Race and Politics
A longtime journalist discusses Obama and the 2010 elections
Gwen Ifill is not paying attention to the Senate race in Delaware, though tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell hits national headlines most days. And Ifill is not so interested in New York's gubernatorial race, where GOP candidate Carl Paladino's gaffes are the talk of the town. "Even though they make interesting cable news conversation, neither of the out-there candidates in those races seems to have a chance of winning," she says. "I'm more interested in what the outcomes are going to be."
For Ifill, the lines between information, opinion and entertainment are not at all blurred. She takes an evenhanded approach as senior correspondent for " The PBS NewsHour" and as managing editor and moderator of " Washington Week." Still, when she speaks at college campuses, students tell her they primarily get their news from "The Daily Show."
"I had to tell them, Yeah, but Jon Stewart watches 'The NewsHour.' ”
In 2008, she moderated the debate between Sarah Palin and Vice President Joe Biden. Before she entered the broadcast realm, Ifill was a political reporter for newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times.
She's drawn to this kind of reporting because, she says, anything that affects our lives is, at some root point, affected by politics. "My responsibility is not just to cover the horse race—who's ahead, who's behind—but to understand that politics is a theme that runs through all kinds of consequential decisions."
The Alibi caught up with Ifill to talk about the 2010 midterm elections and what’s changed since Ifill’s 2009 book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
One of the main themes in your book is "sandpaper politics," the idea that there's incredible friction during change. Does it seem, though, that there's still plenty of friction here a couple of years after President Obama’s election?
It's a different kind of friction now. The friction I wrote about in the book was a friction of what happens when a whole new generation of people rises to power, and the old folks have to basically hand it over. This kind of a friction is more of a friction of ideology.
“[Obama’s advisers] had to be prepped for the fact that all of the euphoria would die down pretty quickly, and all the people who never were supporters were going to find their voice.”
When you talk to people around the country, the debate is what government's roll should be and: Is government the solution to the problems that we have? That's a far more far-ranging debate, which never quite goes away.
It has more to do with an economy which is completely struggling. It has more to do with people's disenchantment with what Washington either has or has not done. It's a different kind of sandpaper, but it's still the kind we like to watch.
Do you view some of the more radical, right-wing rhetoric that's dominating coverage right now as a reaction to America's first black president?
I don't necessarily think so. There are a couple of things of that have happened. One is that 40 percent of Americans did not vote for Barack Obama for whatever reason, and it's easy to believe it could just be ideology.
Race is always a factor in everything we do in this country, unfortunately. So we can't assume that race plays no role. But I think it's possible to disagree with the president about his policies and not be a racist. I don't automatically go to race as a reason why there is this anger.
What do you make of the reaction to President Obama in these last few years? Has it gone as you might have expected it would?
I think it's gone the way he's expected. I was reading an interesting article yesterday in the New York Times. There was a cover story in a magazine about President Obama's first two years. In it, one of the things the author Peter Baker was saying (he's actually one of our panelists on Washington Week) was he asked the president and his aides about the precipitous decline in the polls and they said they expected it to be worse. And one of the president's advisers said they had predicted a 30 percent range of approval at this time, and now he's at 45 percent.
Doesn't mean he's doing great. It means they had to be prepped for the fact that all of the euphoria would die down pretty quickly, and all the people who never were supporters were going to find their voice pretty quickly. We've definitely seen that happen.
Does anything seem different to you about the 2010 election cycle that's influenced by the fact that a barrier was broken in 2008?
“The main thing for any sitting president is to make sure he doesn't have a challenge from within his own party.”
No. Not really. It's really interesting. I think the biggest thing that's influencing the outcomes of this cycle has to do with the economy. I think if the economy were doing fine, I think if people were feeling secure about their lives, a lot of this other unhappiness would not have found a voice.
Americans spent a little time patting themselves on the back for breaking through in 2008, but then they said, How do I now pay my mortgage? How do I stop my house from being foreclosed on? How do I get a job? Those are just far more important to people individually than the larger issue of, Aren't we proud of ourselves?
What do you see for President Obama in 2012?
Part of what he's got to do is survive 2010. Survival could mean not losing the House by a large amount and holding onto the Senate. Survival might mean just trying to get Democrats to walk in lockstep with him and have Republicans in a position where they have to negotiate on certain policy issues. But the main thing for any sitting president is to make sure he doesn't have a challenge from within his own party.
Right now there's not an obvious person who would challenge him. When you think about Jimmy Carter or LBJ or any sitting president who's lost, even George Bush Sr., they lost or were weakened because they were challenged from within their own party in their primary.
Joe Biden is apparently going to stay on the ticket. Hillary Clinton has embraced way too many of the president's policies to be able to, even if she wanted to, run against him. He seems to have, so far, neutered this idea of a Democratic challenge. That gives him the luxury of focusing on whoever the Republican might be and letting them fight among themselves for their Republican nomination.
