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Obama SwoonWatch

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I admittedly have been watching a lot of non-news-related TV for work the past few days. But judging by the post-South Carolina, post-Kennedy-endorsement election coverage, it seems worth asking: is the political media in the midst of a post-Iowa-style Obama swoon again?


A little disclosure: New York’s primary is next Tuesday, the Super one, and I’ll be voting for Obama. Maybe it’s a stupid idea to disclose that, but I’m neither a political reporter nor pundit, and I think the idea of pretend disinterestedness does no one any good. Regardless, as a critic it’s not my job to try to elect anyone; even if I share few beliefs with Mike Huckabee, I’ll gladly write about how the coastal-media stereotypes about Evangelicals have affected his campaign. And as we saw after Iowa, overexcitement and a skewed picture of reality does no one any good, whether it goes in my candidate’s favor or not.

Disclosure over. So anyway: this new swoon–if it’s a swoon–has some objective basis. Swoons always do. Obama doubled Hillary’s vote in South Carolina, and picked up more white votes than polls had been projecting. That’s not nothing. He picked up endorsements from Ted and Caroline Kennedy. That may possibly be not nothing. (Endorsements are notoriously nebulous things.) Not a bad couple days.

But what’s that the mutual funds say about past performance being no guarantee of future results? That’s where the media went off the rails post-Iowa–it was a tsunami! Hillary was on the verge of dropping out! And crescendoing with the Kennedy endorsement yesterday, things were starting to sound a touch swoon-y again. Kennedy would deliver Hispanics to Obama! And the blue-collar middle class! Voters were turning against Bill Cinton and his rhetoric! “Something fundamental has shifted in the Democratic party,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times.

All of that might be true going forward. It might not. But we’ve kinda gotta, you know, go forward before we know. Are actual voters who are going to cast their ballots changing their minds because of Bill, or are the pundits (again) overestimating the extent to which the public feels like they do? How about we wait until some actual voters vote–or, at the very least, until new polls come in–before we decide how they’re voting?

Again, I haven’t been watching political news 24/7, but from where I’ve been sitting, Hardball with Chris Matthews last night was looking like the swoon epicenter. How could it not be? There was a Kennedy involved! Even on an average day, Matthews is glad to set the dials on his time machine for 1961, and here it was irresistable: a Kennedy on stage–no, two–no, three! Introducing his show, Matthews went into a long and bizarre speech about how the moment brought us, including those whippersnappers too young to remember, to the good old days of the New Frontier, before the acrimony of the late ’60s, the days of optimism, of progress, of, I am not making this up, “short haircuts” and “narrow ties.”

There’s something peculiar going on with Matthews and this Democratic primary. A lot of people have said there’s a sexist or misogynistic tone to his criticism of Hillary, and I do think Matthews’ political views are colored by a very male-centric view of politics and personalities. (Is there a more male title on television than Hardball?) But for Matthews last night, it was not the boys against the girls. It was the Good Sixties versus the Bad Sixties. Mad Men versus The Wonder Years. It is probably true, as Andrew Sullivan says, that younger Obama voters want in part to reject a political dialogue dictated by the grievances of Baby Boomers. But Matthews is talking here about moving the dialogue even farther back, to the Sinatra-era Sixties, before everyone got smelly, let their hair go and listened to Joe Cocker.

To the punditocracy’s credit, we haven’t reached the heights of the post-Iowa swoon yet. Nobody’s wondering how soon Hillary will drop out, and you have to imagine that the media haven’t totally forgotten the lessons of New Hampshire already. Still, it’s hard not to see that the punditocracy embraces bad news for Hillary and good news for Obama more eagerly than the opposite.

Call me cynical, but I wonder if the Obama campaign has thought about making this media dynamic part of their electability argument. The press has a famously contentious relationship with the Hillary Clinton campaign and a famously cozy one with John McCain, who has a good shot at being the Republican nominee. “Barack Obama: Because the press is even more in the tank for us than for John McCain!” Surely there’s a way of making that into a catchy bumper sticker.

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