Politico produces much valuable reporting. Yet it is also frequently problematic. As John Sides and Ezra Klein have long noted, and as its editors admit in a recent interview, Politico is resistant to analyses that Nate Silver and many scholars on and off the Monkey Cage offer. For Silver, “’it’s not that they are too ‘insidery’ per se, but that the perceptions of Beltway insiders, which Politico echoes and embraces, are not always very insightful or accurate.” This criticism is valid, but the limitations of Politico’s politics as game approach go beyond a resistance to insights drawn from political science.
Here is a quintessential Politico piece on the “Clueless Caucus” of conservatives who are complicating the “messaging” efforts of GOP leaders. The reporters uncritically reproduce the spin of the GOP establishment elites. Their identification with these sources appears total. Except for a defensive Trent Franks, the “Clueless Caucus” are voiceless objects of disdain dismissed as “doofuses.” There is no discussion of the possibility that any of these politicians are sincere in their views and little indication that they represent a real segment of the Republican Party. Those possibilities might explain why such inconvenient views somehow keep cropping up, despite the best efforts of GOP message mavens, but they are not investigated here. Readers are offered no explanation of the resulting GOP messaging problem beyond the random idiocy of a few reverberating in the controversy-loving media. No attempt is made to explain how the non-clueless quote-worthy GOP differs from their clueless co-partisans on policy either. Is the divide between the clued-in and the clueless opposition to allowing abortion in cases of rape, or just mentioning this position? Politico scribes do not say.
The Politico writers are not willing to openly state that some restrictions on abortion are wrong, for example, or that immigration reform is a good thing. They only offer a claim that some people are “stupid,” which is a way of taking a value position without owning up to it as a “non-partisan” “objective” journalist. In this form of journalism if people are disdained by the leaders of both parties it’s all right to mock them, even though you can’t acknowledge having any policy preferences yourself.
Relatedly, the article includes the inevitable false equivalence required in a story that is critical of some Republicans. Without a balancing dig at Democrats Politico reporters could be accused of partisanship, a sin much worse than inaccuracy, apparently.
So where is the Democratic Clueless Caucus? Who is the Democratic Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock? Politico offers us Howard Dean and Ashley Judd. Leaving aside whether what Dean and Judd said was really equivalent to what “The Clueless Caucus” has, Dean has not run for office since 2004 and has had no official role in his party for several years. Judd did not even end up running for the Senate, let alone become a Democratic nominee. The Politico reporters say message control is harder for the out party, but even when Bush was President did the Democrats nominate Dennis Kucinich or Barbara Lee for a competitive Senate seat? The asymmetric nature of polarization has been repeatedly documented by political scientists of widely differing approaches, something reporters have noted, but it is very hard for journalists working in the Politico mode to acknowledge.
Unacknowledged normative preferences, total identification with sources and no analysis of the asymmetric polarization that is one of the central features of contemporary American politics—that’s a lot of badness that goes beyond disdain for social science! Not every story needs to be accompanied by a bar chart or a reference to an academic study. There is a place for horse-race coverage and personality profiles. Reproducing the self-serving spin of political elites is much less helpful, however. Politico would serve readers much better by acknowledging the sources of divisions within and between parties that complicate the messaging efforts of the pols they like to quote.