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The Liberal Media, in Love With Our Narrative

We are the liberal media—hear us roar. We like Aaron Sorkin and gay marriage and invitations to the New Yorker’s bash on the roof of the W Hotel on the eve of the White House Correspondents Dinner. We have Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer’s cell phone on speed dial. If you water-boarded us, we’d admit to voting for pretty much every Democratic presidential candidate for the past two decades, with the possible exception of Al Gore in 2000 (he didn’t give us a clever nickname; the other guy did.)

But we are not driven by politics or ideology, really. Above all, we love a good story. Which, after all, is a very deeply ingrained yearning of the human race, isn’t it? Anthropologists will tell you it is what sets us apart from the beasts—after all, when’s the last time you saw a cat or a dog telling an anecdote at a cocktail party or reading a bedtime story to their offspring? Yeah, didn’t think so. We crave narrative. And let’s face it, the narrative of the 2012 campaign was a real dud. Incumbent president faces tough reelection environment but manages to hold onto slim, steady lead thanks to a just-enough recovery and a singularly uninspiring challenger. I remember being in a Dayton hotel the morning after Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remarks broke and watching the head-shaking reaction of Morning Joe and his crew: it left them with nothing to say. Which is a problem, because, well, they had many more weeks of needing something to say.

But then: our mile-high salvation! Denver, O Denver. As the dynamic of the first debate began to register just a few minutes in—the crisp and hopped-up Romney against the wordy and listless president—we sang our relief across the Twitterverse. The true partisans among us, the Maddows and Sullivans, rent their garments, but most of us were barely able to suppress our glee: we had ourselves a story. Never mind that the debate had produced no great knockdowns, or that, as some noted in the days following, Obama had actually made a decent substantive case in some areas, if not others. No, we had our story. It went up at Buzzfeed before the debate was even half over, before the snap polls even provided the nominal metric to back up the conclusion of a Romney rout. Politico followed soon afterward with an “Obama stumbles” headline that led the site for most of the rest of the night and following morning. Meanwhile, of course, Chris Matthews et al at MSNBC were in full meltdown. If one put one’s ear to the ground, one could all but hear the herd thundering back across the eastern Colorado plains to deliver its new narrative.

And lo, in the days that followed, the power of our story bore out across the land. Romney surged in the polls, in a post-debate bounce unlike any ever recorded. Never mind that closer inspection suggested that his rise had begun just before the debate, as Obama’s prior bounce abated. As we like to say in private company, this story was too good to check. We had a comeback on our hands, and as the San Francisco Giants can tell you today, there’s no better story than a comeback.

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There was just one problem: Obama proceeded to outperform Romney in the next two debates. Following the third and final one, where Romney seemed lost for long stretches and even sprouted Nixonian sweat through his makeup, Obama even won one snap poll by a margin nearly as large as Romney’s edge in Denver. What to do with this? Easy. Acknowledge the victory, but protect our new narrative. Thus Politico, for instance, led with nothing like the post-Denver “stumbles” headline, just its standard debate “takeaways,” which included this one, highlighted in the “Morning Score”:

There was far from a consensus view on who won the debate in the hours after it ended…It’s not a surprise that Obama was aggressive—he clearly believed, based on what he has seen in polls, that he needed to be. And he did win on points, scoring some cleaner arguments against Romney on pure policy grounds and getting out his pre-canned lines about the Republican as an archaic figure (1980 calling for its foreign policy to be returned, the era of horses and bayonets in the military being over). But many Republicans—and some neutral commentators—believe Romney held his own in a difficult format. His aides think he passed the acceptability test and that Obama didn’t disqualify him (and Republicans desperate for a win were sighing deeply that Romney didn’t have any gaffes)…It is not going to be clear until later in the week how the debate plays out with voters. Given that both sides think they won, it could be a wash that won’t change the trajectory of the race.

The “trajectory,”  for those who don’t know, is our word for “story.” Mike Allen further congealed the “won’t change” conclusion with his lead paragraph in this morning’s Playbook: 

MORNING MINDMELD: President Obama won last night’s foreign-policy debate on substance, in snap polls and with the pundits, but Mitt Romney did well enough that for the first time in six years, Romney folks emailed, “We’re going to win.” His moderate, me-too rhetoric drew derision from the smart set: “Romney’s Final Debate Message: I’ll Be A Better Obama,” snarked Talking Points Memo. Obama took a risk with his snide derision—“very, very overtly patronizing terms,” as Rachel Maddow approvingly described his sarcastic riff defining submarines and aircraft carriers for Romney. What we don’t yet know is how all this played with  independent, switchable women voters. Remember: You weren’t the target audience.

Politico was not alone, of course. Over at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza tweeted after the debate: “Romney win in first debate still more meaningful for arc of race than Obama win in third debate.” And yes, if we declare it less meaningful for the “arc”—another word for story!—then of course it will be so. We liberal reporters do love our tautologies, even if we’re not always aware of them. Over at ABC’s “The Note,” Rick Klein had this to say this morning:

The president accomplished what he needed to, particularly by taking the role of the aggressor that his base has wanted so desperately this debate season. But Romney also had a strong debate, in pursuing different goals than the president. He sought to come across as reasonable rather than confrontational—a candidate comfortable with the campaign’s trajectory.

There it is again: the trajectory! We will not let it go. It doesn’t matter if we have failed in achieving many of the basics of campaign coverage, like getting a candidate to cough up a critical mass of tax returns, release his bundler list, and account for his proposals and position shifts with a minimum of detail and coherence. No, we have our trajectory. And dammit, we’re sticking to it.

Note: for more on this, see the excellent posts by Michael Tomasky and Jonathan Chait.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis