Also published on HuffingtonPost
Drew Westen’s recent critique of Barack Obama’s presidency and Jonathan Chait’s devastating rebuttal raise a question for me: what matters more in politics, messaging or mechanics? In Westen’s much-discussed New York Times piece, rhetoric and positioning are key: Obama’s failings are fundamentally driven by bad messaging, weak leadership and a failure of conviction. Bullshit, suggests Chait: Obama has in fact “used exactly the kind of rhetoric Westen accuses him of refusing to deploy,” but structural and practical obstacles like “special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion” can defeat the loftiest of presidential speeches.
Regardless of where you come down on Chait’s critique of Westen’s thesis (I’m mostly siding with Chait), it suggests another angle of analysis: most punditry, particularly of the blog and cable news variety, focuses on the messaging side of politics. What narrative is a politician pushing? What’s the content of his or her speeches and advertising? Who is judged to be winning the rhetorical war of the moment? On the occasions when the mechanics of winning an election do get discussed, it’s typically in the context of fundraising, which in turn matters mostly because it pays for television advertising.