Seven Signs You’re Reading a Bogus Political Story

Notes on the age of political nonsense and the book that's making Washington see red.

There’s a new book out this week called This Town by New York Times political reporter Mark Leibovich, that’s driving Washington crazy.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read the book yet, but based on the reviews I’ve read, it depicts Washington as a sort of high school for adults, where it’s all about influence, reputations and money, as opposed to governance and the greater good. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, I realize, but indications are that the book has struck a nerve in our nation’s capital.

Of course, it’s not surprising to anyone who’s paid much attention to politics in the past 10 to 15 years that our political culture is, for lack of a better term, a sea of bullshit. Here are a few premises regularly stated in political discourse, which are simply false:

1. Politics is a proxy war fought daily by “Democratic strategists” and “Republican strategists.” Whether it’s the George Zimmerman trial or the Kermit Gosnell case, we hear constantly about how unfair cable news has been. Which is true — but cable news is always unfair about everything. No more so than the frequent “debate” segments in which the issues of the day are argued by “strategists” of either side. If either panelist has ever “strategized” for anyone, it’s an upset. This is how cable news ends up covering about 5 percent of what’s really important in America, and giving weak, distorted perspectives when it does. With the imminent return of Crossfire, I don’t expect this to improve.

2.  The President is a Dictator. Most people’s views of government power are completely situational, and the majority of people who follow politics are much more comfortable with executive overreaches when their own guy is in the White House. But no matter who is president, opponents often call the guy a “dictator.”

Sure, executive power always seems to gain over time, and everyone elected president seems to decide in favor of assuming more powers as opposed to fewer. But Bush wasn’t a dictator, and neither is Obama. Not a lot of dictators have a legislative body capable of blocking their agenda. There’s no such thing as a “fiscal cliff” or “sequestration” or “continuing resolutions” or “gridlock” in a dictatorship. Hugo Chavez left Venezuela in bad shape for many reasons, but none of them had to do with a lack of bipartisan cooperation.

In most uses in political discourse, when you hear “dictator” assume it to mean “president I don’t like.”

3. We’re living in an age of scandal. Remember a few weeks ago, when it looked like President Obama’s presidency was about to capsize from numerous simultaneous scandals, and Republicans were throwing the word “impeachment” around? So much for that.

The IRS story turned out to be based on out-and-out falsehoods. Just about everyone in America who isn’t a hardcore conservative sees Benghazi as a tragic event that was at worst a bureaucratic screwup, and not as the president covering anything up or committing treason. I’m not even sure I remember what the third scandal was, and chances are neither do you.

Then again, even real scandals aren’t what they used to be, now that just about every politician felled by a scandal in the last 10 years is in full comeback mode.

Mark Sanford is back in Congress. Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are both running again in New York, and both could win. Bill Clinton’s reputation has been restored to the point where his having been impeached over a sex scandal is a very small part of his public identity. Newt Gingrich ran for president. Should Jim McGreevey ever pursue a return to politics, he’d probably have a decent chance.

These days it takes something pretty egregious — think Mark Foley, or Gary Condit — for a scandal to end someone’s political career for good.

4. SHOCK poll! This one is a Matt Drudge favorite. It’s October, and Presidential Candidate A is leading Candidate B in just about every poll. Of the eight major presidential polls each day, one may be an outlier that looks better for one particular candidate than all the others. A few days later it might be a completely different poll. And in 2012, surprisingly, the “shock poll” seemed to always be the one most favorable to Romney.

In the post-Nate Silver world, in which we have a formula that weighs polls by historical accuracy and bias and have accurately predicted the last two presidential elections down to the percentage point, there’s no reason for anyone to believe a “shock poll” ever again.

5. White House visitor logs. In 2009, a “Jeremiah Wright” surfaced in the White House-released visitor logs, indicating that the president and Jeremiah Wright were once again plotting America’s destruction. Four years later, during the IRS “scandal,” reports were that the head of the IRS had visited the White House more than 100 times.

Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic knocked this one down in May: the “White House visitor logs” are incomplete, include visits to executive office buildings besides the White House, they exclude members of Congress, and a visit to the White House doesn’t mean the visitor actually met with the president. And that IRS official visited 11 times, not 157. Oh, and it was a different Jeremiah Wright.

A good rule of thumb: Any news story based on White House visitor logs is almost certainly and completely without merit. That’s the case under Obama and probably still will be under the next Republican administration, when a “Richard M. Nixon” shows up to visit.

6. Presidential travel expenses. Did you hear President Obama’s trip to India in 2010 cost $200 million per day? Or that the Obama presidency costs taxpayers $1.4 billion a year? These claims tend to be unsourced and completely unverifiable. The latter claim, for instance, came from a self-published book written by a Republican lobbyist.

The same goes for golf. Yes, the president plays golf once in awhile. Do you know who else did? Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and just about everyone who’s been president since golf was invented.

7.  John McCain Controls the Universe. From the way the political press covers him, you would think John McCain was the most important politician in America. He’s on Meet the Press so often one wag on Twitter joked that David Gregory was guest-hosting Meet the Press With John McCain.

Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece a few weeks ago, about the negotiations in the Senate over the immigration reform bill, played like a parody of the McCain-controls-all theory. The piece had about eight different anecdotes along the lines of “[so-and-so senator] was important to the negotiations — but McCain hates that guy.” This attitude would make sense if the 2008 election had gone the other way and it’d been McCain who’s been president these last five years.