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Presidential Campaign as Olympics: Chuck Todd's Tired Routine

Coverage of national political campaigns is generally pretty bad–a parade of polls, horesrace analysis and fundraising tallies, with pundits doing their best at pretending they're campaign strategists.

Can it actually get worse than that? Maybe. NBC reporter Chuck Todd made that case with a full page article in the Washington Post on August 5 that compared the Obama/Romney contest to Olympic gymnastics.

The concept behind it is corny, but even Todd seems to think so. Apparently this is supposed to be, well, kind of fun: "At NBC, to say we have Olympics fever is an understatement," he writes at the top.

Let's use a sport that's popular and one that, if President Obama and Mitt Romney actually tried it, would surely entertain audiences more than your typical stump speech: women’s gymnastics. Let the games begin!

Women's gymnastics. Oh, now I get it.

The problem isn't just the concept, though. The political analysis is just as banal as any other campaign punditry. Take the first example, the balance beam:

As you might expect, in years past Democratic candidates have struggled on the balance beam by consistently falling to the left; Republican contenders, particularly during the preliminary rounds (in politics, we call them the primaries), have a tendency to lose their equilibrium and fall to the right. Obama won the gold medal in the 2008 all-around competition partly because of his prowess on the beam: He promised to bring American politics back into balance by ushering in an era of post-partisanship, which the judges went gaga over. But he's been shakier on the beam since then.

Democrats fall to the left, Republicans to the right–smart politicians stay in the middle. This is routine advice Beltway reporters could probably offer in their sleep; most of time they're far more troubled by leftward-leaning Democrats than right-leaning Republicans.


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With Obama, the usual analysis makes even less sense than usual, since it's based on the unfounded assumption that voters (or "judges") voted for him because he promised to stay in the middle.

Todd goes on to make a more fundamental point:

While Obama's base has given him more leeway to lean away from the left side when he has needed to in the past four years (see the debt-ceiling fight), he almost lost his balance over a same-sex marriage spin that was added late to his routine. Obama was a bit wobbly on that move, but after teammate Vice President Biden added it to his repertoire, the president had to learn it as well to stay competitive. He ultimately kept his balance and doesn't seem to have lost too many deductions from the judges.

It's hard to know what Todd means. The left was supportive of Obama during the debt ceiling fight…how, exactly? Was Obama really drifting off to the left with his (arguably less than categorical) endorsement of same-sex marriage? His position would seem to put it in line with majority sentiment in the country.

Todd doesn't have much to go on here–but that's what makes the piece so telling. Reporters like Todd think Obama's problem is that he's gone too far to the left (mostly, it would seem, because he's encountered so much Republican hostility). But they don't have many examples of this leftward drift they can point to, given his major escalation of the Afghan War, a health care plan that pleases private insurance companies, and so on. But the prevailing Beltway wisdom is that Clinton slammed the party's liberal base, so it's a smart move for any Democrat.

The rest of the piece is just as tedious: The floor routine is like a candidate's stump speech, the vault is where candidates show their "ability to spring ahead of their political opponents." Todd can't even stick with the metaphor; they add pommel horse, which isn't part of women's gymnastics, "because the word 'pommel' and the phrase 'pummeling your opponent' are just too close to ignore."

In the end, I suppose the point of the article is to show that tedious campaign journalism can be adapted for the sake of promoting the Olympics–which, naturally, air on Chuck Todd's network.

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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