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Will The Real John Kerry Please Stand Up?

A smart take from Salon on horce-racing and the media reinforces a suspicion I've long held: Despite his crash-and burn in November 2004, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made disparate but legitimate (and potentially damaging) claims to the mantle of John Kerry. Jay Rosen:

The near-heart attack [after New Hampshire] wasn't triggered by a bad prediction, which can happen to anyone, but rather by some spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism. The top players had begun to report on the Obama wave of victories before there was any Obama wave of victories.

And later:

Who's-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It "works" regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the "surprise" becomes a good story for a few days.) 

I think Rosen makes a decent case for restraint in "process" reporting; sure, if the story is so inevitable, why not wait for it to happen instead of jumping the gun?

But more importantly, the argument reinforces how potent the "reusable" who's-gonna-win narratives can be both in the press and among candidates. Doubtless the coverage out of Iowa was infused with the memory of Kerry, whose performance in 2004 seemed to confirm that the Iowa winner enjoys a nomination-sealing domino effect in later states. To a certain extent, Obama followed the recycled logic of the "reality-making machinery." "You guys are a wave and I'm just riding it," he would say to crowds in New Hampshire. Really? *cringe* I guess conventional wisdom is powerful (though as far as I can tell, the mythos of the omnipotent Iowa victor began and ended in 2004).

Clinton has also sought to capitalize on the 2004 John Kerry-as-electable meme. Much was made of his 2003 Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech, when he told Iowans: "Don't just send a message, send a president." Sure, Obama picked up some fawning press about his J-J speech based on the Kerry paradigm, but it was Hillary cashing in more explicitly. As if in direct homage, she spray-painted her buses (again) with the recycled slogan in New Hampshire: "Time to Pick a President." Really? *cringe* The electability argument didn't work out so well the first two times.

So while the real Kerry (good man, big loser) heir may only be discernable in hindsight, it's worth noting that everybody plays the (evil) media memory game to their advantage, even if Rosen thinks such "portability" is damaging to the democratic order. And while I find it maddening, the "circulating library of public truths" also includes voter opinion--whose impressionism is legend. In fact, I'm pretty sure we owe our high-wattage, high profile front-runners this cycle (compared to the dour but faithful Kerry) to the public's fondness for this vague memory game.

--Dayo Olopade