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How Bush v. Gore Killed the Romney Campaign

Over at Slate, Dave Weigel had some nice things to say about my Stuart Stevens profile before raising an objection about how the liberal-industrial-complex has changed campaigns since 2000:

Absolutely, the liberal media is stronger and more influential than it was in 2000. But you can draw a venn diagram between strictly left-wing media and mainstream political reporting, and in the intersection, you will find "explanatory, fact-checking reporting," enabled by the endless archives and space of the Internet. And it's this stuff, not the left-wing character assassination, that has really upended Stevens-ism. In The Big Enchilada, his memoir of the Bush campaign, Stevens remembers -- many times -- how Team Bush was able to throw the press off of ugly stories. Any minor Gore exagerrations would be used to portray Gore as a liar, someone whose attacks on the Bush record must be bunk. "We needed to communicate to voters that the same guy who exaggerates his own record would surely do the same when it came to his opponent's," wrote Stevens. "If we could help voters make that connection, it would go a long way toward 'blowing up the aircraft carrier instead of shooting down the planes,' as it was known in political circles."

As it happens, I don’t disagree with this. I just think Weigel is reading me too narrowly. I’m not suggesting that a handful of crazed left-wing bloggers directly upended the way campaigns had been run. The causality isn't nearly as clean as that. What upended the media landscape for campaigns is the overall backlash against the tactics Bush used in 2000. That backlash gave rise to both the lefty bloggers and (eventually) the mainstream fact-checkers. 

But—and this is the point I was making in my piece—the backlash itself was a liberal one. If not for the overwhelmingly liberal critique of the methods Stevens writes about, and which mainstream reporters largely fell for, the media wouldn’t have had the same sense of dropping the ball. Nor would it be as devoted to the whole fact-checking enterprise. (Though I agree that, mechanically at least, the Internet made it possible.) I distinctly recall friends at mainstream outlets in the years between 2001 and 2004 taking up blogging for the first time and just getting annihilated in arguments with liberal bloggers, who were bang on in their criticisms. It’s hard to overstate the effect of those first few years of web-interaction on the mainstream media. 

Relatedly, when I refer to the liberal-industrial-complex, I’m referring to a far, far broader universe of people than those engaged in “left-wing character assassination.” Most of the people I’d place in that community—including most of the contributors at outlets like MSNBC, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, Ezra Klein’s operation at The Washington Post, and (yes) The New Republic—engage in pretty serious and scrupulous reporting and analysis. It just comes from a clear liberal perspective. 

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