…except that the overwhelming portion of that money hasn’t been spent yet. Remember all those “shovel-ready” projects? Well, they didn’t exist. The big jobs-creating projects like the rebuilt “smart” electric grid, major highways and fast trains will come on line during the next year.

“So, two thoughts:

“1. The Obama Administration has done a terrible job explaining the stimulus package to the American people…especially since there have been very few documented cases of waste so far.

“2. This is yet further evidence that Americans are flagrantly ill-informed…and, for those watching Fox News, misinformed.

“It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don’t make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you’re a nation of dodos.”

And E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post:

“But the success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much money and that things have not turned around as fast as they hoped.
Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed to dent the right’s narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side.

“The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

“Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the very conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics than it ought to be.”

And Drew Westen via The Huffington Post:

“We have competing ideas in a democracy — and hence competing parties — for a reason. To paper them over and pretend they do not exist, particularly when the ideology of one of the parties has proven so devastating to the lives of everyday Americans, is not a virtue. It is an abdication of responsibility.

“What happens if you refuse to lay the blame for the destruction of our economy on anyone — particularly the party, leaders, and ideology that were in power for the last 8 years and were responsible for it? What happens if you fail to “brand” what has happened as the Bush Depression or the Republican Depression or the natural result of the ideology of unregulated greed, the way FDR branded the Great Depression as Hoover’s Depression and created a Democratic majority for 50 years and a new vision of what effective government can do? What happens when you fail to offer and continually reinforce a narrative about what has happened, who caused it, and how you’re going to fix it that Americans understand, that makes them angry, that makes them hopeful, and that makes them committed to you and your policies during the tough times that will inevitably lie ahead?

“The answer was obvious a year ago, and it is even more obvious today: Voters will come to blame you for not having solved a problem you didn’t create, and you will allow the other side to create an alternative narrative for what’s happened (government spending, deficits, big government, socialism) that will stick. And it will particularly stick if you make no efforts to prevent it from starting or sticking.”

The takeaway is this: The Conservative narrative dominates this country because it is simple, asks (and requires) nothing of its audience other than that they accept it and express a kind of rote indignation … at others. It is as relentless as all good advertising in asserting a course of action through incessant repetition, (destroy all liberals.) And it is wholly unapologetic about any fallacies it has propagated or mistakes it has made.

Given the lack of 2000-plus radio stations to amplify a counter-narrative, as well as liberal resistance to paternalistic “guru-ism”, Obama and the few bona fide liberals in D.C. are at a profound disadvantage when it comes to a very real battle of relentless accusation and sloganized consensus-building , which, sadly, is what works quite effectively on largely apolitical 42 year-olds who just want to sound like they know what they’re talking about.

Bottom line: The burden to deliver such a message of constant attack — utterly justified in the case of how this economic disaster started — falls to a guy, Obama, who finds shamelessly demagogic rhetoric and divisive-ness-baiting beneath him and his idealistic standards of statesmanship.

Obama has to get over his “statesman”-like idealism and find his inner Huey Long. The rabble like to be roused.

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The Earth Shifts Orbit, the Sun Dims, Water Runs Uphill

No, these are not the end times.  And, no, this is not a wrap-up on yesterday’s Vikings’ performance (we should have just sent a letter that said, “Here, you take it, we don’t want it.”)

It’s something more important, more super-duper, more bigger than that. Apple is getting ready to make a new product announcement.

Unless every pundit on the tech beat is wrong, on Wednesday, Mr. Jobs will unveil a tablet device, something he’s apparently called, “The most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Unless you live in a totally tech-free environment, chances are you’ve heard something about this already.  The pre-announcement publicity on this device has been nothing short of amazing within the technology space.  The build-up has been coming on for months – way back to August at least – and hit the afterburners about two weeks ago when the Consumer Electronics Show ended.  Since then, this one announcement of this one device from one company has eclipsed pretty much the entire CES buzz (3D TV, in case you’ve forgotten).

All without uttering a word.  The entire media plan, including key messages, Q&A, FAQs, etc. leading up to Wednesday is contained in, “We don’t comment on rumors and speculation.”

Period.  And, if David Carr, writing in the New York Times, is right, there’s no nudge-nudge, wink-wink backchanneling going on either.  His column yesterday pretty much captured the magic that is an Apple announcement.

I guess the lesson for those of us who are occasionally called upon to capture a tiny bit of this lightning in a bottle for our clients is, “Work for a company that inspires a cult-like following, produces great products, is led by a messianic-type CEO and that cultivates an air of mystery about how it does what it does.”

The danger with this sort of strategy is that reality doesn’t live up to the hype.  Apple experienced some of this with the introduction of the iPhone, but in general their products mostly live up to expectations.  And, in the tightly connected world in which we live in, the obsessives following every tick and tock of Apple’s product development process generally winkle out a pretty close picture of what’s coming by assembling little bits of information from all over the world.  The latest t0day, for example, is from a company that has picked up evidence of its apps – originally written for the iPhone – being run on an unidentified device in and around Apple’s headquarters.  This little tidbit strongly suggests that the new device will be running an updated version of the iPhone operating system (versus the Mac operating system) and will be able to run applications much like the iPhone.

I personally am expected to be let down by the announcement if the rumors are directionally right.  I want a full-fledged computing device, not a scaled-up iPhone, one that runs lots of apps simulataneously and something that’s priced at the mid-point between the $200 iPhone and the $1000 iBook.  It doesn’t look like I’ll be getting what I want, but I’m prepared to be convinced.

And, probably, to stand in line to buy one (iPhone) or at least play with it (Mac Air).

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Purple Nails On Chalkboard

Like The Paul baseball team (see below), it’s awesome to see that the Artist Formerly Known As Relevant is also on the Purple bandwagon. He has emerged from the shadows of his Metrodome suite to offer up a Vikings victory verse to the face-painted masses:

Continue reading “Purple Nails On Chalkboard”