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Political Reform

DLC | Blueprint Magazine | October 21, 2005
Tilting Right
Book Review

By Ed Kilgore

Table of Contents

edited by Michael Barone and
Richard A. Cohen
National Journal, 1,888 pp., $69.95

I first ran across the biennial Almanac of American Politics when the 1976 edition (its third) appeared in bookstores. Young political junkie that I was, I spent one month's discretionary income -- about $20 -- on the tome, then went home and devoured it in three days. Today the Almanac costs $70, but it remains a vast and unmatched compendium of information on the political history, recent electoral results, demographic data, and political trends of every state and every congressional district in the United States. It also offers brief profiles of every governor and member of Congress, along with appendices on congressional committee assignments and campaign finance data. At 1,888 pages, it is, in short, the bible of the political class.

In recent years, however, the Almanac has increasingly borne the personal political stamp of its original co-editor and now primary editor, Michael Barone. As a columnist at U.S. News & World Report, Barone has drifted from his previous role as a dispassionate numbers-cruncher into new prominence as an A-list conservative pundit. Unfortunately, his right-leaning views are beginning to infect the Almanac's previously unassailable reports on states and districts.

Barone's drift has been easy to track through his introduction to each new edition of the Almanac. The introductory essay stands apart from the state-bystate analysis as its author's personal take on the national political scene. As Barone's tilt has become more distinct over the years, this preliminary essay is now getting as much media attention as the Almanac itself. This began in 1996, when Barone's analysis of the revival of "Tocquevillian America" was sometimes cited as the definitive interpretation of the Republican Revolution of 1994.

In 2000, Barone's essay derided President Clinton's accomplishments as a long exercise in political "sogginess," echoing a major Republican talking point. In the 2002 edition, he rightly focused on partisan parity, but also hyped President Bush's leadership qualities.

Every one of those essays added value in the details; Barone still knows his numbers and how to read them. But the new edition makes it clear his personal allegiance to the Republican Party is significantly affecting his judgment.

Barone's opening essay in the new volume ("American Politics in the Networking Era") focuses relentlessly on the mechanics of party turnout efforts in 2004. He's correct, of course, to note that the Republican technique of highly targeted, person-to-person outreach efforts under the centralized operational and message control of the Bush campaign outmatched the less-targeted and fragmented Democratic drive.

But Barone, as suggested by the essay's title, misinterprets this reality by suggesting that the two parties' turnout strategies reflected a superior Republican understanding of the Information Age and a Democratic Party mired in the top-down, interest group-dominated politics of the distant past.

The truth is that an incumbent Republican president had the unique ability to place vast and early resources into a centrally controlled grassroots outreach initiative, while the Democratic challenger had to play catch-up with get-out-the-vote efforts by the official campaign and a variety of uncoordinated "527" groups. Had the election featured an incumbent President Gore, the situation might have been reversed.

Similarly, Barone's discourse on the emergence of "New Media" in 2004 is interesting and accurate at the macro level, but quickly descends into agitprop, with an extensive endorsement of the idea that enterprises like Fox News are a useful corrective to the liberal bias in the mainstream media. Worse yet, Barone argues that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was a legitimate response to the Old Media's refusal to examine Kerry's war record.

What really stands out in Barone's essay is an indifference to actual issues and objective reality, especially as they might bear on the Republican Party's future. He devotes a whole section to an argument that Democrats are deeply split between those who accept "American exceptionalism" in foreign policy, as exemplified by Bush, and those who don't. But actual and potential fault lines in the GOP are glaringly ignored.

Never mentioned are differences among Republicans, not only over Iraq, but between economic and social conservatives, starve-the-beasters and deficit hawks, pro- and anti-immigration advocates, and K Street and Main Street factions. Nor is there any acknowledgement that Bush's provocative second-term agenda (most of which was well under way when the Almanac went to press) is creating a serious backlash across broad segments of the voting population.

Throughout the book are signs of Barone's undisguised political preferences. There are annoying references to Republicans being aligned with the forces of entrepreneurship and civic vigor, and Democrats being dependent on interest- and constituency-group blocs dependent on government power. An illustrative example is the section on Ohio, the ultimate 2004 battleground state.

After conceding that the long-time Republican ascendancy in the Buckeye State provides a good opportunity for Democrats, here's what the Almanac says:

So where does Ohio stand in history? Is it New Deal Ohio, with ethnic factory workers arranged against small-town businessmen, ethnic Catholics against rural Protestants, all engaged in a contest to see how far and in what ways government should be enlarged? Or is it McKinley's Ohio, with mechanical tinkerers and can-do manufacturers, adaptive businessmen and employees, striving to work hard, raise families and serve communities that feel little class conflict or economic envy?

It's not very hard to see where Barone comes down on this choice of anachronistic models. Worse, and even more revealing, is the Almanac's long section on former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, which systematically defends The Hammer against the serial ethics charges he worked so hard to earn. But at the very end of this vigorous essay, Barone the conservative advocate gives way to Barone the statistical analyst, who notes DeLay's anemic 2004 margin of victory in an overwhelmingly Republican Texas district, and predicts that he "must expect serious competition from Democrats at home in 2006."

Ultimately, the Almanac's growing conservative bias is endangering its well-earned reputation as an authoritative source on American politics. This book will still be on the shelves in 2006, when it's entirely possible Democrats will make major gains against a Republican federal government highly vulnerable to charges of arrogance, corruption, incompetence, and irresponsibility -- none of which is even hinted at in the latest Almanac.

If that happens, Michael Barone will pay the price for pledging his genius to one side in the perennial battle of American politics. And the Almanac's reputation will suffer accordingly.

Ed Kilgore is vice president for policy at the DLC.