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Rauch: I can tell you more about the second question first. Yeah, that was a brilliant column. Too bad it was completely wrong. Other than that, it was a brilliant column and by blogosphere standards, that's I suppose the end of the story. I honestly thought that Bush would look at the prospect of losing one or both houses of Congress and decide that he just didn't want that and that it would be better to get on the right side of the voters on this issue by getting some form of withdrawal. My guess-it's only a guess, it's not based on any inside information-my guess is that Karl Rove saw this coming and did not want this to happen. What I misunderstood is that not long after I wrote that column, the White House had already crossed the bridge into saying, We're going to take our lumps on the election, we're staying, and that's that. We will not hear any arguments to the contrary. I clearly underestimated Bush's determination to stay on the course.
Everybody makes [mistakes]; it's par for the course. What I have learned is not to be too sure I'm right. The world is much more surprising than we give it credit for. That's part of my political philosophy, my philosophy of life. That's really fundamental to it: Trial and error is really the only thing in life that works ultimately over the long term. Journalism is like that, too, so we need to be honest about our mistakes. We often aren't enough. Everybody makes mistakes. And we need to be a little bit cautious about making predictions.
reason: What do you think about the state of political reporting these days?
Rauch: It depends on what you mean by "political reporting." If you mean people who are actually spending their lives going out and gathering political news, following politicians around, manning the stakeouts, trying to understand what's going on in the capitols, then the situation is very good.
There's a very talented, hard-working press corps and, of course, it represents only a small fraction of the people who are doing [journalism]. I think all the major newspapers are doing it well. Not a single one is doing it badly, the ones that are committing resources to it. The larger fraction are the parasites, the bloggers, commentators, opinionizers- I don't exempt myself-who are feeding off of the real news that the press is providing. That larger sort of commentariat is not doing a very good job.
reason: What about media more generally? Do you worry about consolidation of ownership?
Rauch: It's in an intellectually healthy situation and a fiscally not-so-healthy situation, and that's what I'm worried about. I'm not one of those who yearns for the days when we had three networks doing half-hour newscasts telling us all that they thought we should know. I'm not nostalgic for the days when we covered political conventions for two days straight live on national TV. I'm much happier in a world with multiple sources and more individual ability to pick and choose.
What I worry about is what everyone in my business worries about : Who's going to fund the real reporting? The magazine and newspaper business was a cross-subsidy. You had the advertising, particularly classified, and you had a local market, which subsidized the gathering of news. That model is breaking down because the bundle is breaking into pieces and it's hard to see in the long run who funds the kind of large-scale news reporting operations that the major papers have run if the advertising is all going online and if people can all get the news for free at Yahoo.
I'm guessing that 30 years from now, we'll get to something that's economically sustainable. I hope that's the case, but I'm not liking the way the transition is looking. I'm not liking the fact that foreign bureaus are being closed left and right and I'm also not particularly liking the fact that it seems to be that that for a lot of young journalists the model is to get past reporting and into commentary as fast as your feet will take you.
reason: Do you think politics--or maybe just political discourse, which is a slightly different thing--are too extreme right now, too fragmented and divisive?
Rauch: The problem is not discourse. The discourse is in fine shape. We have good, vigorous, open, honest debates about policy in this country. Sometimes it takes a while to get there, [as it did with Iraq]. The problem also is not the public. The public is not extremist. It's not polarized. It remains, for the most part, a centrist public, maybe center-right by European standards marginally. Pretty moderate. Pretty pragmatic and I think in a democratic country, there's nothing more important than to have a pretty moderate, pretty pragmatic population.
We do have a problem with the political system. It's been increasingly rigged to favor extremists on both ends. So they're overrepresented and the center is underrepresented. They're not all extremists, but it is clear that the average Republican member of Congress is to the right of the average Republican partisan, who is to the right of the average American. You have the same leaning in the opposite direction in the Democratic Party. Reflect on the fact that until fairly recently, the House Majority Leader was Tom Delay (R-Texas) and the House Minority Leader was Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Just think about how much of the country that leaves out.
That is not a coincidence. The system has been rigged by partisan activists to their advantage. They participate in primaries. General elections don't matter because they've gerrymandered the congressional districts. They have the advantages of energy and being single-minded and they use these wedge issues which they're very good at and which both sides conspire in using in order to marginalize the middle. The result of that is the turnout among moderates and independents is down; turnout on the extremes is up. The parties are increasingly sorted by ideology so that all the liberals are in one party and all the conservatives are in another. That is a new development in American history.
The result of that is you have two quite extreme and narrow political parties talking, for the most part, over the heads of the center. That's greatly exaggerated because obviously the center remains important. We found that out in 2006. The center also gets much more important when you have divided government, which is one reason I'm so keen on divided government. It's the best way, maybe the only way, to force policymakers to notice the middle. You have to pit them against each other.
reason: What is the fix for this kind of situation? Or does it burn itself out and then something else rises from the ashes?