"Every successful [political] campaign," Jon Taplin noted last month over at TPMCafe, "has a narrative." And "if there's one note that runs through many of the theories as to why Obama has disappointed in Year One," The New York Times' Frank Rich added two weeks ago, "it cuts to the heart of what had been his major strength: his ability to communicate a compelling narrative."
What does "narrative" mean in this context? "An overarching goal that explains, unifies, and gives motive to his multiple initiatives," said Dan Payne in the Boston Globe. Or if you prefer neuro-management-speak, try Forbes columnist Nick Morgan: "Because our brains retain stories better than any other form of information, we develop shortcuts to handle all the information we need to in the modern world. The most important shortcut is the narrative. The narrative is the quick story that has developed over a long period of time for any organization, company or important public figure. It's the way we store and organize the information."
So to help citizens most beneficially organize information about his policies, the president, according to this narrative, needs a single, one-sentence explanation for his blizzard of initiatives and laws, each of which can run as long as 2,400 pages. The "problem," political journalist Jonathan Alter told The New York Times, in a piece that ran under the headline "Democrats Need a Rally Monkey," is "not finding a coherent message."
This message gap is not for lack of helpful suggestion. Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, the human one-sentence-explanation dispenser, was already giving the president a roadmap for solving his "'narrative' problem" last November: "What is that narrative? Quite simply it is nation-building at home. It is nation-building in America."
When the president failed to heed Friedman's cocktail-napkin instructions, the globe-trotting New York Times columnist repeated it last month with a bit more exasperation: "The thing that most baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can't come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics—when it is so obvious," Friedman wrote. "Mr. Obama won the election because…[independent voters] knew in their guts that the country was on the wrong track and was desperately in need of nation-building at home."
Italics in the original.
It's not hard to see the attraction of such logic. If all there was separating you from your political desires was a perfectly calibrated bumper sticker, imagine all the time you could save once you arrived at the right slogan! Surely beats zero-sum budgetary tradeoffs, dreary committee meetings, bill "mark-up" exercises, Congressional Budget Office scores, parliamentary maneuverings, or even substantive non-governmental policy discussions on the topics you claim to care about.
This may be an understandable, if somewhat distasteful, intellectual path to tread for people whose jobs are based on winning elections. After all, politics has always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and hatreds do not linger long on process or policy white papers. Bumper stickers tend to be designed by people who see the target audience as bumps in need of a good sticking.
But "narrative" creep has long since passed into and occasionally overwhelmed the very activity that should theoretically be most immune to it: journalism. It's unintentionally telling enough about their regard for the little people that journalists—even those of us in the opinion-manufacturing division—go hunting for magical slogans with which personages more powerful than us can move the pliable masses. But when the hunt for narratives, metaphors, and one-line explainers becomes a central part of the nonfiction production process, all of those nagging details fade to mush and entire conclusions are constructed upon generalized statements with little or no measurable relationship to fact.
So the master reductionist David Brooks judges President Obama to be "the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency" without citing a single shred of the Obama administration's real-world education policy (which has—surprise!—ladeled unprecedented sums of money to the unreformed status quo). Not a day goes by without some semi-well-regarded commentator stating as fact that George W. Bush helped to intentionally "sap" the "strength" and even "disable" the federal government, leading directly to the financial crisis and various other horrors. I can't begin to tell you how often I watch reporters' jaws drop when I mention that, actually, Bush grew the federal government at a rate not seen since LBJ and jacked up regulations (including on the financial industry) in a way that would make Bill Clinton blush.
But the "narrative" narrative's biggest flaw is, appropriately, big-picture in nature. As journalism academic Robert Schmuhl wrote in a smart Politics Daily column decrying "the nattering nabobs of narrative," what's "missing" in the messaging analysis "is the recognition that campaigning and governing are related—but distinct—pursuits." Bumper stickers help politicians gain office, but real-world results (plus the advantages of incumbency) are what keep them there. They're also what matter much more to the consumers of journalism.
Or as the liberal New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently wrote, "It's not the message that's a problem for Mr. Obama and the Democrats, it's the all-too-clear reality." Citizens are "desperate for jobs, jobs, jobs," but while the employment situation continues to lag the administration's worst-case scenarios, all anyone hears is "health care, health care, health care."
But rest assured—even when the Rasputin-like health care bill is finally wrestled to the ground one way or another, the "narrative" narrative will only continue to gather steam. Reason #4 for supporting the latest version of Obamacare, according to political strategist Robert Creamer in The Huffington Post, is that it "will completely change the political narrative. Instead of 'Obama fails to deliver on promises' or 'Democrats confront gridlock' the new narrative will be 'Obama and Democrats raise health care—like a Phoenix—from the dead.' That new narrative is heroic."
Call me a nabob, but what I think would really be heroic is if commentators with any pretensions left of journalism spent more energy telling us how a crucial piece of legislation might affect American life and public policy than on how the president might most effectively sell it to the skeptical sheeple. At least that's my narrative, and I'm sticking to it.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine.