Playing the post-debate game

The Biden-Ryan debate, in addition to being more fun than the Presidential debate (probably because it matters less), demonstrated how conservative media is just better at playing the post-debate game than liberal media. Obama didn’t do well in the first debate and hardly anyone thought he did, but the fact that it was such a political disaster for him was partly due to the reactions of his supporters, who declared that he had blown it and that Romney put on a great show. MSNBC, the most Obama-friendly cable network, was home to lots of stinging or panicked criticism of Obama’s performance.

Now compare that to conservative outlets. While liberals were crowing about Biden’s show, conservatives were already formulating a narrative of why Biden was terrible: in real time, you could see complaints that Biden was being mean, disrespectful, crazy, “unglued.” By the time the news coverage was ready to go, Fox News had that narrative solidly in place. Biden was mean and nasty, and Ryan was a polite young man. (Obviously, this type of narrative only works if you don’t like the guy to begin with; Chris Christie is the biggest hero on that network because he’s so belligerent.) Unlike reaction to the first debate, in other words, the reaction was split along partisan lines. Liberals thought Biden was great, conservatives thought he was awful.

If liberals had tried to search for weak spots in Romney’s debate performance, or focus attention on the idea of Romney being disrespectful or arrogant, it might not have worked – but it might have at least distracted attention from Obama’s poor performance. Liberal media figures just don’t seem to be very good at that; they’re a lot more inclined to get depressed about their guy. Maybe it’s partly a question of negative reactions. Liberal pundits, for the most part, don’t really hate Romney as much as conservatives dislike Obama and Biden, so conservatives don’t have to search for reasons why Biden wasn’t good: they genuinely find him unappealing. Pro-Obama pundits, on the other hand, focused all their ire on Obama for not coming back more strongly against Romney.

One comparison would be the Obama-supporting MSNBC with its conservative sister network CNBC (the network that created the Tea Party movement). After the debate, CNBC promoted the results of a web poll as if it were a real poll, because it showed Ryan winning by a considerable margin. MSNBC could have done that if it were the liberal mirror image of Fox News, but it just isn’t. They’ll spin poll numbers in Obama’s direction or pump up their liberal viewers by telling them Obama’s doing fine, but they’re just not as good at creating an “our guy won” narrative. And that’s part of the reason why the next few days will consist of TV talking heads arguing over whether Biden was too uncivil.

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