A public service announcement for worried liberals: There will be a debate on Thursday night between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. Biden will say “literally” a lot. Most of the time, he will not be using “literally” correctly. He may even tell a story about his dad sitting on the edge of his bed and calling him “Joey.” That does not mean the Democratic campaign should pack it in and forfeit the election. For his part, Ryan will try to avoid answering tricky questions by saying he doesn’t want to “get all wonky” on us. Moderator Martha Raddatz may tell him to go ahead and walk us through the math. That is not a game-changer that seals victory for Obama.
I know the temptation to weigh in on every utterance of the debate is strong. During last week’s debate, many of you barely waited until the opening statements were over before declaring on Twitter that Romney had “won” that portion of the evening. As the debate continued, journalists who had cynically predicted earlier in the day that the press corps was eager to change the narrative of the campaign rushed to embrace a new narrative for the campaign. Yes, Obama was surprisingly listless and restrained. But what would have happened if he had actually committed a gaffe? Would Twitter have gone silent as hyperventilating liberals everywhere passed out?
It seems quaint now that media critics used to complain about pundits going on air right after a speech or debate to broadcast their unconsidered thoughts and opinions. Now the pontificating happens in real-time via Twitter. The tin-foil hat kooks were wrong—no one is trying to read our thoughts. Given the means to express them, we voluntarily offer up every idea that flits through our brains.
That’s not Twitter’s fault, any more than earlier concerns about insta-punditry were the fault of televisions. It is our fault for believing that because we have the means to share every thought with the world that we should. That’s what G-chat and Skype-chat—or if you want to be really old-school, your spouse on the couch next to you—is for. You are allowed to take a breath and reconsider before hitting “tweet.”
Kevin Drum wrote a thoughtful post today suggesting that the liberal freak-out of the past week is the consequence of fewer hacks on the left. If the debate performances were reversed, he argues, conservatives would have talked up Romney’s virtues anyway and asserted that he came out a winner. It’s hard to disagree with that, especially after watching conservatives spend several days after the RNC trying to insist that “real Americans” absolutely loved Clint Eastwood’s brilliant skewering of invisible Obama.
But I think there’s something else going on with liberals, who often use Twitter as much to enhance their own intellectual reputations as to critique their opponents. Criticizing their own guy allows them to prove that they are smarter than him, that they see missed opportunities the candidate was just not sharp enough to take. If pointing those out ends up hurting their candidate, well, that’s just the price a liberal pays for being intellectually honest.
I know, I’m a spoilsport. It’s all in fun. These days, a journalist’s career often depends on developing their own brand, and the people love sparkling wit and analysis delivered at light-speed. What’s more, our employers often require it of us as well, encouraging us to live-tweet conventions, major speeches, and debates. I’m not encouraging liberals to embrace hackdom, insisting that 2+2=5 and that Obama has suddenly become a world-class debater. Nor do I think journalists should abstain from Twitter, although a little moderation would go a long way.
I’m suggesting we all take a deep breath. In the course of writing an article, I set down a lot of ideas and then delete some of them. Sometimes I pitch a blog post and then while trying to write it discover that my initial argument just doesn’t hold up. There is value in examining an idea or opinion to see if it holds up beyond the moment in which you become aware of it. The problem with putting all of your thoughts out on Twitter—or even in a panicky blog post reacting to the most recent poll—is that you understandably become more wedded to your ideas once you have broadcast them. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of like-minded peers in your Twitter feed and you end up with the nervous breakdown by MSNBC stars that followed last week’s debate.
So on Thursday, before you rush to be the first to declare a major momentum shift—a distinction no one will remember five minutes later—try counting to ten first. And Andrew, take a Xanax. Literally.