Winning by losing. Jay Rosen is among the more thoughtful observers of media today. A leading light in the fading "public journalism" movement and chairman of the journalism department at New York University, he writes a weblog - "Pressthink" - that is part of the online community "Blogging of the President."
Recently Rosen wrote this post on an encounter he'd witnessed between CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich. Rosen was repulsed by Blitzer's focus on horse-race questions, and on his repeated badgering of Kucinich as to why he's doing so badly in the presidential campaign and why he doesn't just get out of the race. Rosen writes:
When the press looks for its credibility problems today, it ought to look more at moments like these. To me, it's in-credible, Blitzer's question. The public service validity I assign it is zero. Most of the audience, most of the time, senses the bad faith in it, whether we "like" Kucinich or not. In a catalogue of low points for the campaign press (which, done well, is an idea for a kick-ass weblog... ) this was one.
Political man gives it his best shot. He runs in order to speak to the country, and to see if the country listens and responds. It is for others to say why he failed when he is still in the campaign to succeed. Intuitively we know this. Blitzer, in a boorish way, does not.
What I find fascinating about Rosen's post is that he gets an important point half-right. Yes, the media are generally dreadful to candidates who can't garner much support, alternately ignoring them or mocking them. Yet Kucinich has essentially invited the Blitzer's "boorish" behavior by playing the game of mainstream expectations rather than trying to rise above it.
As a presidential candidate, Kucinich has worn well, at least with me. At first, I saw him as little more than a Ralph Nader wanna-be - a fringe pain in the ass with nothing interesting to say and no record of accomplishment, unless you count throwing the city of Cleveland into default as its boy mayor a generation ago an accomplishment.
But he's shown that he's a serious candidate of ideas. He forced me to go back and look at his record in Cleveland. It turns out he sacrificed his mayoralty over a principled refusal to give in to the banks and sell the city's municipal power plant - not smart, perhaps, but certainly courageous.
Kucinich's plan to sit down with the UN and negotiate a transfer of power in Iraq - about which he straightened out Tom Brokaw at the January 29 debate - is reasonable and sensible, a far cry from the cut-and-run caricature it has usually been portrayed as.
As for a Department of Peace, well, why not?
Where Kucinich continues to annoy me is when he espouses his increasingly absurd scenarios for how he's going to win. For instance, here is Kucinich's response to Brokaw's why-don't-you-get-out question at the last debate:
Well, Tom, keep in mind, there's so much talent on this stage that I believe this race is going to go all the way to the convention. And what that means - no one's going to get 50 percent of the delegates going to the convention. And I expect to be able to pick up delegates, state by state. And I'll arrive at the convention right in the mix for the nomination, and I look forward to it.
He's still going to win! Contrast this with the Reverend Al Sharpton's response to the same question, the highlight of which was this: "They ought to want all of us to stay in and bring our constituency to the table rather than try to eliminate."
Sharpton is being realistic and truthful: he's running for a place at the table. Kucinich is in la-la land.
The problem here is that Kucinich knew he wasn't going to win the day he announced, and everyone - Wolf Blitzer and Tom Brokaw included - knows Kucinich knows he isn't going to win. So when Blitzer acts "boorish" and Brokaw is dismissive, they are, in at least some small way, reacting to the intellectual contempt that Kucinich is showing not just to them, but to their audiences as well.
A far more honest - and disarming - answer to Blitzer's question would have been this:
Wolf, I know I'm not going to win. I'm running to give a voice to people who are rarely heard from: the poor, the disenfranchised, the working-class families who've been hurt by our so-called free-trade policies. And I'm running to stand up against war. No one in this race, not even Howard Dean, is as committed to peace as I am. Like Al Sharpton, I want a place at the table. I want to help change my party, to make it a better, more principled vehicle for progressive aspirations. Four years ago we lost the presidency because too many voters saw Ralph Nader as a better alternative to Al Gore. We need to bring those people back inside the tent. And that's what I'm going to do.
What would Blitzer have said to that? "But you're still losing"? Perhaps. But at least viewers would have understood what Kucinich is really fighting for. And Blitzer would have been more fully exposed for asking a buffoonish, bullying question.