The new ostriches

Well, the nutroots are at it again. After their stunning victory in Connecticut, when they punished heretic Joe Lieberman for daring to disagree with their dictates, they’ve found their new cause: punishing Fox News.

They’ve pretty much taken over John Edwards’ campaign, pushing him into boycotting a Fox News co-sponsored debate in Nevada. That started a cascade, and eventually all the major candidates to bow out. Now Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pulled out of a debate co-sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus.

I’m not going to go into the principles of the issue, but purely the pragmatical aspects.

Fox News is the most popular cable news channel. Period. It routinely outdraws all of its rivals (CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, etc.), often combined, in viewers.

Fox News has sponsored or co-sponsored political debates in the past, and I don’t recall any examples of them showing bias or treating any of the candidates unfairly. And I’m certain that had they done so, those calling for the boycott now would be touting those examples at the top of their lungs.

Political debates are a very small portion of Fox’s coverage. Being shut out is embarrassing, but it really doesn’t affect them too much in the big picture.

Political debates, on the other hand, are far more important to the candidates. They are free publicity for them, and give them the opportunity to make themselves stand out from the pack and, sometimes, devastate their opponents. Ronald Reagan used a primary debate in New Hampshire to show his strength and resolve with his infamous “I’m paying for this microphone” moment. Lloyd Bentsen might not have won the vice-presidency, but his “you’re no Jack Kennedy” slam of Dan Quayle was pretty much the end of Quayle’s ambitions. In the same election, Michael Dukakis’ utterly bland response to the question of how he would react if his wife was raped and murdered is considered a major factor in his defeat. And John Edwards’ ham-handed attempt to bring up Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter showed (to some) his callowness and opportunism, versus Cheney’s maturity.

So, let’s look at who gains from these debates, and how much. Fox gets an hour or so of cheap programming — but little advertising revenues, as they’re usually aired without commercial interruptions. The candidates get to speak directly to the voters, without the restrictions of the 30-second and 60-second commercials. And the people get to see the candidates in as close to an unscripted environment as they’re likely to.

By any rational analysis, it seems that the candidates who choose to boycott Fox-sponsored debates are losing more than Fox does, and losing far more than they gain. It simply doesn’t make sense, either on a practical or philosophical basis. So why do they do it?

The only answer I can see that makes the slightest sense is that they are so afraid of the Nutroots that they don’t dare cross them. They see the Fox boycott as an easy way to keep the nuts off their backs. After all, claimed that they “bought” the Democratic party, and no one in the party leadership denied their claim.

What just doesn’t make sense is that while the Nutroots have had stunning successes in many areas, such as fundraising, organizing, supplying volunteers, and the like, they have had damned few successes in the one area that really counts — winning elections. Their greatest single success was defeating Joe Lieberman (yeah, him again) in the Connecticut primary, and in the end he won re-election handily — converting a formerly secure Democratic senate seat into one that is nominally independent, and locking in to office for six years a man who has absolutely no reason to feel obligated to (or even very fond of) the Democratic party.

Oh, well. Napoleon once famously proclaimed that “never interrupt your opponent when he is making a mistake.” If the nutroots are so wrapped up in winning their little, insignificant battles that they lose sight of the fact that they keep losing the important ones, maybe that’ll keep them out of mischief.

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