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October 26th 2012 print

Peter Smith

Empty heads and flapping mouths

TV punditry appears an undemanding occupation, as commentary on the US presidential election makes clear. A command of fact and background, an appreciation of culture and knowledge of history -- who needs those when there are so many empty cliches to be tapped



I sometimes tune in to Paul Murray Live on Sky News. Not often but sometimes. He seems middle of the road and not another of the usual left-wing hacks who occupy Australian television. He works with a panel of other journos. Journos talking with journos — in other words, the usual incestuous stuff that we have to put up with, as distinct from debate between people who actually do things that make the news.


But I don’t come to bury Mr Murray, whom I quite like, in a manly sort of way. I come only to be critical of the show he put on after the third presidential debate. What was quite clear is that no-one among Murray and his panel knew anything much about US politics. They mostly agreed that Obama had won the debate and was likely to win the presidency. But their opinions were patently secondhand.

They gave no impression that they had done any research on the US political situation or had a close knowledge of it. Were they aware of the latest opinion polls showing Romney gaining strength in the swing states?

Did they understand that an undecided voter at this stage, on past experience, is likely to vote for challenger Romney? Do they understand the importance of Obama getting his base out to vote when he hasn’t after all managed to get the oceans to fall and the world to heal or, more prosaically, to create jobs or reduce the deficit? Did they factor in the Benghazi-gate cover up?

Do they understand the importance of the evangelical vote which stayed at home last time, relatively speaking, but with Billy Graham’s implicit endorsement and the experience of the last abysmal four years is likely to be out in force for Romney this time?

Have they bothered to understand how radical Obama is and therefore, inevitably, what a pig’s ear he has made of the job at home and abroad. Do they understand that no-one who voted for McCain last time will vote for Obama; the movement will only be in the other direction?

Do they understand the potential importance of the Bradley effect in this election; a variant of which probably showed up in the recent Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election. When polled, people might not want to admit an intention to vote against Obama (as the first black president), but will do so at the ballot box.

No-one has a crystal ball, of course. I am simply saying that the view of Murray and his panel was worthless. That goes, so far as I can tell, for all of the media here. You might as well ask your next door neighbour on his way to the dog track or a footy match.

My own view (and it should be the hope of all of us who are of sound mind) is that Romney will win. Dick Morris (Fox News contributor, ex-Clinton adviser, and ex-pollster) thinks so too. Some unkindly suggest that Morris is always certain, but not always right. My wife also reminded me that I, too, have been wrong at times.

Whichever way the election finally goes, the third debate certainly showed a president fearing the possibility of loss. How else can you account for his petulant, in-your-face performance? You expect the incumbent president to take the high ground and be largely in command of the facts while the challenger fights for a foothold. Here we had a president constantly interrupting, contorting the truth (sound familiar) when it suited him, and taking a series of cheap shots which had nothing to do with the substantive issue at hand. For example:

…you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and economic policies of the 1920s….

…we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines….

…You are familiar with jobs being shipped overseas, because you invested in companies that were shipping jobs overseas.

In contrast Romney was presidential. “Attacking me is not an agenda”, he responded pointedly on two occasions.

Obama apparently won the debate, according to two snap polls. I doubt it in the minds of independent voters. If substance counts anymore in this twittering world, Romney won by a country mile. Cadence goes only so far. It can’t save him from a failed record, rudeness, bending the truth, and condescension.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics