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NOW on the News
November 8, 2006

NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Matt Taibbi Decries Negative Campaigns
November 8, 2006

» More about this interview

MARIA HINOJOSA: Welcome to the Now On PBS Podcast. I'm Maria Hinojosa. It's good to be back. Joining us this week is Matt Taibbi who's a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine and author of "Spanking the Donkey," a collection of writings about the 2004 Presidential campaign.

MATT TAIBBI: Hi. Thanks a lot for having me.

HINOJOSA: Okay, Matt. So, a lot of political reporters and because I've been unfortunately in bed with my twisted ankle up the entire week, I've been watching a lot of this. And a lot of political reporters were frankly excited, thrilled about the mid-terms and the turn out. And then I was reading all of your stuff. And you're like a cranky curmudgeon who's really not happy about any of this.

TAIBBI: Well, I mean, you know, I guess it all depends on your point of view. I mean, I think a lot of people were excited about this mid-term election season because, they have negative feelings about the President and about this administration. And obviously they took a pretty serious beating on Tuesday. And so if you enjoy the Schadenfreude that you know, this is obviously a good time for you. But, I don't think that this is, this has got to be one of the most negative campaigns in history.

They—you know, I saw a stat the other day that showed that there was 160 million dollars spent on negative ads this election season. And only 17 million spent on positive ads. So, that's like a nine to one ratio, which just blew away the previous records of six to five. So, I mean, this is—there's not a whole lot that—that's positive that happened this week. It was just—you know, people were—were angry. But, it wasn't really an affirmation of anything.

HINOJOSA: So, it's not if you're watching the political coverage though that you're getting perspective. I mean, most people were saying this was a win for democracy. It was a win for the youth vote. It was a win for most of the new machines out there that are running the polls. And you're saying, you know what? This was not necessarily such a win because ...

taibbi: Well, I mean, I think there's a lot of reasons why it wasn't a win. I mean, first of all, you have to remember that—the mainstream news—agency and especially the TV networks, they have—they have a stake in selling everything that happens as being—ideologically significant. So, I mean they're trying, they're always pushing this—this line of monumental campaign of ideological opposites between the Republicans and the Democrats clashing at the polls.

And you know, these sort of violent changes from side or the other. And they always highlight the differences. You know, like for instance the cross fire shows, they're always—they're always—the two parties are depicted yelling and screaming at each other. You know—irreconcilably—separated. And they try to downplay the areas where they're the same.

So, you know, it's always going to be on the interest of the news sort of pitch this is a big story, is a big change when you know, it really might not be that much of a change. But, I think you know the real reason that this was a bad—this wasn't that much a victory was just the—the tone that people brought to this election. I mean, they were so people were so negative about it.

And not only that, if you listen to the radio, you know—on the day of the elections, or talk to people, I just heard so many people saying that they were ready to disbelieve the results at the polls—because of—you know, the previous problems with the voting machines and that sort of stuff. People just have lost faith in the system. And they're voting out of disgust. I just can't think that that's going to be good for anybody in the long run.

HINOJOSA: Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal, in one of their editorials said, "Hey look—the Republicans lost, but you know what—and—and they need to look at why they took this quote on quote, thumping." But—they're saying this is not an ideological shift really in this country. This was a vote on the issue of competence. Would you agree?

taibbi: Yeah, absolutely. I mean everywhere I covered the election in a number of different places. This—this season I was out in Ohio, I was in Pittsburgh. Everywhere I went I didn't see significant changes in attitudes anywhere. People seem to be just as conservative as ever if—if anything. I think what—what people were—the reason that—the vote went the way it did, is that people felt one of two things. They felt that the Republicans who were in power were not real conservatives. In other words, that they had betrayed conservative ideals—whether those were of the religious right, or whether that was—those were fiscal conservative ideals.

Or, whether the people who were in power were just individually bad people. They were corrupt or incompetent or something like that. That they—they weren't being voted out for ideological or political reasons. That—you know, I think—I think that's—that seems to be pretty clear. Especially when you look at the results of so many of the people who lost had been embroiled in scandals or—or you know, well known—you know, well known failures politically in the last couple years. So, I think that—that's pretty obvious.

HINOJOSA: So, you don't really see a shift in terms of social conservatism and where we are at? You just think that this was, we're tired of certain politicians in the Republican party who are going overboard?
taibbi: Yeah, I mean, don't get me wrong, there are going to be some people who are disillusioned in the specific show that something like 25 percent of Evangelicals who—previously who had Republican—either voted independent or voted Democrats this time around. So that's a shift one way or the other. But, whether those Evangelicals changed their minds about you know, their politics or whether they were just enchanted with the choices they had at the polls, I don't think that's something that's really been determined yet.

You know, I think it's pretty easy for somebody to say you know, that there's been a shift back towards liberalism or towards or Democratic ideals. But, you know, it's also—one can also say, "Well, look at—there were so Demo—Democrats who went pro-gun and pro—pro-life this time around." They were—and there were a lot of Republicans who—who got embroiled in—in scandals that were distasteful. Because—social conservatives like you know, Mark Foley, you know. And obviously the Tom Haggard thing probably had a—an impact somewhere along the line.

So, yeah I don't think so. I mean, I didn't see it personally on the campaign trail. So I didn't talk to anybody who was conservative who said, "You know what? I really like the Democrats this time."

HINOJOSA: But, what about the youth vote? I mean, when you're seeing these kinds of numbers, the highest since the 1980's of young people turning out. Is this a vote that's basically—is this a growth in youth voting? Or are you saying, "This is a youth vote that's being—forced out because they're just so sick of the incompetence."

taibbi: I think there's going to be an increase in the number of people—young people participating in politics—on both sides of—of the table. And we've been seeing mild growth in that area for a little while now. Although, typically not in Congressional elections but in Presidential elections. The bloggers and a lot of these campus youth groups—political groups have turned out. Young people on the Democrats side—pretty impressively in this election.

Also the campus conservative groups have for a long time been doing a very good job of getting people out to the polls. So, I think this was an instance where turn out at both sides knew the turn out was going be a big factor in winning the election. And so they campaign heavily to get people on the voter rolls before they—before this particular election. And that was only unusual because usually you don't—you see that in the presidential race, but not in the congressional race.

HINOJOSA: And I found it fascinating that one of the first stories you talked about that wasn't being covered at all, cause you were doing this election night diary—before you popped the sleeping pill. And you were talking about the North Dakota race, where basically there was a truce be—between Republicans and Democrats. Ken Conrad and Dwight Grotberg. That basically said, "We are not going to do any negative campaigning at all." And you said, "Look, this didn't even make the ticker on CNN."

TAIBBI: Yeah, I know. Conrad and Grotberg had agreed I guess at the beginning of the campaign not to—not to campaign negatively against each other ... And you know, Conrad has a reputation on the hill of being a forthright, straight guy—to deal with. You know, from both sides of the aisle. And I think what—what he did in this election, and he—he and his opponent—in trying to keep negative campaigning out of their campaigning out of their campaign, that was very significant. You know?

Especially considering how negative the rest of the country went. And—it got ignored, you know? And I think—I think that's such a bad and—and there's an obvious reason for it. Which is that you know, the more—the more mud the candidates sling at each other, the more newsworthy it is. And the news networks, they don't—they don't really have an interest to try to play up or celebrate this kind of behavior. So, you're not going to see it celebrated. They—they—on the contrary get rewarded for being in the opposite way.

HINOJOSA: And you know, I'm not a sports person. But, then of course, I know that have played—both pro basketball and baseball in Russia.

TAIBBI: Right.

HINOJOSA: So you got two on me. Playing sports to begin with, and then in a different language. But, you talked a lot about the coverage as this—you know, all of these sports analogies. Which of course go completely over my head.

TAIBBI: Right.

But, I do remember watching that night and thinking, "Wow, everybody's like you know, the play by play." And I was like, I don't watch sports. I don't get this stuff.

TAIBBI: Yeah, it's really weird. It's almost like if you don't watch ESPN, you can't understand politics anymore, you know? Because they've—it's the last, this past election was really striking to me. Because, especially if you watch CNN, they even physically laid out their set exactly the way that ESPN does their Sunday NFL countdown.

You had—you have this sort of TV host guy on the far—far left of the screen. And then your four analysts shouting at each other you know, sort of—on a—on a panel next to him. And the—and the host kind of says, "Well, doesn't this candidate need to do this in order to win?" And then he goes around the room. And each one of the four experts says—you know, says their peace yelling into the camera.

And it's—it's lifted one from one from the ESPN Sunday NFL format, you know? And—it just—it's getting to the point where the similarities and the graphics and the presentation and the clichés are all the same now. It's strange. I kind of don't know what to make of it but ...

HINOJOSA: But, does it work with a younger audience though? I mean, again, not being a sports person, does—does that seem to work? I mean, will—will younger people talk about it in that way? Or, are they completely getting it wrong?

TAIBBI: Well, no they will. I mean, I'm sure it does work. And I'm sure it's great for getting ratings and getting people to watch. But, you know, the problem is politics is—is about a lot more than winning and losing. You know? I mean, I think politics at its best is about compromise and about you know, shades of grey and about issues.

You know, how do you beat poverty? You know, it's not about how you beat your opponent. It's about how you—how you beat problems. And the way the television has portrayed politics, that they've—they—you know, they've taken that broad view of what politics is, which is sort of a, you know, a representation of a contest about how to view life. You know, a philosophical debate that we have about how to resolve our problems.

And they've reduced it to something as simplistic as sports. And they do it for a reason—because it's a simple way to keep people's attention. But, I think it's also you know, it has a darker ideological aspect to it. Which is it keeps people from looking at other issues. And you know, as much as I love sports, and I love watching sports. I think the way they cover politics in this country is bad and it's creepy.

HINOJOSA: I want to ask you about something that was written by Dick Army, who was the Republican House majority leader from '95 to 2002. And he wrote this in the Wall Street Journal. "Eventually the policy innovators and the spirit of '94 were largely replaced by political bureaucrats driven by a narrow vision. Their question became, how do we hold on to power? The behavior in scandals that ended up defining the Republican majority in 2006 were a direct consequence of this shift in choice criteria. From essentially Republicans looking at policy, to Republicans that basically were focused only on retaining political power." So—so one, do you agree? And two, where do you see things going forward, in terms of the Republicans now from—from here until 2008?

TAIBBI: Yeah, I totally agree. You know, I think what happened was that you had a whole new cast of Republican politicians who came in. And they swept into power for two reasons. Number one, because there—there was a shift in attitudes in this country towards—conservativism. And two, because they happened to lock into a very sophisticated way of raising money and of conducting political campaigns. And I think as they went along, they got confused—and they didn't realize that the two things don't necessarily always go hand in hand.

They lost their conservative values along the way. And they just—you know, focused on raising the money and winning. And they did a great job at that for a long time. But—what happened was it—there was eventually a—a fork in the road where they had to make a decision between whether they were going to retain their conservative values, or whether they were going to just keep on the winning route and the raising money route.

And they chose the money route. And what happened was that they did a lot of trading favors for fundraising. And the deficit exploded. And they instead of cutting spending as a conservative would, they massively overspent and left themselves with an eight trillion dollar deficit.

And you know, that's how they maintain their fundraising advantage all this time is you know, by spending and by doing a sort of legalized form of kickback. And you know, I think the voters saw what was going on. They saw that their politicians weren't really fiscally conservative. And they rejected it in the end.

And what happens now, I have no idea. And I don't think anybody in Congress knows. I mean, nobody there's so much money involved in the fundraising process now that it—even the Democrats can't say how their own members are going to respond once the lobbyists start coming by and saying, "Hey, you know, if you do this for me, we'll remember you in a couple of years." And that's the way that—that Washington works these days. And it's hard to imagine that people are going to voluntarily reject that kind of money.

HINOJOSA: So, I mean, you talked a lot about negative campaigning in general. What bothered you most about the campaign?

TAIBBI: We've reached a point in this country where it's almost like a contest to see who can hate the most. And I think when you have all these ads—trying to make the other person out to be such bad people and people who are accusing their opponents of being you know, child molesters or enabling terrorists or child molesters or genocide. Like Rick Santorum said that his opponent had supported terrorism and genocide because of his investment policies and the treasurers in the state of Pennsylvania.

I mean, it can't be any good for the general tone of the country when you have leading political figures accusing their opponents of being murders, child molesters and people—people who are in favor of genocide. It just can't be good for our sense of the country. So, you know and when one set of politicians comes in power, the rest of them are going to be thinking that they're being run by a bunch of child molesters. I mean, it's just not good in general for the country when everybody is just so steeped in hatred and bile.

HINOJOSA: So when you're thinking about the political coverage for you over the next two years, are you kind of holding your nose? Or, are you thinking, "Okay, there's going to be something interesting and new and different that comes up from these next two years?" Or are you going to continue to be the curmudgeon?

TAIBBI: Oh, I don't see anything good coming in the next two years. I mean, there would have to be such a massive change in the way campaigns are run in this country for—for any of this to change. I mean, the problem is that negative campaigns work. And, until they stop working—then we're going to have them. So and the other thing isn't the reason people are—one of the other reasons people are—are campaigning negatively. Because, they don't have anything positive to stand for on either side.

I think you know, most of—and neither party really has a coherent, positive agenda to campaign on. And until one of the sides discovers one, we're just going to get the other guy—you know, is a child molester and a crook and a thief and a communist. Or whatever—whatever name you want to come up with. That's going to be the way that this whole thing goes. I—I just can't see it changing until there's a massive awakening of values or something in this country.

HINOJOSA: Okay, Matt, but you say that like everyone is doing this negative campaigning. No one can stand for anything. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel that makes you feel a little bit hopeful for democracy in America?

TAIBBI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there were a lot of honest people who had tremendous victories the other night. One guy who I really like who I know personally is Bernie Sanders in Vermont. And whatever you think about Sanders, his victory was really interesting.

Because, he won a campaign without having to make any kind of concessions to the usual financial interest. It's a guy—this is a guy who won a seat in the United States Senate basically by having you know, personal relationships with people in the state. And having a strong record for advocating for his constituents. And he's an honest guy who has a long record of resisting the kind of temptations that a lot of the Congress people have had to deal with in the last 10 or 15 years with all this money coming in.

HINOJOSA: I can see it already, Matt Taibbi, supporting the Socialist candidate—

TAIBBI: Exactly.

HINOJOSA: So, that's the third way I see.

TAIBBI: Right, well that's the problem. You know, Sanders is always a communist anytime ... anyone says anything about him. But, he's a good guy. But, there are a lot of other ones. You know, Henry Waxman is somebody who I really respect. You know, Sherrod Brown, you know, the new senator from Ohio I think is an honest. And there—a lot of the Congressman—I mean, the people on both sides of the aisle are really, really worried about the influx of money and campaign contributions and the affect the it has on the earmarks and on the process.

And I think there's a chance that they'll find a way to beat that problem. Because, I—you know, I think—you know, congressman, despite the fact that they're in congress, they do have a conscience. And they want to reform their system a little bit. So, I'm hopeful that some of the people who are going to have an affect.

HINOJOSA: Matt Taibbi, you're a contributing editor with Rolling Stone Magazine. Thanks a lot for joining us. It's Maria Hinojosa here on the Now on PBS Podcast. Thanks Matt.

TAIBBI: Thanks a lot Maria.

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