Media distill '04 political consensus

Those who watched coverage of the New Hampshire Democratic primary on television last night saw the workings of the media foundry where conventional wisdom was being forged. Maybe it would be better to describe it as the electoral crystal meth lab where the drug of smothering political consensus was being manufactured.

Whatever your preferred bad analogy, recognize that modern television news would wither in the absence of conventional wisdom to hash and rehash. Which presidential candidates are on the way up? Which are headed down? No meaningful coverage of substantive issues will surface until the Democratic candidates are winnowed down to a more manageable two or three. Lamentable enough, but true.


The chatter started to build throughout the day yesterday about what kind of second-place finish in New Hampshire's primary would represent a major comeback for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who had a weak showing in last week's Iowa caucus.

Susan Estrich, a Fox News Channel consultant who led Democrat Michael Dukakis' 1988 bid for president, said Dean could claim victory if he ran within 7 percentage points of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Senior advisers to Dean pegged the magic figure at anywhere below 10 percent.


(Such self-diagnoses are not always taken seriously. Jamie Rubin, an adviser to retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, drew outright laughter from MSNBC's Chris Matthews when he suggested that a fourth-place finish by Clark in New Hampshire would represent a strong showing.)

CNN's Wolf Blitzer told viewers that "a strong second place would probably be good for him, coming on the heels of the disastrous third-place finish" in Iowa.

This is how conventional wisdom emerges. It's a product distilled from the blended musings of the candidates' devoted partisans, political professionals, pundits and the political reporters themselves, all of whom track campaign coffers and poll numbers like day-traders monitoring the Nasdaq during the 1990s. And it fuels coverage, especially on the blather-driven and conflict-riven programs found on much of cable television.

The problem with the game as it is currently played is that conventional wisdom has proved remarkably fragile in recent weeks, as it's run smack into unexpected reality. Dean was initially a joke - a largely unknown governor from an insignificant state. A joke, that is, until he appeared to become a genuine phenomenon - able to raise millions of dollars through the Internet, capture the anger of the anti-war sentiment among many Democrats, and leverage money and crowds into a flurry of high-profile endorsements. A genuine phenomenon, that is, until Dean ran a distant third in the Iowa caucuses that he had been predicted to win.

This should be a good thing for news people - new conditions make news, after all - but it clearly unsettled them. And it all occurred before a single primary vote had been cast.

By night's end, MSNBC's Matthews called Kerry's victory in New Hampshire "a second thumping" for Dean. But Dean promised to campaign nationally, pointing to his flush campaign coffers.

"We did what we had to do," Dean maintained on CNN. "Now it looks like a discussion of how much change we have in Washington."

Candidates contort themselves to defy or modify conventional wisdom, despite its frequent mutations. Just before 10 p.m., Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut actually drew cheers from supporters when he proclaimed: "We are in a three-way split decision for third place. You and I both know that the national pundits did not expect this." Or fifth place, to go by the actual votes counted as of 10:30 last night.


Dean had attempted to bat down the new consensus over the past week that he was unelectable after his Iowa Shriek Heard 'Round the World. He and his wife endured a rare joint interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, who pressed the couple repeatedly on his temperament. (So much, in fact, that one wondered if she were baiting him.) Dean also appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, poking fun at himself and the political process in his dead-serious pursuit of his party's nomination for president.

By 9 p.m., when Edwards seemed to be likely to finish third, Morton Kondracke of Fox News was musing with his colleagues about the North Carolina senator's chances in 2008 against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination. More than seven months before this year's Election Day, these media mavens don't want to wait for the conventional wisdom to gel for the next time out.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 410-332-6923.