Do you think the Democrat and Republican parties are more polarized than ever?
We go through these cycles. It's about winning and losing, and you do whatever you need to do to win or lose. Sometimes it feels unpleasant or feels like there's more name calling. I don't believe that anything we are experiencing is the first time it ever happened. Yes, the country seems unhappy, it seems dyspeptic. But I also think that we survived McCarthyism, we survived Jim Crow, and we survived really awful things in this country and bounced right back.
So yeah, we're through a period where people don't seem to agree and there's a certain amount of finger-pointing, and it's not very pleasant. But it's a cycle that we'll come back out of.
“You have to create a very carefully structured ladder to get to that next level, and then make sure that you don't burn it behind you. That way, you can build to the next level after that.”
Could the addition of more major political parties change the game for nonwhite candidates?
Perhaps, but in order to create a third party, it always requires some sort of structure. The tea party is not really a party, for instance. It's just a group of unhappy people who have all rallied around a general idea, but there is no structure or agreed upon set of policies they can use to propel themselves. It's possible they're creating a whole new thing funded by outside groups and individuals. We don't know yet. All we know is the history. And the history is that Ross Perot and any other third-party efforts we've seen usually don't get off the ground without a tremendous amount of self-financing or a tremendous amount of organization.
That's the biggest issue, which is why so many minority candidates have decided to make their way through one of the two major parties rather than trying to create their own thing. Because to get elected, no matter how, you need to be able to speak to everyone.
Do you think the successes of African American politicians will translate into momentum for other minority politicians?
Each race does face its own battle. But I do think that any politician needs to learn the right lessons from another's success. For instance, there are African American politicians who have broken through very impressively, but then dropped the ball later on because they learned the wrong lessons from their success.
The mayor here in Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty, was hailed as one of the new breakthrough candidates. After he was elected, he managed to alienate his own base of voters who felt like he had turned his back on them.
That's a lesson that can be learned by anyone who is aspiring no matter what their color background is. You have to create a very carefully structured ladder to get to that next level, and then make sure that you don't burn it behind you. That way, you can build to the next level after that.
Do you see any parallels in the tale of race and politics and the tale of women in politics?
I don't think so, except there have been periodic clashes over the years. There's always the question of who gets to go first. There's always the question of who is best positioned. For instance, when Hillary Clinton was running against Barack Obama, that became a big sore point among women voters who thought this was the time for our first woman president. The two can coexist, but there's always historically been a little bit of friction along the way.
Do you miss writing for newspapers?
I covered politics as a print reporter for a long time. That was all I wanted to do. I had no intention of going into television until I was talked into it by Tim Russert [moderator for 16 years of NBC’s “Meet the Press”], who basically dared me to try it. I loved finding a new way of telling the story and getting on a different platform and reaching a broader range of voters in a different way. But I discovered in writing my book that I do miss writing long form. It was nice to be able to dig in a little deeper and have longer conversations, which didn't have to be squeezed into little sound bites.
What did you want your book to accomplish?
I'd hoped it would get a story on paper that I'd been carrying around in my head, accumulating over the years. I'd been put in a position where I was able to witness a lot of these breakthroughs by covering them. When I sat down and looked at it, I realized there was a thread that ran through and a story no one had quite told. I was the one person who actually could tell it because I had seen all this with my own eyes. It was very gratifying to me to be able to tell an untold story in the context of one of the most historic elections of our time. Because of President Obama's success, it brought more eyeballs to the story than it would have otherwise. But I probably would have written the book anyway.
What does it mean to be on public television vs. one of the corporate networks?
It changes the stories you choose to tell and how you choose to tell them. For instance, if I wanted to go do the Florida story for the networks, it would have been slapdash. I would have run into town and run out. I maybe would have heard or seen a couple of ads, or talked to a few people.
In doing it for the "NewsHour," I actually talked to voters. What a concept. I didn't just talk to the experts. I got spend a little time on the ground getting to know and understand the story better than I would have. I don't live in Florida. I'm still basically parachuting in to do these stories. I just had a broader way of telling the story instead of just saying—This guy is running against this guy. We'll see what happens—I was able to dig down deeper and find an angle, and a theme, in this case, the fight among Democrats in Florida for the race and how they were kind of eating each other alive while the Republican walks right through. That's a story that would have been harder to tell in a tighter time frame, and we are lucky to have viewers who want to know more and who are engaged in subject matter, and not just about politics.
The same night my story about politics ran, we ran a long piece about the rapes in the Congo, and how rape has been used as a weapon in a war. That's something you're just not going to see anyplace else. That's to me the big difference in working for public broadcasting. You get to tell more stories better.
Saturday, Nov. 6, 7 p.m.
African American Performing Arts Center, Expo New Mexico
310 San Pedro NE
Tickets: $20; $50 includes a VIP reception. Call 277-2922 or visit knme.org. Proceeds benefit KNME.